Baths are pricier than ever – but they’re a luxury I can’t live without | Laura Barton

Britons are turning to showers as the cost of living crisis bites. But can you put a price on the soul-restoring magic of a soak?

I lay this morning, clavicle-deep in Epsom salts and London water, shrivelling softly in steam and soap. Like a submerged Carole Cadwalladr, like Woodward and Bernstein in bubbles: your fearless investigative bathtub reporter.

This act of journalistic bravery seemed pressing. This week, we learned that the cost of taking baths is set to rise to over £1,000 a year per household – almost double the price of last year, when it was already 79% higher than in 2021.

Yorkshire Water, which conducted the research based on three baths per person per week, advised switching to five four-minute showers to save money. While the rising cost is largely down to the increase in gas and electricity prices, we should perhaps note that Yorkshire Water is among 11 water companies that will be forced to cut customer bills from April, after the regulator said that it had missed pollution targets. The company was also found to be leaking 283m litres of water a day last year, which adds up to around 3.4m bathtubs’ worth.

Showers are wonderful of course, but what do we lose when we abandon bathing altogether? The bathtub, for many, is a place of sweet contemplation. Here, thoughts shape themselves differently to those beneath a showerhead: slower, gentler, deeper in their navigation. The bath excels as a place for speculation and rumination, for eureka moments and revelation – in this godless age, we may seek it out as a kind of domestic church, a place for space and quiet meditation.

A visitor with Diana and Actaeon by Titian at the National Gallery in London, March 2020
A visitor with Diana and Actaeon by Titian at the National Gallery in London, March 2020. Photograph: Guy Bell/Rex/Shutterstock

In western art and literature, the bath and the bather is a recurring image. Homer often describes Odysseus bathing and being bathed – it is a homecoming, a welcoming, a cleansing after the battlefield. In one particularly moving scene, the hero is bathed and anointed with oils, his hair curling down like hyacinths. Bathtime works out less auspiciously for Agamemnon, of course – in some accounts, he is murdered in the bath by his wife. The bath was Actaeon’s undoing, too – Ovid recounts how the young hunter stumbled upon Diana bathing in the woods, and as her nymphs fail to protect her modesty, it becomes a sighting that leads the goddess to transform him into a deer, who is then torn apart by his own hounds.

Titian famously painted this scene, while Rembrandt depicted Bathsheba at her bath, clutching a letter from King David, and Mary Cassatt showed a mother bathing her child – a work greatly influenced by the woodcut print Bathtime by Kitagawa Utamaro. Degas remains the king of the genre, however, capturing, repeatedly, the intimate process of a woman bathing.

Marcello Mastroianni in Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2 (1963)
Marcello Mastroianni in Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2 (1963). Photograph: Francinex/Allstar

The bath has been a useful cinematic device, presenting an opportunity to see our favourite film stars undressed – from Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor to Brad Pitt and Jeff Bridges. A bath imbues a scene with sensuality. It is in the bath that Sally Hawkins masturbates in The Shape of Water, and Joan Allen learns to orgasm in Pleasantville, while in Pretty Woman, Julia Roberts lies among the bubbles, singing along to Prince’s Kiss. NB none of these scenes can hope to rival the bathtub scene from the late, great Angela Lansbury’s health and wellbeing DVD Positive Moves.

The bath plays its part in music, too. It’s there on the cover of Belle and Sebastian’s Tigermilk, and Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black, while the acoustics of a bathroom have long been praised by singers both amateur and professional.

In the 14th century, the Arab historian Ibn Khaldun attempted to explain this impulse, writing in his Muqaddimah: “When those who enjoy a hot bath inhale the air of the bath, so that the heat of the air enters their spirits and makes them hot, they are found to experience joy. It often happens that they start singing, as singing has its origin in gladness.”

Participants in an ice-water bath world record attempt organised by Wim Hof in Amsterdam, 2015
Participants in an ice-water bath world record attempt organised by Wim Hof in Amsterdam, 2015. Photograph: Koen van Weel/EPA

It will be hard to surrender the joy and the gladness of the bath. So in these difficult times, I believe we have two options. The first is to now regard the bathtub as an extension of the whole cold-water swimming fandango. Hitherto, we have cast bathing as some kind of balmy indulgence – the long, candlelit soak synonymous with the luxury of time. This year, we could rebrand it – the colder, the brisker, the better the bath. Waitrose will launch a range of pondweed-scented bath products. Someone from this newspaper will probably write a book about it. After all: why schlep up to Hampstead ladies’ pond to queue in the mizzle when you can go the whole Wim Hof at home?

The second option is to share one’s bath with someone else. How you do this is really up to you and your circle – you can set up a rota, fight to the death, make a dating app out of it, if you must. However, with the average bath lasting somewhere between 10 minutes and half an hour, try to ensure you choose someone companionable enough to go the distance.

But the fact is, there are few things so delightful as bathing with someone you love. Even someone you can tolerate will do, in a pinch. “Let’s take a love bath baby,” as the bard of Motown, Smokey Robinson, once put it. “Put some water in the tub and do the body rub.” This year, Britain, as the cost of living swells, let us all pull together, bathe together, and do the body rub.

  • Laura Barton is a writer and broadcaster specialising in music


Laura Barton

The GuardianTramp

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