Admiration for grand designs in brick and brioche
Stepping back in time, Nilima Marshall soaks up the visual and edible delights of one of England’s most elegant cities
S I Ibite into my afternoon treat, every forkful is pure pleasure. I am so engrossed in relishing what’s on my plate, slightly resent the waiter for interrupting, even though he is helpfully refilling my cup with tea.
I am not at a Michelin-star restaurant eating a fancy meal, but am tucking into a humble bun at a tiny tea room in Bath.
But this is no ordinary café. I am at the famous Sally Lunn’s tea room sampling the cream buns that are part of its High Tea menu.
And the bun I have ordered is a mini mountain of doughy goodness, topped with delicious cinnamon butter and served with oodles of clotted cream.
Sally Lunn’s, which featured in The Great British Bake Off last year, is well known for its buns, and it’s no surprise that this ‘world-famous eating house’ is a magnet for tourists.
The story goes that a young Huguenot refugee called Solange Luyon found her way to Bath after escaping persecution in France in the 17th century.
After finding work in a local bakery, she became known as Sally Lunn and began baking the rich brioche delight that is still served today.
My partner and I are spending a weekend in this beautiful Roman city and these delicious buns are a great start to our short getaway.
But we’re not here purely to learn the history of a local delicacy. We’ve come to look at Bath’s Georgian links, 300 years after an era that was responsible for some of the UK’s most elegant architecture as a high society flourished.
We have checked into Villa Magdala, a beautiful Victorian house not far from the town centre, which has been converted into a contemporary but cosy B&B with 23 stylish and tastefully decorated rooms.
To begin our exploration of 18th-century Bath, we head to the Royal Crescent, a row of 30 terraced houses that includes a five-star hotel and museum, and is often used as a location for films and TV shows. We find it bustling with tourists admiring the mighty Georgian architecture that stands out among the lush green lawns.
The crescent-shape theme continues at the Circus which, like the Royal Crescent, was designed by Georgian architects John Wood the Younger and his father, John Wood the Elder. Apparently, they drew inspiration for the ring of town houses from the Colosseum in Rome.
Around the corner from the Circus is the Jane Austen Centre, where I learn more about the life and family of the famous 18th-century novelist.
All the staff at the centre (a Regency townhouse that has been repurposed), are dressed in appropriate historical costumes and it feels like I’ve entered a period drama.
The centre also has a range of Regency-style dresses for tourists to try on, similar to what Austen would have worn when she went out with her sister Cassandra to visit the dressmaker, or call on friends.
With my interest in Georgian fashion stirred, we head to the nearby Fashion Museum to find out more.
At the entrance, there are costumes worn by characters from the ITV hit drama Downton Abbey – Lady Mary, Matthew Crawley and Lord Grantham.
The museum also has a huge variety of Georgian clothing worn by the fashionable society of that time.
We admire the dramatic, embellished ladies’ gowns and the fitted embroidered waistcoats worn by styleconscious gentlemen.
As with the architecture, the Georgians also seem to have had a lasting effect on the British fashion industry. Designer Vivienne Westwood took inspiration from the Regency era to create her Les Femmes collection S/S back in 1996. Her famous dramatic evening dress with oversized black bows is proudly displayed at the museum.
Many members of the higher echelons of society throughout history would have visited Bath to bathe in its spa water. We decide to follow suit.
The Thermae Bath Spa has a range of treatments on offer, but we opt for a two-hour relaxing bath session.
I feel my troubles melt away as I sink into a Jacuzzi in the open-air rooftop pool, as we take in clear views of the city. We also try out the refreshing Minerva bath and complete our full session of relaxation in the fragranced steam rooms.
Rejuvenated, we stop for lunch at Roman Bath Kitchen (another Georgian townhouse that has been transformed into a contemporary restaurant).
While admiring the views of the Abbey, we sample the chef’s gazpacho soup with basil sorbet, which is the tastiest starter I’ve ever had.
For my main course, I tuck into a grilled aubergine sandwich, while my partner opts for the chargrilled steak, and we finish off our three-course meal with melt-in-the-mouth ice-cream waffles.
Following our food extravaganza, we explore the Roman Baths, one of the busiest places in city with more than a million visitors each year.
Much of the bath house built by the Romans does not exist today, and the original main spring is now housed in buildings designed and restored by John Wood the Elder and his son.
We head back to London after our amazing weekend, feeling refreshed and enlightened – and, of course, with a box of Sally Lunn’s buns.
The Royal Crescent is considered to be one of the best examples of Georgian architecture
The rooftop pool at the Thermae Bath Spa offers stunning views of the picturesque city at an untypical level