On the road in England – Part V: Bath, Somerset

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I had finally made it to Bath. It was only a short trip from Salisbury, barely an hour through the charming countrysides of Wiltshire and Somerset, each one vying with the other for the top spot in my personal list of the most beautiful, not knowing that both of them would be crushed by a yet unknown competitor. Dorset. But that is another story, soon to be told.

Bath, Somerset (Abbey, Roman Baths)

It was around 10 in the morning, when I got off the train in Bath, my hotel, a guesthouse actually, was conveniently located just minutes from the station and by the time it was noon, I had checked in, freshened up and was ready to explore Bath. So I headed straight to the center of the city and the first impressions that I got were sufficient to decide on the spot that I would extend my stay an additional night, giving me three full days in Bath. Three full days in the city that I initially put on my itinerary for just two reasons. Number one: Jane Austen. Number two: „Persuasion“. I’ve admired Austen for a long time, this particular book is my favorite among her writings. The author herself has spent considerable time in Bath and it is here as well, that essential parts of Persuasion take place. I came here to see for myself what it is that makes this city special, I left with a number of additional reasons why one should come and see Bath, not just because of Austen or Persuasion.

When one enters a city like Bath, a place that is too big to just go wandering around trying to get a first impression, but yet small enough that an initial inspection can be accomplished in a walking manner, one wonders what’s the best way to get a good first look. I am basically a walker and there’s nothing that beats exploring a city by just, more or less, aimlessly wandering about. You can only do that though, when you’re equipped with sufficient time. I needed a controlled version of rambling the city. And so when I headed into the tourist information office, which is conveniently located in the building next to the Abbey, I knew I had to be persistent, in order not to be ushered onto one of those hop-on hop-off bus tours (which I personally try to avoid unless I really have no other choice, as for example when visiting Stonehenge). It didn’t take much persistence, the friendly lady at the counter freely let me in on the open secret that walking tours through the city are indeed available and to my great joy they were completely free of charge! My heartful thanks go out to the Bath mayoralty, they have been organising these walks since 1930. A service which I’ve commented on in my entry on Salisbury and which to this day impresses me very much: volunteers, mostly senior citizens, who possess an astounding depth of knowledge about the various places in the city, guide the interested tourist, such as me, in the most informative, humorous and pleasant way, all this free of charge and for up to two hours!

Bath, Coeur de Lion Pub (specialty of the house)

With the next tour starting in only an hour I passed the time in a charming little pub called Coeur de Lion, which not only serves locally brewed ale, but excellent food as well. At two o’clock I finally found myself joining a colourful group of tourists, who were being welcomed by an elderly gentleman, our guide for the next two hours. So we walked around Bath and learned about various sights, such as beautiful Pulteney Bridge, which was constructed in the late 18th century by a man named Robert Adam (1728 – 1792). Adam claimed to have been inspired by the Ponte Vecchio of Florence, which is in fact visible, but you have to look closely.

Bath, Pulteney Bridge

We passed different sights and learned about the guidlines of Palladian architecture. An architectural style that aims for the greatest possible harmony in appearance. An example of it can be found in The Circus, one of Baths most prominent buildings. It is an arrangement of three circular segments, each of the same length and hight, with the classical order of columns – Doric, Ionic, Corinthian – separating the different tiers thus paying homage to the ideals of the past. The fact, by the way, that Bath presents itself as such a harmonious architectural ensemble is mostly owing to the efforts of two men: John Wood the Elder (1704 – 1754) and his son John Wood the Younger (1728 – 1782).

Bath, The Circus

Another impressive witness of their endeavors is a structure just a few steps to the west of The Circus, it is called Royal Crescent. Again a building shaped in the form of a circular segment, it towers most impressively on an elevation, with its front lawn elegantly flowing into the city below. No wonder it is, as The Circus, one of the most prestigious addresses in bath. Our well informed guide didn’t forget to point out a curious garden design, which is part of the Royal Crescent’s front lawn. A so-called Ha-ha. Basically a type of ditch across the middle of the lawn, acting as a sort of sunken fence, it can only be seen when looking uphill towards the building. Facing away from the building, viewing the city below, it remains hidden and can be quite treacherous when walking the lawn in this direction. Falling into the ditch, while peacefully pacing along the lawn, might result in the exclamation which gave the construction its name: Ha-ha! I suppose that is the price wealthy people are more than willing to pay in order to not have a hideous fence disturb a beautiful view.

Bath, Royal Crescent

On we went down the Gravel Walk, a path that plays a most significant part in Austen’s Persuasion, which I will not elaborate on – just read the book, it is worth it in any case. We viewed an example of a Georgian garden, which is open to the public, then passed the historic baths of the city and after two hours found ourselves at the end of our tour, equipped with first rate knowledge such a glimpse on Bath could afford, forever grateful to our expert guide!

The first evening in Bath was spent on yet another walking tour. Quite different though as the first one: I took part in a comedy walk called Bizarre Bath. Nothing that can adequately be described in words, but it successfully served the purpose of providing a fun distraction from the usual touristy undertakings.

Bath, Georgian Garden

My second day in Bath was spent with leisurly walks through the town. In case I haven’t mentioned it before, Bath is certainly one of the most beautiful cities I have seen during my trip through southern England, since 1984 it carries the title „UNESCO World Heritage Site“. The first stop on my places-to-see list of that day, was called Jane Austen Centre. With her being one of my favorite authors, I had to go see this place, even though I was quite doubtful to begin with. If only I had listened to my scepticism, for by entering the Jane Austen Centre I entered into a purgatory of kitsch! Kept in hues of mauve, lavender and rose, it was the embodiment of a romance inferno that contained everything the so inclined woman would be looking for: from guidebooks on how to find your own Mr. Darcy, to advice for well behaved young ladies, all the way to david-hamiltonesk photographs of melancholic Colin Firth (it is a truth universally aknowledged that desperate women will spend a fortune in the self-help section of a bookstore…).

