Bath the beautiful: An insider takes me around

Bath, a World Heritage Site, was “the place to be” in the 1700s when those in high society came here to take the waters, socialize, drink and gamble, often rather raucously.

SPA THERMAE fits in with the Georgian buildings surrounding it. (photo credit: Courtesy)
SPA THERMAE fits in with the Georgian buildings surrounding it.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
How great. A place where you can take the waters and get a history lesson at the same time. No, I don’t mean the Dead Sea; I mean Bath, England. It may be the most beautiful city in England. With its honey-colored stone Palladian-style buildings, curving streets and sweeping vistas, it is a harmonious city, visually a joy.
Bath, a World Heritage Site, was “the place to be” in the 1700s when those in high society came here to take the waters, socialize, drink and gamble, often rather raucously. The Victorians revived it as a spa resort. And now Bath, with its natural thermal pools, has yet another renaissance.
My friend Jon grew up in Bath. When he lived there, he took swimming lessons in one of those warm spring pools known as the Cross Bath. Today it is a pool for bathing, part of Spa Thermae, the latest version of spa bathing in the city. Spa Thermae is a thoroughly modern building that manages to fit in with the Georgian buildings that surround it. It offers hundreds of people a day a chance to dunk in the warm cozy water. They also take the waters in an outdoor pool on the roof with great views of Bath and the countryside.
My insider tip is that there is an alternative to Spa Thermae, and less crowded. The Gainsborough Bath Spa is an elegant hotel with the only natural hot springs in all of Great Britain. It is essentially next door to Spa Thermae. Gainsborough’s thermal pools, steam room and more come with your hotel room.
Bath, just an hour-and-half from London, has been a spa since Roman times. Probably the Roman Baths, with its remains of a great Roman temple and bathhouse, is the best place to start to learn about the city. It is where both the Romans and the Victorians bathed. Go on over to see the waters and duck inside to walk through excellent exhibitions about its early days. Artifacts enhance and tell the story. Part of the complex is the quintessentially British Pump Room which offers an old-fashioned tea, plus lunch and dinner. Don’t miss the classical musicians playing sedately or a chance to taste the spa water, should you dare. (I doubt anyone goes for seconds.)
Around the corner from both spas is the centuries-old medieval church, the Bath Abbey. Here I was awed by the remains of so many faithful, from so many centuries. Just reading the inscriptions provided a simple history lesson. Those marble vaults climb the walls and cover the floor, filling much of the glorious abbey.
And for those who love the author Jane Austen, the Assembly Rooms are just a few blocks away. Austen wrote about this impressive Georgian building where social events took place in the late 1700s and well into the 1800s. Today its outstanding fashion museum boasts authentic period clothing. I saw everything from the layers of petticoats and corsets that women endured to the massive curly wigs men sported.
JON CONFIDED that the original building was bombed during WW II; the Assembly Rooms were miraculously rebuilt from the original plans. Note the elaborate chandeliers on levers which ease down for dusting, just as they did then!
In the 1700s, the social season was spent in Bath. Many in British society were especially bawdy back then. Just think: Servants carried drunken party goers in sedan chairs back to their rooms and deposited them directly into their beds! This is just one of the many details I learned at #1 Royal Crescent, a delightful small museum in a magnificent location.
It is part of the full city block of the Royal Crescent, set off by a sloping lawn. Another fine example of graceful Georgian architecture that takes your breath away is the Circus across from a park. Shops selling silver, artwork and more curve along the street. My insider tip: Near both architectural joys, the Circus and the Royal Crescent, discover The Circus restaurant with its inventive offerings. How about duck with green apples and a dessert of sherbet drenched in berries and rose-scented geranium syrup?
Jon explained that Pulteney Bridge, much like a later version of Florence’s Ponte Vecchio, was intended to make the transition from one part of the city to the next seamless. Then no one would feel they were on “the wrong side of town,” and real estate would sell. The bridge crosses the River Avon. We went around to the backs of the buildings amidst seabirds and a few other visitors. Most tourists don’t see them, yet they provide another view of this intriguing city.
Note to Austenites and all others: A centuries-old pharmacy next to the bridge displays a letter from the author in her own hand. Note, too, that Bath’s Jane Austen Centre includes samples of her writings, contemporary costumes, and furniture. Die-hards know the author wrote about and lived in the city during its early 1800s social heyday.
Jon and his wife Marie-Do also took me to see the quaint cobblestones on some of the smaller, more intimate streets of the city. Bath is exceptionally walkable. But we had to take the car to the American Museum where Jon spent time in his childhood. This museum is in the hills outside the city, a pastoral setting. It is lodged in an 1800s manor house. Devoted to decorative arts, everything is American – from the Shaker furniture to Native American art. I introduced Jon and Marie to the replica of George Washington’s Mount Vernon garden overlooking the verdant countryside. They hadn’t known it was there a few steps below the main garden.
Borrowing a salutation from 1700s’ English literature: Dear reader, for both relaxation and an historic visit, one must visit Bath. Final tip: Perhaps come on a weekday, but do come.