If you take a few winding steps away from Temple Station, down the familiar (and often charming) streets on the Strand before ducking down Surrey Street, you might be fortunate enough to find yourself heading towards Strand Lane’s equally charming ‘Roman’ baths, overlooked by the back of King’s own Strand Campus.
For most of the year, the baths are closed to the public, and the best view you’ll get is by peeking through a murky window. However, thanks to the National Trust and Westminster Council, the baths have an annual open day, and for a short time, visitors are free to venture inside.
Now, I say ‘fortunate’ because it took me a good few attempts to find it—I'm not admitting how long it actually took me—and ‘Roman’ because the baths are really just the remains of a cistern originally built in the early 17th century for the fountains in Somerset House, then a royal palace, as part of James I’s renovations of the palace for his Queen, Anne of Denmark.
But, for a short while, it masqueraded as the Roman real-deal, and to great acclaim too. Walter Thornbury went as far as to write in 1878 that the baths could ‘have possibly [dated] even as far back as the reigns of Titus or Vespasian, if not of Julius Caesar himself'.
Unfortunately for us and Thornbury’s readers, Caesar and Vespasian frequenting the baths was just an advertising gimmick created in 1838 to draw intrigue and bathers. This followed a period of decline after its popular use as a cold bath in the late 1700s for a century or so. A successful gimmick at that, though; the baths later made its way into a number of popular guidebooks and even featured in Dickens’ David Copperfield, when Copperfield himself takes a plunge.
However, I found it hard to be too disappointed. It’s true, there were a couple of historic red flags going on that the Victorians largely overlooked: a ‘Roman’ bath situated on the edge of Westminster instead of in the old City of London where the Romans actually settled, and a weathered sign boasting its ‘Roman’ pedigree from the time of ‘Titus or Vespasian’ gives a sense of the imitation being a touch patchy at best or complete guesswork at worst.
But it’s the unassuming front door giving way to a long, narrow corridor decorated with the remains of blue and white floral ‘Dutch’ tiling and stony, uneven walkways leading around to the shallow bath chamber with its half-semi-circular shape, coupled with its apparent secludedness, that make this place so fascinating.
It’s a relatively short-lived sanctuary-come-tourist attraction once linked to royalty, which may redeem its questionable provenance. This could well be the romantic in me speaking, but you can see how one might imagine a steady stream of fashionable Georgian, then later, Victorian patrons making their way to the Strand Lane baths, eager to experience the 'spring waters’ and share the talk of the day. It certainly adds an air of intrigue to the place, if nothing else.
Although, before I get carried away and hope that the baths are written into some lavish period drama, this does require a huge amount of imagination. Unfortunately, the baths once again languish in a state of neglect, following a number of abandoned restoration projects across the 20th century. The exposed brick around the partially repaired bath chamber, half-filled with greyish water and surrounded by scattered stone slabs, gives a battered glimpse of a turbulent and long (ish) history, only alluding to a once larger and perhaps grander complex.
Granted, the windows are fogged up, some of the fittings are a bit worse for wear, and the thick white paint covering much of the surrounding walls makes it even further removed from the Victorian attempts at legitimising such a ‘history’, but this not-so-historic, tucked away ’Roman’ gem is still worth a visit by anyone with a bit of free time to explore it.
To find out how to visit the Strand Lane 'Roman' baths, head to the National Trust website.
Edited by Faye Elder, London and Beyond Editor