The Roman bath house at Ribchester was built around 100 AD. Today, there are quite substantial remains of the foundations, allowing you to walk around and view its different rooms and features. It is of the simple ‘row-type bath suite’, similar to the ones found at the Roman forts at Hardknott (Cumbria) and Corbridge (Northumberland).
The bath house at Ribchester consisted of a number of rooms each with a different function. These included an apodyterium (changing room) and frigidarium (an unheated room with a cold plunge pool). A furnace room provided warmth to three rooms that would have had needed under floor heating. These were the caldarium (hot and moist room, with a hot bath), the laconium or sudatorium (a circular, hot and dry room like a sauna), and tepidarium (a warm room, just to sit and relax in).
Perhaps a typical bathing experience would be something like this:
After leaving the changing room (apodyterium) the bather would enter the cold room (frigidarium) to have oil put on the body. They would then move into the warm room (tepidarium) where the heat lets the oil soak into their skin and produce a light sweat. Once the body was aclimatised to the heat, the bather would visit the hot sauna (laconium) next. After this they would proceed to the hot room (caldarium), where first the oil is scrapped off and then they would enter a hot bath. Following this they would dry themselves off and go back out through the warm room to the cold plunge pool of the frigidarium. A luxurious, unhurried experience !
Excavations have shown that the baths had two phases of construction, the second being a major rebuild. One piece of evidence for this is the differing styles of pilae (the supporting pillars that hold up the heated floors). One set was built by stacking up square tiles (similar to the hypocaust at Wigan) and the other set was made of single large rectangular pieces of stone (similar to the method used at Lancaster Roman baths). The bath house would have had painted plaster walls and barrel vaulted ceilings. Small translucent glass windows would have given some illumination. Finds from the site indicate that it was used by both men and women.
After 225 AD the baths were no longer used. Why this was and what happened to them subsequently is not clear. Their remains were first discovered in 1837 when a Mr. Patchett was digging a hot-bed. He discovered flags which were coated in the Roman waterproof cement, probably the floor of a heated room. Forty cartloads of stone were removed from the site, and who knows what archaeological finds were lost forever. Around the same time, a large lead trough was discovered, described as ‘ one foot wide, one yard long, weighing 70 pounds’. This could have been used to boil water in the bath house.
In 1978 an extensive archaeological excavation took place. Amongst the finds were gaming counters, brooches, beads, stones from rings, bronze pins and 25,000 pottery sherds. Coins discovered came from the times of the Emperors Trajan and Antonius Pius. The finds indicate trading with elsewhere in south Lancashire, and as far away as Gaul. No doubt many of the goods were coming from the nearby Roman military production and distribution hub at Walton-le-Dale.
Visitors to the site can get a good sense of how it was from the two interpretation boards. The visible remains include the foundations of the furnace room and flues, the circular sauna, the warm room, parts of the flagged floor and an impressive stone drain running from the changing room down towards the river. Today the site is in some need of consolidation and conservation, and there has been an application to the Heritage Lottery Fund to do this. The site is well worth a visit, and it is to be hoped that it will be further improved in the near future.
Opening Times: The site is open from April to October, but is kept locked the rest of the year. It is free to visit. It can be reached either by the river footpath (which can be very muddy, even in summer) or by going via Greenside road and following the short lane just off it.
Just a short walk away: Stydd Church, chapel of the Knights Hospitallers
The Romans at Ribchester: Discovery and Excavation, David Shotter (2000), Centre for North-West Regional Studies, University of Lancaster
Roman North West England: Hinterland or ‘Indian Country’ ? Tom Saunders (Editor),(2011), Council for British Archaeology North West
Roman Woman, Lindsay Allason-Jones (2000), Michael O’Mara Books Limited
Ribchester Roman Bath House on site interpretation boards