Always in fashion
Take the waters and lap up history in England’s famous spa city
GETTING STARTED: Bath Visitor Information Centre is next to Bath Abbey, open seven days and well worth a visit to pick up free maps and literature. The UNESCO Heritage-listed city is compact and its Roman-era and Georgian history very accessible on foot. The “Independent and Individual” shops section of the centre’s website is a useful guide for uncovering locally made buys, especially The Foodie Bugle for comestibles (and afternoon tea) and lovely stationery; plus Bath Aqua Glass for hand-blown glassware, jewellery and gorgeous paperweights. The site also features special-interest tours and accommodation deals, including good midweek specials, and best photo-snapping spots, such as atop the 16th-century Bath Abbey or Beckford’s Tower, from Pulteney Bridge (inspired by Florence’s Ponte Vecchio) over the River Avon (or from a punt beneath, poled by a straw-hatted boatman) and the elevated Parade Gardens, awash with costumed fans during the Jane Austen Festival each September. And, naturally, snap away along that semi-elliptical sweep of the famous Royal Crescent. More: visitbath.co.uk.
SCENES SETTER: The city of Bath, set between the hills of the Cotswolds to its north and the Mend dips to the south, is still renowned for the hot mineral springs that established its fame from the mid-1700s to early 1800s when its population grew from about 2000 to 38,000, making it the eighth-largest city in England by century’s turn. The architect John Wood the Elder and social arbiter Beau Nash are the men whose names are still intrinsically entwined with Bath. Wood designed squares, parades, terraces and circles of houses known as circuses in the Palladian fashion using honey-hued Bath stone while Nash dandified the city with balls and soirees that attracted London’s influential social set, and royals such as Queen Anne, to take the healing waters and to see and be seen at England’s first “pleasure and leisure” spot. Much of the social history is explained to me by my excellent Blue Badge guide Andrew Butterworth as we step out with an illustrated Marvellous Bath Museums map and stick our noses into No 1 Royal Crescent, a living museum of 10 rooms at “the best address in town”, and walk around the Assembly Rooms and the layered attractions of the Roman Baths. Former history teacher Andrew is witty, considerate and brimming with small, gossipy stories about Bath society as well as the grander historic facts. More: sulisguides.com.
THERE’ST SOMETHING ABOUT JANE: There is no ignoring the presence of Jane Austen in this mannered city where she lived from 1801-6 and set chapters and scenes of her novels. Take a Mr Darcy tea at The Regency Tea Rooms in the Jane Austen Centre on Gay Street, dress up for photos in Regency-era clothing from its wardrobes, or purchase dubious mementoes such as a Jane Austen cookie cutter or Georgian teacup and saucer earrings in its well-stocked shop. Better still, how about a snifter of Gin Austen (aka “gin of a different Persuasion”) at the splendidly snug Canary Gin Bar on Queen Street. There’s an illustration of a saucy, winking Jane Austen, her bonnet slightly askew, on the labels of bottles of this small-batch gin; or sip a mean martini, Wickham’s Mule or Negroni-style Pemberley infused with rosehip in the candle-lit bar. You can even stay in the 18th-century terrace at 4 Sydney Place where Austen lived with her family (other residences were at 13 Queen Square, 27 Green Park Buildings and 25 Gay Street). Four apartments are available at the Sydney Place address via Bath Boutique Stays, named (predictably) Emma’s Garden, Cassandra’s, Mr Darcy’s and Lizzie Bennett’s Penthouse. Expect packets of Jane Austenbranded loose-leaf blend or Pride and Prejudice oolong to be sitting by the teapot. More: janeausten.co.uk; thebathgincompany.co.uk; bathboutiquestays.co.uk.
GET PUMPED: It is touristy but fun to take lunch or afternoon tea at The Pump Room in the city’s h heart. Built in 1706, it had to be enlarged in two stages by 1796 to accommodate the flighty and fashionable throngs, all cocked hats and bucket-shaped bonnets. Afternoon tea starts at an encouragingly early 12 noon, parallel with the lunch menu, and Andrew and I nibble from a tiered stand of scones, egg mayonnaise and mustard cress sandwiches, macarons and tiny choux pastries. The Pump Room features in Austen’s Northanger Abbey, he tells me, and later I read of Miss Catherine Morland’s visit there in the vain hope of encountering her love interest, Mr Henry Tilney. “Every creature in Bath, except himself, was to be seen in the room at different periods of the fashionable hours; crowds of people were every moment passing in and out, up the steps and down; people whom nobody cared about, and nobody wanted to see; and he only was absent.” The scene is hardly as stylish these days but there’s a musical trio and resident pianist, a palpable sense of history and cheery waitresses who don’t so much serve tea as administer it from sturdy pots. Take a sip of warm mineral water from taps at the original King’s Spring fountain and, by the entrance, look for the Bath Chair of the kind used to carry invalids to take the waters. Be sure to book a table on weekdays; there’s a queueing system on weekends. More: romanbaths.co.uk.
BOOKED UP: Drop into the delightful Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights on John Street where owner Nic Bottomley’s quest is to encourage more reading. A one-on-one 90-minute Mr B’s Reading Spa session over tea and cakes in the upstairs “bibliotherapy room” costs £80 ($129) but includes £55 to spend on the “therapist’s” recommendations, cloth carry bag and a £5 gift voucher for a return visit. “Life’s too short to read bad books,” Bottomley remarks, simply but emphatically. More: mrbsemporium.com.
TAKET THE WATERS: Thermae Spa in the New Royal Bath, opposite The Gainsborough Bath Spa (see Best Beds), opened in 2006 as Britain’s only natural thermal spa. It’s a complex of heritage buildings and a contemporary, glass-clad facility that includes a rooftop pool with whirlpools and massage jets, steam rooms and the Minerva and Cross Baths; sulfate-rich waters are drawn from three springs and spa packages include the likes of watsu massage, mud wraps and Vichy hot stones treatments. Or just opt for a Thermae Welcome soak, with towel, robe and slippers provided. More: thermaebathspa.com.
PIES IN THE SKY: The pub regulars sitting under a b blackboard menu happily pose for a photograph, h holding high their pints of Raven’s Gold ale. “A journalist, eh? Will we become famous?” they chortle as my camera flashes. I am on Queen Street at The Raven, purveyor of “ales and stouts” and “wines and victuals”, and the acknowledged home of Bath’s best pies, which
City of Bath, top; Canary Gin Bar, top right; Roman baths, above; The Pump Room, above right; Jane Austen Centre, below