We set the sat nav to “shortest route”, always good for a bit of excitement, and found ourselves wending our way through narrow lanes in the heart of the Somerset countryside. We finally burst over the top of one of the seven hills that surround the city and there, nestling below us and bathed in soft sunlight that turned the buildings a buttery yellow, was Bath.
You can see instantly why the whole city has been deemed worthy of the label UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s truly beautiful, built mostly of the pale local Bath stone, with rows of neat houses snaking down the sides of the hills. Your eyes are drawn towards the river at the heart of the city and beautiful Bath Abbey, where Edgar, the first official king of England was crowned in 973.
Take the waters of Bath
You can’t budge anywhere in the city without being reminded of its special waters. The only naturally occurring hot springs in the UK are what powers Bath’s economy now and in the past.
No-one’s sure exactly why it happens. Therory is that rain falling on the nearby Mendip Hills trickles slowly through the porous sandstone rock and heads inexorably downwards to the earth’s heated core. Once there it finds its way back up through cracks and crannies until it finally bursts through the earth’s crust, smack bang in the heart of the city.
This whole processes takes centuries, so if you are standing on the balcony in the Pump Room, gazing down at the bubbling green pool you are actually feasting your eyes on water that hasn’t seen the light of day for 10,000 years.
All of which made me feel a bit strange.
The ancient Britons thought this was the work of the gods. Legend says local ruler Prince Bladud was cured of leprosy after bathing in the hot springs and establised a town there in 863 BC.
When the Romans arrived in AD 43 they got so excited (it must have been a rare patch of warmth for them, poor souls) that they built a spa and temple instead of their more usual forts and earthworks. They devised an extraordinary leisure complex dedicated to the goddess Sulis Minerva and Aquae Sulis, as Bath was called then, became a very desirable location.
You can sample the waters today. Most people take just one sip and leave the rest, which is understandable as they are, quite frankly, disgusting. Packed with minerals they won’t do you any harm but it’s hard to describe the taste; neither salty nor sweet. Pork Belly says it reminded him of when he drank his own bathwater as a child!
Tour the Roman Baths
If you do nothing else vaguely historic in Bath you really must visit the Roman Baths. They are spectacular at any time of day but if you go at twilight you’ll avoid most of the crowds and see the Baths by torchlight under a deepening night sky.
The displays are well laid out, packed with amazing ancient artefacts. The audio-visuals are entertaining and the commentary on the hand-held device is stuffed full of information. Halfway through our visit I had to switch it off, sit down quietly and try to absorb it all.
Of course the actual baths are the main attraction and you can sit around the edges for ages, just breathing in the atmosphere. Live actors play the parts of Roman stonemasons and other crafts-people and stay in character throughout. Best of all is the the overflow drain; a feat of Roman engineering which channels hot water from the depths of the earth’s core. 2,000 years later it still works just fine.
Dally in Bath Abbey
There’s been a place of worship on this site since 757 AD when there was a Anglo-Saxon monastery with extensive grounds and buildings but the current Abbey began to take shape in the 1600s.
It’s a beautiful and peaceful place to visit and the atmosphere is calm and welcoming.
The guides are very helpful. We were looking for a particular monument and they took a lot of time helping us track it down.
If you have the energy and can manage 212 steps (I admit I was puffing by the top) the Tower Tour is highly recommended. You get to see the workings of the huge clock from behind its face and the view from the top is well worth the effort, if a little vertigo-inducing.
Discover the Gorgeous Georgians
Bath has been a travel destination for centuries but the arrival of the Georgians sealed its popularity. The fashionable folk came during the “season”, when London was too thin of company to make it bearable. In their wake came the scaff and raff of society; merchants, traders, gamblers and adventurers looking for a way to get rich. Balls, tea-parties and picnics were the social cover for marriage-making and the art of rational conversation was much admired.
Jane Austen was a regular visitor to Bath and used the city as a setting for two of her novels, Persuasion and Northanger Abbey. But for me it was the pages of Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances that came to life as we strolled round the beautiful crescents, palladian parades and pokey passages.
If you’re not familiar with the Georgian way of life No: 1 Royal Crescent is the perfect introduction; a home set out as it would have been when its owner Henry Sandford lived there in the late 1700s. Friendly and knowledgeable guides make the visit delightful and the views of Royal Crescent are stupendous.
Bathe in Bath
It’s almost compulsory to have a “spa bath” in Bath, and the city-owned Thermae Baths are glorious. You can relax in the naturally warm mineral spring waters, take a treatment or two or just splash lazily around the roof-top pool.
Our B&B, Bhodi House (a very comfortable and friendly place with a beautiful view of the city) included a complimentary session in the spa at the MacDonald Hotel, the perfect end to our short stay.
Enjoy a Sally Lunn or Bath Bun
Eating out in Bath provides plenty of choice; everything from the large chains to independent restaurants. There are dozens of Georgian-inspired teashops, some of them pretty pricey. But no visitor can escape the Sally Lunn vs Bath Bun debate – just which is the original local delicacy? And which one is best?
Sally Lunn’s Historic Eating House certainly lays a strong claim. You can have a sit-down tea in the bay-fronted tearoom but a cheaper option is to visit their shop in the cellar for a Sally Lunn takeaway.
While you’re there don’t miss the fascinating excavations of the old cellar walls and floors. Sally Lunn herself may be a legend but there’s a real slice of history to be had here. On the other side of the shop you can see remains of the wall of the Priory refectory, a tiny glimpse today of medieval Bath.
Stroll across Pulteney Bridge
Pulteney Bridge and the sweeping horseshoe weir on the River Avon below must be Bath’s most iconic image. Built in 1769 with a budget of £1,000 it actually cost around £10,000 but I reckon the city’s had its money’s worth over the years as a tourist attraction.
It’s one of the world’s most photographed bridges (tip: the best shots are to be had late morning, by afternoon the bridge is in shadow) and one of only a handful of historic bridges that still have shops on them. These are mainly tearooms and cafés but you’ll also find antiques, books, coins and high end fashion.
Final words on Bath
As Jane Austen wrote:
I really believe I shall always be talking of Bath, when I am at home again, I do like it so very much…. Oh! Who can ever be tired of Bath?
Of course these words are said by one of her silliest of heroines, Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey. Jane herself leaves us guessing about her true feelings about Bath.
As for Pork Belly and I?
We thoroughly enjoyed our short stay in Bath and will definitely be back.
More information about Bath
Visit Bath website
Bhodi House B&B website
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