Jeremy Seal gets all steamed up during a visit to a long-awaited new spa in England’s West Country
STEAM is rising into the gathering dusk from the rooftop pool of the new spa building in the heart of Georgian Bath. I’m poaching myself a pleasurable pink and feeling like something of a playboy. I find myself sharing this super-sized, open-air hot tub with a group of bikini-clad girls on a hens’ night considering pub and club options and a gaggle of French glamourpuss mums haggling over fish restaurants.
And there was I thinking this English West Country city was classic aunty territory: all open-top bus rides, audio tours of the Roman baths, shopping on Milsom Street and perhaps a nice Bath bun in Sally Lunn’s tea shoppe to finish.
Despite its famous looks — set in a bowl of riverside parkland, with honey-toned Palladian crescents, terraces and Rialto-style Pulteney Bridge — this World Heritage site often has been dismissed as overbearingly genteel, even staid, a home of dowager dames and bowls-playing retired professionals.
Even the city’s most illustrious sometime resident, Jane Austen, who set much of her fiction here, did not much enjoy her time in this bastion of polite society.
The city further lost its way in 1978 when its world-famous mineral baths were closed following a meningitis scare. As more than one million litres of thermal spring water went daily to waste in the River Avon, Bath ossified into a heritage and retail experience, leaving visitors to bemoan a Georgian theme park with nothing like the pleasure potential or crucial cool of that other old-established British resort, Brighton.
Well, Brighton beware. Bath’s baths reopened (after embarrassingly protracted delays) last year. And though the indigestiblesounding Thermae Bath Spa is crying out for a catchy nickname, the city has been quick to recover its original sense of purpose. It may even have improved on it, coming over all stylish, even steamy, in the process. Austen? Shirley Conran, more like.
The flourishing hydro scene extends beyond the main spa to the city’s top two hotels, the Bath Spa and the Royal Crescent, which recently opened excellent spas of their own. Bath’s culinary landscape also has been transformed, with a spate of excellent eatery openings emphasising the homemade and locally sourced in pared down, homely surroundings. Accommodation options have been bolstered with the Bath Spa Hotel’s newly launched wing of 21 ultra-exclusive suites with 24-hour butler service.
A six-room townhouse B & B, The Residence, which opened last year, is all glass and gilt funky-traditional; sheer hedonism even down to the (sorry, Ms Austen) sex toys in the bedroom wardrobes.
Add to this the promise of a casino under the Government’s new gambling proposals — appropriate since the city was Britain’s gaming mecca during the 18th century — and it seems that Bath is fast establishing itself, if not quite as a full-on fleshpot, as a haven of the senses at the very least.
Visitors to Bath have been taking the waters since time immemorial. The springs emerge from the earth at a constant 47C. Bladud, legendary father of King Lear, supposedly discovered the waters’ healthgiving properties when a dip here cured him of leprosy. A range of conditions including infertility, gout, palsy, psoriasis and polio were duly treated at the baths. Not a pretty sight, as one visitor wrote in 1817: ‘‘ It seems to me incredibly dingy and wretched, and the infamous old men and youths carried in chairs and mechanical carriages round the smoking baths horrify me.’’
Today’s visitors are spared such scenes. The new spa seems intent on putting clear water between itself and the adjacent Royal Mineral Water Hospital (even today Britain’s national centre for rheumatism treatment) to emerge as a full-on pampering centre. The building’s spectacular glass facade conceals a beautiful, soothing interior, complete with scented steam rooms, indoor pool with whirlpools and neck massage jets, restaurant and treatments including aroma massages, shiatsu sessions, wraps in everything from alpine hay and nutrient-rich mud to seaweed and chardonnay.
It’s plain that most visitors are suffering from nothing more serious than a little too much of the modern world. One of the French mothers, on what she calls ‘‘ a corporate visit to Bath’’, tells me she has just been immersed for a blissful hour in lavender blossom. ‘‘ How I needed it,’’ she exclaims. ‘‘ I flew back from Guadeloupe only two days ago.’’
Lord alone knows what the city’s rollcall of estimable residents and visitors — the young Queen Victoria, Clive of India, Pitt the Elder, William Wilberforce and Charles Dickens among them — would have made of the new Bath. It’s a fair bet, though, that William Beckford would have approved. I’m staying in the ground-floor apartment of the remarkable Italianate tower that this literary aesthete, erotic sensualist and all-round millionaire prodigal built on Lansdown Hill after moving to Bath in 1822; not, at 45 minutes on foot from the city centre, the most central accommodation option on offer but hard to beat for atmosphere.
