The therapeutic value of ice baths or cold water immersion were recognised long before wellness gurus and celebrities extolled them on social media. Even the Romans were fond of a dip in the frigidarium.
Now it has emerged that the men and women of 18th-century Bath could visit their local assembly rooms for an icy plunge, alongside indulging in other leisure and pleasure pursuits.
Archaeological excavations below the 18th-century Bath Assembly Rooms have revealed what may be the only cold bath of its kind.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, assembly rooms were places of entertainment, conversation, dancing and gambling in many fashionable towns across the country.
Bath and other spa towns, known for their hot mineral water, became popular spots for bathing and “taking the waters”. But in the 18th century, medical practitioners also recommended regular cold bathing as beneficial for various physical and mental ailments, including gout.
There was a surge in plunge pools and cold baths in private houses and estates along with public facilities in Bath and other towns. The location of the one at the assembly rooms suggests it would have been targeted at those wanting a more exclusive, private cold bath experience.
The Bath Assembly Rooms, now in the care of the National Trust, were completed in 1771. The new prose Bath guide of 1778 noted “a commodious cold-bath, with convenient dressing-rooms” alongside rooms for billiards, coffee, gambling, balls and concerts.
The cold bath is in the centre of a suite of three rooms beneath one end of the ballroom. It has dressing rooms on either side.
The excavation involved removing a later floor that had been installed over the cold bath and removing tonnes of rubble to reveal steps down into it, as well as a niche that would have held a statue or sculpture.
Bruce Eaton, of Wessex Archaeology, which has overseen the excavation, said: “Although historical records indicated that there was a cold bath buried beneath the Bath Assembly Rooms, we had no idea what preservation of the bath would be like.
“The building suffered damage at the hands of the Luftwaffe and the rooms were remodelled in the late 20th century but, after carefully excavating tonnes of concrete and rubble, we saw the original structure emerge in its entirety.
“It’s tremendous to be able to piece together this rare archaeological evidence of an 18th-century cold bath with social historical accounts from the time.”
Tatjana LeBoff, a project curator at the National Trust, said: “The cold bath at the assembly rooms is highly unusual. It is a rare, if not unique, surviving example, and possibly it was the only one ever built in an assembly room.”
The trust was researching records, letters, diaries and other documents to discover more about the cold bath, she said.