Bath is the England every tourist longs for. A quaint hamlet seemingly transfixed in time, it’s easy to picture Jane Austen and Lord Nelson here, strolling the cobbled streets with their bustled and booted contemporaries.
Geographically, the city starts at the river Avon (there are nine river Avons in England, since whenever the Romans asked the native Celts what they call the body of water running through their town, the answer would always be ‘avon,’ the Celtic word for river!).
The manicured Parade Garden surrounds the river banks with its tight flower beds and walking paths. The city rises from the river, starting with the old City Centre, where the ancient Bath Abbey, Roman Bath House and Guildhall Market anchor a bustling tourist and shopping Mecca.
Winding streets fan out from the center and meander up lanes with names like Northumberland Place and Old Bond Street. Quintessentially English shops like Cath Kidston and The White Co. cater to all tastes, while homegrown cafes, restaurants and pubs make you forget, if only for a few days, that you live in a big-box world.
Climbing up High Street then Milson and George Street to Gay Street, you reach Bath’s architectural apex, The Circus, and beyond that, The Royal Crescent. While virtually every street in Bath is a picture postcard of uniform, grey stone townhomes, these two 18th century developments are breathtaking. The city’s architects, John Wood the Elder and John Wood the Younger, patterned these massive arcs after the Coliseum in Rome. The Circus, built first, has 33 townhomes divided among three arcs. The residences, with their columns and friezes, were home to such notables as Dr. Stanley Livingstone, William Pitt and Thomas Gainsborough. Typical of Victorian living, their four-story configuration offered formal rooms for receiving guests on the main floor, family living space on the next floor, staff quarters on the top floor, and a big working kitchen below in the proverbial upstairs-downstairs social order.
Nowhere is the ‘upstairs’ part of this dichotomy more evident than at The Royal Crescent Hotel, my elegant home while in Bath. Set in the center of a semi-circle of townhomes high above Bath, the hotel is quintessentially English. The doorman is in top hat and tails, the chambermaids wear ruffled white pinafores. The parlor has a life-sized painting of King George III, whose son Frederick Augustus lived here in 1797.
For visitors, Bath is a city of endless charms that can provide days of marvel. The history buff (and everyone else, really) won’t want to miss Sally Lunn’s House, the oldest building in Bath. Its foundation dates back to the 12th century, the present building is from 1482, and it has a 17th century façade. It is a bakery/restaurant that serves famous ‘buns'—5-inch wide open-face rolls that look like oversized hamburger buns, but taste like brioche—made from a recipe brought here by a Frenchwoman in 1680. Served with raspberry jam and clotted cream, the famous treats cost 4 pounds, or a whopping $6 each.
Then there is the magnificent Bath Abbey, the last great abbey church in England, completed with the support of Queen Elizabeth I. Also known as the Abbey of Saint Peter, the Anglican parish church and former Benedictine monastery was founded in the 7th century, and is an example of perpendicular Gothic architecture. The first king of a unified England, Edgar, was crowned here in the 10th century! A breathtaking vision of spires, flying buttresses, intricate carvings and stained glass windows, it is renowned for its elegant ‘fan-vaulted’ ceiling inside.
For L5 ($8) you can climb the 212 stairs up a claustrophobic spiral staircase to the bell tower. Halfway up, a guide leads you out onto the turret’s landing, where you have 360-degree views of the city and English countryside beyond. It affords a perfect (and free) vantage point for viewing the Roman Baths, the colorful street buskers, the Guildhall Markets, all the winding little lanes that comprise the city centre, and the distant Sham Castle, a regal façade built when 18th century city planners determined that the only thing this idyllic town lacked was a castle!
Buried in the famous abbey’s nave is the man reputed to have turned Bath into the pinnacle of Victorian society, Beau Nash. Nowhere is that social history as evident as in the Roman Bathhouse and its nearby Pump Room, an elegant hall with massive cathedral windows, breathtaking chandeliers and a performance stage. Now a bustling tearoom, it was the site of our a lunch of grilled salmon, steamed French beans and fried potato cake—and, of course, the ever-present pot of tea.
The serving of English tea deserves its own mention, as it involves a unique ritual, whether you’re sipping it at a corner cafe or well, the Pump Room. For one thing, there is always an impressive selection—Assam, Earl Grey, English Breakfast, Lapsong Souchong—that evokes images of Britain’s colonial past. Two teapots are brought to the table: one that contains the steeping loose leaves, another with additional hot water for when the first pot empties. And, of course, there’s the omnipresent mini-pitcher of milk and tub of sugar cubes, white and brown, and the strainer to keep the leaves from entering your teacup, along with the caddy in which it sits between pours. Whew!
The Roman Bath House is the city’s top attraction after the Abbey. While it is indeed exhilarating to see the large rectangular soaking pool, fed by an ancient bubbling source inside the earth, this is a very crowded attraction that weaves through holographic and other exhibits before visitors get to lay eyes on it. At L11 ($18), your money is much better spent taking a tour to the Abbey’s bell tower, where you can look down onto the columned pool for free. And, if you’re lucky, those eight massive bells (which ring on the quarter-hour) might give you a dazzling, if startling, concert firsthand!
After a long day of touring, it is easy to succumb to the charms of The Bath House, the spa at The Royal Crescent Hotel. Its signature treatment—a salt scrub followed by a full-body massage—offers two hours of bliss while shedding dead skin (and tension) via a blend of sea salt, peppermint oil and gifted fingers.
Since that leaves one way too relaxed to venture out, dinner at the hotel’s Dower House might be in order, overlooking The Royal Crescent’s gardens. A meal of grouse, smoked salmon, Devon lobster and Jersey Royals—followed by a wedge of Stilton for dessert—makes for a fitting end to an English holiday. This is, after all, how England should look, and taste.