Confession: we almost skipped historic Bath, worried that the famous spa town might be too touristy. Popular for so long with fashionable society, we pictured the streets of Bath crowded with well-to-do weekenders carrying bags from high-end shops, taking breaks from hours of pampering and massage. You can certainly find these things, but there are many other ways to experience Bath. We focused our short stop on history and architecture, and had a great day and a half exploring this UNESCO designated World Heritage site. We began with a thorough orientation via a wonderful, free walking tour led by the Mayor of Bath Honorary Guides. The walks start outside the Pump Room of the Roman Baths in Abbey Church Yard, at the sign reading ‘Free Walking Tours Here’. The tour lasts about 2.5 hours, and includes all the main points of historical and architectural interest, as well as fascinating anecdotes and personal stories from the guide.
No one knows for sure how long the hot springs at Bath have been a destination. It’s certain that they were known when the Romans built their temple here around 50 AD. At the same time, public baths were built on these natural springs, whose waters rise at 46C (about 115F). The remains of the Roman settlement and buildings were lost as Roman civilization declined. Bath remained as a relatively market town through the middle ages and through the 17th Century. People were still drawn here for the curative properties of the spring, and Bath water has been bottled and sold since the 1661! In the 18th Century, Bath became more fashionable. Richard “Beau” Nash was Master of Ceremonies, and the minority lived the high life under his supervision. It was also during this time that many of the architecturally significant buildings were constructed. These include the magnificent Georgian Circus and Royal Crescent as well as Queen Square and Pulteney Bridge, among others. We learned an interesting tidbit about the Circus and the Royal Crescent representing the Sun and the Moon. In addition to their general shapes, the Circus has elements such as an acorn motif, an important symbol of the Druids.
While waiting for the walking tour to begin, we spent some time in Bath Abbey. There has been some form of Christian worship on the site for over a thousand years. First, there was an Anglo-Saxon monastery. This was torn down by Norman conquerors, who built a grand Norman cathedral. That building ended up in ruins by late 15th century. Work on the present Abbey Church began around 1499, but it has undergone various transformations. The abbey today displays great examples of fan vaulting, ornamental pinnacles and ‘battlemented’ parapets and turrets. The stained glass is pretty amazing, too. The big, stained glass window at the East End depicts 56 scenes in the life of Jesus Christ. One interesting fact we learned about the outside of the church is about the ladders of angels who appear to be ascending into heaven. This vision is from a dream of the once-Bishop of Bath, Oliver King. The ladders stop above the level of the doors of the church, showing people that they needed to enter the church as a means to make it to heaven. You can’t just climb the ladder on your own.
The Roman Baths are some of the best preserved, and even though they have been extensively explored and restored, there’s plenty still being discovered. The entrance fee includes an audio guide that you can either borrow and return, or simply download on your smartphone (as we did). There’s a ton of information to absorb, so it’s nice to have your own guide to pick and choose the sections you want to hear about in more depth. Interestingly, the Roman temple at Bath was dedicated to both a Celtic god (Sul) and to the Roman god of healing, Minerva. The sacred areas of the temple were separate from the public bathing areas. The complex is sprawling, and constitutes an amazing feat of engineering focused on aqueducts and arches. Water had to be piped for miles, with methods for keeping it flowing, and at different temperatures. A visit to the Baths might include a cold bath (in the frigidarium), a warm bath (in the tepidarium) and a hot bath (in the caldarium). There would have been a swimming pool, exercise area, and spaces for massage and other body cleansing rituals.
Taking the Waters
When visiting historic Bath, it’s customary to “take the waters.” Back in the 17th century, medical practices of the day encouraged the drinking of spa water for its curative properties. The Pump Room in Bath was opened in 1706 for this purpose, and it was here that we got a glass of the sulfuric-smelling, metallic-tasting elixir to try for ourselves. It was warm and a bit smelly, but I for one was sure to drink down to the last drop. You never know what miracles it might work. There are said to be 43 minerals in the waters of Bath. Calcuim and sulphate are the main ingredients, along with sodium, chloride and many others. In medieval times the waters were said to cure everything from paralysis to gout.
Jane Austen made Bath her home from 1801 to 1806 and set two of her six published novels (Northanger Abbey and Persuasion) here. Running along the backside of the Circus, not far from the Royal Crescent, is a quiet lane, known as a sort of Lover’s Lane in Austen’s time. This Gravel Walk was the setting for a touching scene between Anne Elliot and her Captain Wentworth. You can visit the Jane Austen Centre (located at 40 Gay Street) to learn more about Bath during the Regency period of British history and about the society, music and fashion that Jane Austen would have experienced when she lived here. For true fans, there is a free audio tour you can download and listen to as you walk around town. The tour guides you around interesting spots in city and includes extracts from Jane Austen’s novels and letters, along with a map to follow.
Where to Stay
There is a wide range of accommodation options in and around Bath: funky boutique hotels, cozy B&Bs, rural farmstays and inns. We opted for the lovely Dorian House, a Victorian mansion with a luxury feel, but still accessible within our limited budget. Located a short, 10-minute walk from the center of town, Dorian House is in a quiet neighborhood. Our top-floor room had a view of the Royal Crescent in the distance, lovely. The bed was beyond comfy, and the marble shower a true pleasure after a long day walking the town. The included breakfast starts the day right with fruit, granola, freshly baked items, and coffee . . . followed by a Full English. We sampled a lot of these during our time in England, but Dorian’s stood out for its quality ingredients. As for dining out, we can recommend a good Nepalese meal at Yak Yeti Yak downtown.