After less than 10 minutes I fled the dreadful place – barely being able to ascertain that the one and only thing I was interested in (the Jane Austen…guess what…walking tours) wouldn’t be available for me, for I would already be on my way to the next stop on my intinerary – and found myself standing outside waiting for the mists of lavender and rose to clear, horrified that a brilliant writer and (I can’t say it enough) one of the few women in literature, who rightfully went down in history as an equal to the male authors of her time, was being reduced to nothing more than a corny romance writer.

Thermae Bath Spa

But, thanks to the soothing influence of Baths honey-colored limestone buildings, I was soon in good spirits again and decided to take a bath in Bath’s new bath (sorry, but  this was just too tempting). It’s called Thermae Bath Spa, opened in 2006 and the centrally located building beautifully combines traditional and modern architecture most spectacularly, all the way to a roof-top pool which lets you bathe in warm water while enjoying the view over historic Bath. The pleasure is not cheap, but well worth it. You’ll find your roof-top pool as well as one on the lower levels of the building, there are steam baths and much more. I was pleased with most of the experience, however one big downside was the lack of resting areas. Simple rooms with comfortable chairs to relax after the steam bath or a swim? Nowhere to be found, except for on the terrace (which is a bad place to relax if it’s cold outside), or near the pool in the basement, which is quite a walk from the roof-top pool or the steam rooms (the elevators take forever!). Neither would I recommend one of the packages that include a meal in the restaurant. Firstly, because the restaurant isn’t all that recommendable (the continous harp music was just a tad bit too much relaxation; the food is ok) and secondly, because the time you spend eating is subtracted from the time you spend bathing, which makes the entire stay a little bit hectic. Nevertheless, if you have time and like spas, it’s worth a visit.

Roman Baths, Bath Abbey (background)

Day number three again was spent with some quiet walking around town. I visited the Abbey, which is another exquisite example of gothic architecture, afterwards the Roman Baths. The latter are what gave the city its name, for it was the Romans who discovered the hot springs during the time they occupied England. Around 70 BC they started constructing a center of religious and physical worship. A temple for protective goddess Sulis Minerva and a spa that would quite match some of todays health farms. After abandoning Bath and England in the 5th century AD, the baths were left to decay, bathing culture didn’t become popular again until the 18th century when the healing powers of the hot springs were rediscovered and the English upper-class flocked to Bath in order to find cures for their ailments as well as a considerable amount of entertainment.

Sulis Minerva, Roman Baths

Today the remains of the Roman baths can be visited and are well worth the 11 Pound entry fee, if you heed just one piece of advice from me (read my entry on Salisbury and Stonehenge for backup evidence): Please stay away from the audioguide! An accumulation of strange sound effects (when mentioning that the Romans built something, you can hear hammering in the background….), ludicrous efforts to establish emotional rapport with the Romans (by adding a soundpiece of a wailing mother lamenting her child’s death by reciting the inscription of the tombstone on display!), and the addition of comments from a renowned writer, who ventures his self-righteous views on the adequateness of Roman religious practice (he can’t understand why the Romans were so smart and yet chose to sacrifice animals on their altars…) and is puzzled by the fact that the face of goddess Sulis Minerva seems so unattractive, while the sculptures of Roman men make them all look like nothing but jolly fellows one would just love to go for a pint of beer with….). I shall abstain from further commentary, let’s just repeat one more time: Stay away from the audioguides!

And so I found myself quite at the end of my stay in Bath. One last evening, spent in a pleasant pub called The Raven, a quiet night in my hotel and off I was the next morning – finally headed for the place I actually intended to spend most of my vacation at: the coast, the sea!

Next stop: Lyme Regis

Useful Information:

From London take the train or the bus. The train is much faster, but more expensive (round-trip from around 20 Pounds when you book early), the bus takes twice as long, but round trip tickets can be bought at bargain prices starting at 10 Pounds.

All necessary information about Bath, its sights and potential accommodation can be found on Bath’s official website, further information also on Wikipedia. I stayed at a guesthouse called Annabelle’s, which is centrally located, clean, hospitable and has great rates (breakfast included), but might not be as charming as a true B&B. Be advised to book ahead of time, especially when visiting on a weekend, Bath is a very popular city!

Bizarre Bath: A fun alternative to conventional tourist activities.

Roman Baths: Entry fee for adults currently 11 Pounds.

Thermae Bath Spa: Great way to relax and enjoy a terrific view of historic Bath. Different packages available.

Food: Great pub food can be found at the Coeur de Lion and The Raven, the latter specializes in pies – I’ve witnessed a local guest ordering another serving of an already quite enormous portion of pie. Not having eaten there myself (apart from some chips aka fries), I take that as enough evidence for the food being great!

Mayor’s Guides: More information on the excellent service provided by the Bath Mayoralty, they have their own website as well, tours are at 10.30 am and 2 pm from Sunday to Friday, as well as on Saturday at 10.30 am, the meeting point is in front of the Pump Room, no reservation necessary.

Jane Austen Centre: Whoever wants to see it, enter at your own risk and don’t say I didn’t warn you. The Jane Austen Walks may be quite interesting, during off-season they are held on the weekends only, in summer additional tours are added on Friday and Saturday.

Susanne, 2 August 2009

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