Londoner Hugo Verity who studied at the University of Bath takes us on a tour of this unique historical city
Nestled between the green hills and fields of the Somerset countryside, Bath is in many ways a timeless city. Immortalised in classic literature and a favoured location for period dramas, its golden coloured townhouses and quiet outskirts are the epitome of Englishness.
With a population of less than a 100,000, the town of Bath is a world away (and a welcome break) from the bright lights and fast pace of London. This unique city is home to more than its share of historical gems. The perfectly symmetrical grand Georgian townhouses lining the Royal Crescent and Great Pulteney Street, the River Avon flowing at the foot of the Bath Abbey, the majestic Roman Baths and the elegant green parks are a reminder of its rich and impressive history. It’s easy to forget that before becoming the retreat of choice for 1800s high society, Bath was the stomping ground of the Roman elite, their culture now largely concealed behind the grand Georgian facades and below the busy streets. The Roman baths, with their temple dedicated to the goddess Sulis, still remain almost 2,000 years later, fuelled by the natural thermal waters beneath.
The awe-inspiring and magisterial Bath Abbey is the city’s centrepiece. Once razed to the ground during King Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, the medieval reconstruction was adapted in the 19th century to become the gothic Victorian masterpiece that dominates today’s city centre. A site of worship for well over 1,000 years, and the location where the first King of England was crowned in 973, its rich cultural heritage typifies the rest of the city.
For the cultured and artistic, Bath is home to a surprising number of renowned galleries and museums. The Holburne Museum, proudly situated just outside the city centre, houses masterpieces by Gainsborough and works from the golden age of Dutch portraiture. For those with more of a taste for haute couture, the Fashion Museum houses an array of priceless pieces, from Georgian evening wear to classic creations by Dame Vivienne Westwood.
This modest city has also been a source of discovery and inspiration, from literary giants such as Mary Shelley, who is thought to have taken inspiration from Bath when writing Frankenstein, to pioneers of the Enlightenment. The Herschel Museum is one such place of inspiration where, within an unassuming townhouse typical of many homes in Bath, the planet Uranus was discovered in 1781.
Today, artists and romantics go to Bath for inspiration and escapism. They are stimulated by the revered architecture and famous sites like the Royal Crescent, a row of prestigious and highly sought after townhouses, and Pulteney Bridge, which crosses the expanse of the River Avon, a spot now recognisable for the part it played in 2012’s Les Miserables.
Of course, no one is more synonymous with Bath than Jane Austen. The city is a magnet for admirers of both her work and the woman herself. The Jane Austen Centre, an homage to the author, is a favourite of her followers. It is not uncommon to see people in this part of the city dressed in 18th and 19th century finery, as if for a moment you have travelled back in time to see Bath as Jane would have seen it through her eyes. Close to the Centre, the Pump Room, a fashionable meeting place and a setting found in Jane Austen’s Persuasion and Northanger Abbey, adds to the ambiance. In her words, “Every creature in Bath… was to be seen in the room at different periods of fashionable hours.” 200 years have passed since then, yet it retains its elegance.
Bath’s history and culture are matched by its vibrancy. Not only has it been a favourite of monarchs, artists, writers and actors, but it is has also always been a living, breathing community, with streets that are full to the brim with events and activities. Popular high street brands stand cheek-by-jowl with independent family-run businesses, local food markets, purveyors of rare books and antique shops. Favourites include Jolly’s, the oldest department store in the United Kingdom, and Sally Lunn’s, an eating house tucked down one of Bath’s numerous quaint streets and run from one of the oldest houses in Bath, built in 1482.
For relaxation, visitors and residents alike can still enjoy the pleasant, some say healing, qualities of the natural hot springs. The award winning Thermae Bath Spa boasts a rooftop pool with views over the city and a variety of spa treatments for those with a penchant for pampering and in need of relaxation. Alternatively, you might watch a performance at one of Bath’s theatres, such as the opulent early 19th century Theatre Royal, which hosts a year-round programme of performances, from West End productions to opera.
How to get there & how to get around
Bath is only an hour and a half from London Paddington Station. Upon your arrival, the public transport is regular and easy to use, with buses from the train station and from numerous points throughout the city.
Where to eat
Bath’s restaurants cater to all tastes, from those with a preference for dining in Regency elegance, to the contemporary and quirky variety. The unusually named Menu Gordon Jones, featured in the Michelin Guide, offers a unique take on classic dishes, where innovative food looks as wonderful as it tastes.
The Olive Tree is a must, a softly-lit and sociable restaurant within the Queensbury Hotel that has an enduring reputation for good food and an award winning wine list. For a more glamourous feel, the restaurant of the Bath Priory Hotel cannot be missed. Based in a country house on the fringes of the city, its traditional appearance is a stark contrast from the cutting edge cuisine.
Best time to visit
During the summer, museums, galleries and country houses are open to the public, making it the ideal time of year to visit. The south west of England also has the warmest climate in the country, the perfect time to enjoy Bath’s beautiful countryside. The breath-taking view from Alexandra Park gives visitors a remarkable bird’s-eye perspective of the rooftops and church spires nestled within the surrounding hills.
Where to stay
The Gainsborough is perhaps the most unique of Bath’s hotels, a five star Georgian building with pools heated by the natural springs (the only hotel of its kind in Britain). Other favourites allow you to feel more like a resident than a guest, including the Royal Crescent, where the grand staircases, oil paintings and ornate rooms set the sophisticated tone. It even has the hidden surprise of an acre of beautiful garden. For a more modern feel, the Halcyon Apartments are flawless, with a modern apartments ranging from the modest to the palatial, all situated two floors above the chic cocktail bar, Circo.