10 OCTOBER 1998, Page 63

Not motoring

A monstrous fraud

Gavin Stamp

Ihave again been in Budapest — that extraordinary metropolis which can boast the oldest underground railway in Conti- nental Europe, that paradise of trains, trams and trolley-buses (and, for that mat- ter, boats and hydrofoils) — whose delights I have already described in this column. Another delight, peculiar to the Hungarian capital in their number and splendour, are the thermal baths. The most celebrated, and certainly the most spectacular architec- turally, are the Gellert Baths, built at the foot of Gellert Hill by the Danube where spring water with medicinal properties bub- bles out of the ground. Designed just before the first world war, the building is a masterpiece of ceramic Jugendstil in which you can be boiled, steamed, baked or can merely swim surrounded by decorative tiles and mosaic. It is all enough almost to make health a pleasure.

As it happened, the day before I flew to Budapest I was in Bath, another great city with thermal springs which have been exploited at least since Roman times. The object was to inspect the Bath Spa Rede- velopment Project, whose central feature, tucked away in the city centre, is to be a new complex of baths and saunas designed by Nicholas Grimshaw Architects (he of the Waterloo International train shed). Within a new building, whose glass walls will make an appropriate (for once) con- trast with the surrounding stone façades, a tower of pools and treatment rooms will rise above a swimming-pool to support, at the top, an open-air pool in which — swim- ming in naturally hot spa water — the visi- tor will be able to see the rooftops of the city and the hills beyond: a wonderful idea. And associated with this will be the restoration and re-use of the derelict Geor- gian Hot Bath and Cross Bath.

But why are important and integral 18th- century spa buildings in a 'World Heritage Site' lying derelict? And why is this project so crucial for the future of the city? Simply because, for the last two decades, Bath has been a monstrous fraud under the Trades Descriptions Act, for the one thing you cannot at present do in Bath is take a bath in the celebrated waters: indeed, until recently you have not even been allowed to taste the filthy stuff. Why? Because, in 1974, a child died of meningitis after bathing in the water. She may, or may not, have contracted this from an amoeba which lurks in the strata deep below the city. Mil- lions have also drunk the waters over two millennia without fatal consequences, but it was enough. The authorities behaved with typical modem British hysteria and, over the next few years, all bathing in the Roman Baths was banned, the municipal swimming-pool was closed, the spa treat- ments abandoned and the taps in the Pump Room turned off.

The problem was essentially cultural, of course. In Budapest or Baden Baden there is a respect for preventative medicine as well as a sophisticated social tradition of taking the waters. In Britain, in contrast, medicine is a mechanistic business of cut- ting bits off or filling the body with drugs once something has gone wrong, while alternative forms of cure are only for cranks. In the early days, the National Health Service dipped the infirm into the spa waters, but later withdrew its support. Bath was then doomed.

Now I don't know or care if taking the waters does you the slightest bit of good. That is not the point. The point is about freedom and common sense. As I studied the plans of the admirable Bath Spa Rede- velopment Project and gazed at the wrecks of handsome Classical buildings, I felt increasingly angry: how dare some medical health officer and/or local authority bureaucrat prevent all of us from enjoying what the Romans had enjoyed and earlier generations had taken for granted. But such is modern Britain, where it is easier to ban than to improve.

The real problem, I suspect, is the British hatred of people enjoying themselves. Peo- ple now spend fortunes on joining private health clubs where they can be pummelled or ride static bicycles in self-regarding pri- vacy, but this is all to do with social status and not about pleasure. So we have the cult of the body and the discipline of exercise but without the social context (or the fine architecture) which made taking the waters such a civilised experience in 18th-century Bath. Here, today, fitness is allied to health fascism and endemic puritanism. But in wonderful Budapest, how different.. In the glorious great hall at the Gellert Baths, it is possible to drink (alcohol) and smoke and observe the human form in all its varieties. The experience is enjoyable on all levels. People go to the baths as it is part of every- day life; they go to feel better, or to gossip, or — I imagine — to pick people up. And that is another British problem. Bath hous- es and sex obviously go together; bodies beautiful can be studied, after all, while the atmosphere is inevitably sybaritic. Provid- ing the consequences are discreet, this does not seem to me to matter. Yet, in Britain, most of London's Turkish baths were closed down in recent decades on the grounds of immorality, to nobody's benefit.

As I waited on the platform at Bath Sta- tion, I noticed a poster — for lager? — showing lots of people apparently frolick- ing in the Roman Bath next to the Abbey. And that is how it ought to be used, rather than be kept as a tiresome exercise in archaeology and 'heritage'. So good luck to the imaginative proposals to put the bath back into Bath. I suspect I will still prefer Hungarian Jugendstil to Grimshaw mod- ernism, but the important thing is to create a suitably enjoyable architectural setting for social bathing. If Bath succeeds in defeating British puritanism — as it must — it will be good news for Droitwich and Harrogate and all the other ailing but potentially vital British spas. And to do this we need to become real Europeans and learn about life from the Hungarians. All this, I am afraid, has not much to do with the ostensible theme of this column, but 'Not motoring' — like the Gellert Baths — is all about freedom and pleasure.