Bath beckons

The only British city to be named a World Heritage site is a feast for the eye.

By
December 24, 2011 22:12
The Royal Crescent  in Bath, England.

Bath England Royal Crescent 311. (photo credit: Wikicommons)

 
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BATH, England – You don’t have to be a Jane Austen fan to be charmed by Bath. But seeing the place where the fashionable and the elite of 18th-century England spent their summers makes a visitor imagine that he or she has wandered into one of Austen’s novels, or at least onto a film set.

On a two-day trip to the city last month, I would not have been surprised had I come upon young Catherine Morland surveying with shining eyes the latest confections in a milliner’s window; or seen Fitzwilliam Darcy striding out of a coffee house, that famous scowl on his face.

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The renowned novelist lived in the city for a number of years, and it boasts a welldesigned Jane Austen Center, with a genial Mr. Bennet in costume ushering visitors in.

But first things first... our introductory glimpse of Bath was something of a blur – because we, er, shot straight past it. Embarrassing? Undeniably.

Here’s how it happened: Having boarded the train at London’s Paddington Station on a sunny winter’s day, we arrived in Bath, as scheduled, an hour-and-a-half later. But when we wanted to get off, we found the carriage door firmly shut, the other passengers having already disembarked.

And for the life of us, as the train stood in the station, ready to leave, we couldn’t see any handle or other way to open that door. Nor was there anyone to help us.

Espying a railway guard on the platform, I managed to push down the window.



“We’re trying to get off!” I called in desperation.

“Sorry,” he replied. “Too late. You’ll have to go on to Bristol, and take the train back to Bath from there.” Our hearts sank as the train pulled out.

Suddenly and ironically, the help we could have used just seconds previously materialized in the shape of not one but two uniformed railway officials coming down the corridor toward us. Perhaps the platform guard had alerted them. Feeling like idiots, we explained our predicament.

“Right,” said the first man cheerfully, “you’ve over-carried” – railway-ese for gone past our destination. He scribbled as much on our tickets, while explaining that in the older trains you have to lean out the window and then open the carriage door from the outside.

“But not to worry, I’ll get off with you at Bristol and put you on the train back. It’s only 15 minutes from Bath. Now,” taking out his mobile phone, “is there anyone you need to contact?” I asked if he would call Peter Moore, the proprietor of Marlborough House waiting to check us into his B&B, and tell him we would be in Bath later than arranged. This was done without fuss (“They’ve over-carried,” I heard the railwayman say) and our new friend was as good as his word, shepherding us off the train at Bristol, up and down through a maze of elevators and platforms and safely onto the train back to Bath. All’s well that ends well.

Marlborough House is 20 minutes walk from the city center, and we chose it because it is vegetarian/vegan and looked like it had charm. For those who keep kosher, it is a revelation to actually be able to eat in a British B&B, and we reveled in a “full English,” complete with poached eggs, fried potatoes and vegetarian/tofu sausages, preceded by excellent muesli, yogurts and a generous fruit bowl.

Moore, a Bath native, welcomed us enthusiastically with a rundown of what we could do in the city, and was at pains to see we were well looked after. (I didn’t tell him I wrote for a newspaper.) Our room on the third floor – alas, no elevator – though small, was clean, comfortable and well-appointed.

We’d go back.

For us, Bath’s two outstanding features were the beauty of its streets and alleyways, and its walkability. All its attractions are located within about half a mile, and any reasonably fit person can get to almost any site on foot, though the Bath Bus Co. (www.bathbuscompany.com) operates open-top bus tours. We found the residents helpful when we asked for directions, and many were happy to stop and talk.

“Bath is like London used to be,” one young man, a custodian at the Guildhall – an impressive edifice housing the municipality – told us. A former Londoner, he said he was planning his future in this gentler and safer city. “Here, people still queue up at bus-stops,” he said. And, sure enough, we saw an orderly line of shoppers waiting patiently across the street.

Bath was declared a World Heritage site in 1987 – the only British city to achieve this status – at least partly as a result of the sublime architecture designed by John Wood, the Elder (1704–1754), and his son John Wood the Younger (1728–1782). The latter is best known for the city’s stunning Royal Crescent: 30 townhouses laid out in the shape of a crescent. Built between 1767 and 1774, it is among England’s greatest examples of Georgian architecture. A view of its clean lines and sheer elegance – adjectives applicable to most of Bath’s buildings – was breathtaking.

The Crescent’s houses have been rented out over the years and changes made to their interiors, but No. 1 Royal Crescent, the first house built there, has been restored and is now a museum depicting fashionable life during a period when meals would go on for four hours and highly polished dining tables were left uncovered to reflect the light of dozens of candles.

I found the recreated Georgian kitchen, below stairs, the most fascinating among the rooms and stood for a while contemplating a wheel on which a specially bred dog would run in order to turn meat so it would cook evenly. (This may be the origin of the word “underdog.” The accompanying literature included contemporary claims that the dog actually enjoyed this role.) Planned renovations include turning the original below-stairs area back into a fully operational kitchen – minus underdog, one trusts – which will add to its already considerable appeal. (www.bathpreservation-trust.org.uk).

We walked on into the heart of the city for a look at Bath’s oldest house, built around 1482. Arriving in England over 300 years ago as a refugee from France, Sally Lunn baked a rich round bread now known as the Sally Lunn bun and still famously served at this location, called Sally Lunn’s. We didn’t go inside, but a museum in the cellars displays the building’s original Roman and medieval foundations. (www.sallylunns.co.uk).

Our second and final day dawned bright and clear, and we needed to decide what to see among the city’s many offerings. We were tempted by Bath’s natural thermal spa (www.thermaebathspa.com) in whose mineral-rich waters the Celts bathed over 2,000 ago, and which today offers health and beauty treatments – but we had heard so many glowing reports of the ancient Roman Baths, excavated in the late 18th century and restored between 1981 and 1983, that we decided we couldn’t leave without visiting them. Nothing had prepared us for the treat in store.

The Great Bath is a magnificent, huge hot pool 1.6 meters deep lined with lead sheeting and surrounded by pillars that once supported an enclosing roof. As you view it from above, steam billows up into the air. Descending, you are taken on a fascinating underground journey through excavated passages leading to other baths and pools, the original tile towers allowing the circulation of hot air.

One and a half million liters of water still pour daily into the 12th-century King’s Bath. Along the way are museum displays and entertaining film projections of daily Roman life.

We left shaking our heads in wonder both at the ingenuity and extent of the Romans’ planning, and at the imaginative restoration. Aim to spend at least two hours at the baths; we stayed for much longer. (www.romanbaths.co.uk).

By the time we had crossed to the adjacent Pump Room, the social heart of Bath for two centuries, it was 5 p.m. and the striking neo-classical salon had just closed for tea. But we did sip some of the famous restorative water, which tasted a bit iffy.

In true English fashion, the city of Bath largely closes down in the evening, leaving us aware that there was still so much more to see: museums of art and of fashion, the Assembly Rooms, the original Theater Royal and Masonic Museum, the Postal Museum, Beckford’s Tower and Museum, the Herschel Museum of Astronomy and the Museum of Bath at Work. And we’d have loved to do the Bizarre Bath Comedy Walk.

But by simply strolling through Bath’s streets for hours, we felt we had feasted our eyes upon a beauty and harmony that seemed to encompass the entire city.

“Better,” my husband commented, “to leave a place wishing one could stay another day than to feel one has remained too long.”

My sense is that we will visit Bath again.

See www.bathandbeyond.org.

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