The apartment was restored in 1999 and is a truly Beckfordian vision, with its scarlet drawing room’s arched windows, coffered wooden ceiling, enormous marble fireplace, cotton moire wall hangings and gilt-framed 18th-century landscapes. I have my own key to the 40m tower, which I climb for the belvedere’s fabulous views over the city and beyond, to Salisbury Plain and the Avon
Valley. I wander in the surrounding cemetery, all gothic romance, where Beckford lies in a typically overblown sarcophagus among canted, ivy-swathed headstones.
The apartment’s location is also a spur to walk — especially with the spa to soothe those aching muscles — and Bath, richly served by a network of local footpaths and lying on the 160km Cotswold Way and the Kennet & Avon Canal towpath, is a walkers’ paradise.
One such footpath leads me through fields across the city’s northern slopes to emerge at Lansdown Crescent. This majestic sweep of houses, fronted by a wooded slope where sheep graze, is the most delightfully positioned, though least discovered, of all the city’s crescents.
I drop down steeply sloping Park Street, which sorely tried the visiting Dickens for puff, and head for one of the city’s lesserknown museums: the house at 19 New King St, home to musician and astronomer William Herschel during the 1780s. It’s a beguiling period piece and the workshop where Herschel fashioned telescopic lenses is a reminder that there was more to Regency Bath than frivolous tea dances at the Assembly Rooms.
It was in the house’s garden, now laid out with cypress trees and quinces, that the stargazing Herschel first discovered the planet Uranus (to the evident amusement of the schoolchildren touring the museum when I arrive) in 1781.
It’s only mid-morning but all this traipsing has given me an appetite. I stop off at Blackstone’s Kitchen at 10a Queen St, which owner Rebecca Blackstone and her husband, Daniel, opened in 2004. The Blackstones, inspired by the Australian cafe style they encountered on their travels, have revolutionised local cuisine with their brand of gourmet home-made takeaway food: seriously good breakfast muffins, lunchtime shepherd’s pies and Thai curries and a mouth-watering range of midmorning snacks including gooey brownies.
They have since gone on to open the much-admired Blackstone’s Restaurant nearby. All this unpretentious style, what Rebecca calls ‘‘ mood food’’, is a far cry from what too often passes for cafe ‘‘ fayre’’ in provincial Britain.
‘‘ These are just the sort of dishes I would cook at home for friends,’’ Rebecca tells me. She sends me on my way with a large slice of passionfruit cheesecake to sustain me along the city’s famous Skyline Walk.
It takes me on a 10km ramble up the sloping woodlands and meadows that push hard against the south side of the town.
The city is a spectacular panorama beneath me though I am in the deepest countryside, pushing through stands of beech trees and thick carpets of bluebells. I even disturb deer in Bathwick Woods.
The hens’ party and the French mums are gone by the time I finish my pre-dinner soak at the spa. I head for the Garrick’s Head in St John’s Place, a newly opened restaurant in a former pub, where strippeddown parlour surroundings suit the spectacularly simple menu. Call it honest English, but it happens that venison in stout, with braised red cabbage and root mash, is all I could wish for. I take a taxi back to my hilltop tower.
The apartment at Beckford’s Tower (www.landmarktrust.org.uk) sleeps four and costs from £313 ($750) for a fournight midweek break. The Macdonald Bath Spa Hotel (www.bathspahotel.com) has private apartments with 24-hour butler service from £308 a night. The Royal Crescent Hotel (www.royalcrescent.co.uk) has double rooms from £225 a night Sundays to Thursdays. The Residence (www.theresidencebath.com) has double rooms from £135 a night. Thermae Bath Spa (www.thermaebathspa.com) offers steam rooms and thermally-heated pools. Treatments from £16. www.blackstonefood.co.uk www.visitbath.co.uk www.nationaltrust.org.uk www.visitbritain.com.au
Hot stuff: The Minerva pool by
night at Thermae Bath Spa
Taking the waters: Bath’s mineral-rich baths have been in use since Roman times, left; entrance to the historic Pump Room, right