Dip into Bath
Spectacular Georgian architecture, Roman ruins, a vibrant cultural scene,
scrumpy cider, ghostly spirits and of course the springs: Bath entices us.
One of the world’s most beautiful cities, Bath has been drawing visitors since Roman and Celtic times. The city’s three hot springs were sacred to the Celtic goddess Sulis. With the arrival of the Roman Empire in AD 60, the settlement of Aquae Sulis was constructed around the thermal springs. The Romans were so captivated by the palace that they renamed the springs in honor of the goddess Minerva. Indeed, messages to Minerva known as curse tablets, continue to be discovered by archaeologists.
Arts and Architecture
King Alfred laid down new foundations for Bath in the 9th century when the city was known as Baðum. During the Georgian Period, Bath re-emerged as a spa destination and was renowned for its architecture of golden hued neoclassical buildings and crescents. Bath has long been associated with the arts. The novelist Jane Austen lived in Bath in the early 19th century and it was featured in all of her novels. Gay Street, south of The Circus is where you will find the Jane Austen Centre.
Despite being a major tourist draw, Bath has retained plenty of its local attitude and its distinctive culture, well-illustrated in the city’s plethora of year-round arts festivals. With the arrival of spring, Bath shakes off the moody romance of winter and kicks up a few gears.
What to See
A city to explore on foot, the bustling modern heart of Bath can be found on Milsom Street, the city’s main shopping street which is filled with boutiques and fashion stores. Milsom Street winds eastwards into New Bond Street to the famous Pulteney Bridge. Completed in 1774, the Palladian bridge crosses the River Avon and connects the old city with the newly built Georgian area of Bathwick. Pulteney Bridge has shops built along it and has been the face of countless picture postcards.
A good point to begin a gentle saunter of Bath’s Georgian highlights is the Assembly Rooms on Bennett Street, a well-known social meeting place for Georgian society in Jane Austen’s era. From the Assembly Rooms a short stroll down Bennett Street will bring you to The Circus and then a bit further along Brock Street to The Crescent. Designed by John Wood the Elder, the lesser known Circus is set around three curved segments of gorgeous townhouses arranged in a circle. The Royal Crescent, designed by Wood’s son John Wood the Younger, is a stunning single curved row of 30 terraced houses laced with Ionic columns and arranged around an immaculate lawn. Designed and built between 1767 and 1774, it is the greatest example of Georgian architecture to be found anywhere in England. No. 1 Royal Crescent is a historic museum dedicated to this architectural icon.
If you fancy a traditional English High Tea of delicate cakes, cucumber sandwiches, crusty scones and buns washed down with flutes of champagne then drop by the palatial Royal Crescent Hotel. Tea is served religiously every day from 1 pm until 6 pm with last orders at 4:30 pm.
The Roman Baths
Just below Bath Abbey on Stall Street are the vaunted Roman Baths. This renowned archaeological site is a major draw getting very busy on weekends, so it is best to plan a visit on a less crowded weekday. Northern Europe’s finest Roman site, the Roman Baths’ pools and tunnels are very atmospheric to walk around and have been painstakingly restored, boasting a collection of thousands of artifacts from Roman Britain. Discovered in 1727 the gilt bronze head of the goddess Sulis Minerva is one of the best-known objects from Roman Britain and stood within the Temple beside the Sacred Spring where she looked out to the sacrificial altar. After exploring the Roman Baths be sure to try a glass of foul-smelling but health-giving, hot spa water in The Pump Room Restaurant on the way out.
Many visitors tie in a visit to the Roman Baths with a trip to its slightly glitzier 21st-century modern equivalent next door, the Thermae Bath Spa. Take a dip in thermal waters of the open-air rooftop pool that looks over the city.
Ghoulish Goings on
The plush, ornate Georgian playhouse that is The Royal Theatre has a program of plays and events throughout the year. It is famously haunted by several ghosts including the “Phantom Doorman” and the “Grey Lady.” The latter’s appearance is accompanied by the strong smell of jasmine. Dressed in an 18th-century evening dress complete with feathers in her coiffure, the Grey Lady is known to sit in the top left box facing the stage waiting for a lover who was killed in a duel by her husband. A little less spooky, the Egg Theatre next door with its regular puppet shows is perfect if you are visiting Bath with children.
When in Bath a great idea is to take advantage of the several free walking tours offered by local folk. The Mayor of Bath’s Corps of Honorary Guides offers pleasant guided two-hour walks Sunday to Friday at 10:30 am and 2 pm and Saturdays at 10:30 am only.
A World Heritage Site located on the banks of the River Avon and the cusps of the Cotswold Hills, Bath is 20 kilometers southeast of Bristol and 150 kilometers west of London. From London Paddington Station, Bath is 90 minutes by the Great Western Railway. From Bristol Temple Meads station, the magnificent city is a mere 15 minutes by train.
Bath, and of course Bristol, are good staging points from which to explore the evocative Somerset countryside. Both Glastonbury and Stonehenge are under an hour's drive away. If you head southwest, the Mendip Hills open up to the pretty villages in Devon bedecked with flowers in the spring, the stark wild beauty of Exmoor National Park and the dramatic cliffs of Cornwall made famous by Poldark.
The historical and gorgeous city of Bath is just a short train ride from Bristol so you’ll get two great cities for the price of one.
by Christopher Kanal
Photos: Courtesy of VisitBath.co.uk and The Royal Crescent Hotel