BATH TIME

Jeremy Seal gets all steamed up dur­ing a visit to a long-awaited new spa in Eng­land’s West Coun­try

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

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.

Check­list

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

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