Suds law

When we were developing SH as an hotel, one of the most challenging aspects was en suite. It was previously offices, before that a “gentlemen’s club” (ahem) and a home even earlier…..but it’s domestic incarnation ended, I think, around the end of the last war. The interior was a series of dated offices, sharing two small communal bathrooms on the first floor. 

So loos and washing were, simply, the biggest structural issue for us in the project. As someone who holds fast to the rule of one bathroom per bedroom plus one, this was interesting. I’ve always enjoyed the contradiction of dealing with (ehem) waste while creating a luxurious experience that has no bearing on soil pipes. Indeed, my design fervour is so great that pet hate #3 is visible soil pipes/boxing in bathrooms.

SH is Grade II* listed, so we needed to work with English Heritage on the interiors. And we, and they, are specifically anti the “Lego-box in the corner” approach of many hotels. Thus, all of our bathrooms are different in proportion and some of them have floor to ceiling screened shower/loo units. It is important that we don’t pretend any are original (obvios).

In fact, the original bathrooms for Southernhay Georgians and early Victorians were the Bath House at the top of Southernhay. It’s now the site of an Anglican Church but, from about 1806 until 1868, this was where the posh people of Southernhay mingled (ooooh, communal bathing) to clean themselves each month or week, as they could afford. Don’t get me started on chamber pots and outhouses and the various ways of dealing with waste in prosperous Southernhay until the 20th century. Money can only buy so much comfort.

The Southernhay Bath House was, however, a teeny bit fabulous. Featuring “rustic” fresco country scenes, an air of privilege and a waterfall on one wall, it was made to make its patrons feel special. Affordable bathing came later (towards the end of the 19th century); this was social bathing.

It’s debatable whether the Bath House was on the site of a Roman bath – when Barnfield Crescent was built at the end of 18th century an large structure was uncovered, fed by a natural spring. The Georgian urge to neo-classicism was strong, even in ablution: this giant bathroom design was based on the monument of Thrasyllus in Athens (now destroyed). Oh, for such pomp and circumstance in our own cool, contemporary spaces.

The puff around the Bath House could well be the work of our esteemed social media operative at SH absent the hashtags: a guide to Exeter in 1828 notes that the baths offer “cold, hot, plunge, shower, vapour and medicated baths” with an “elegant” interior. Open from 7am to 10pm (8am in winter) but “in cases of emergency, at any hour”.

Just maybe, the modern concept of a boutique hotel began with an uber-luxe Bath House, basic human needs, contemporary design, an urge to privacy “at any hour” and worked outwards.