On the train home, after a couple of nights in Bath, Anna Hyman tried to think of anything that Bath lacked. By the time she arrived home she still couldn’t think of anything.
After all Bath has history. It has spas. It has beautiful architecture. It has super places to eat and stay. It has a wide range of shops. It has a beautiful abbey. It has a river. It has interesting museums. It has glorious countryside within a few minutes of the city centre. It even has buns. And it also ticked all the right boxes to qualify as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Bath has a lot to thank the Romans for
It more or less started with an underground lake and its springs. The spring water, heated by the earth’s core, bubbled up to the surface bringing with it trace minerals. Our far-distant superstitious, primitive Celtic ancestors were probably frightened of this strange marshy steamy area but not so the Romans who realised its significance.
For the Romans this warm bubbling water was a gift from their goddess Minerva. They built a walled city, and at its heart baths where they could enjoy the waters from Britain’s only hot spring. But not wanting to alienate their Celtic subjects too much they called the baths Aquae Sulis – The Waters of Sul; Sul being a Celtic goddess. By the end of the first century AD the Romans had not only completed the baths but built a temple too; along with culverts, drains, and underfloor heating.
Following the departure of the Romans maintenance of the baths declined. Gradually they fell into ruins and land reverted to marsh and swamps.
The Saxons built a number of small settlements in the surrounding area. The first recorded mention of Bath appears in 676AD when a grant of land was given for the building of a Benedictine nunnery including a church – the beginnings of Bath Abbey.
Bath obviously ticked the right boxes for the Archbishops of Canterbury and York who travelled there in 959 to crown and anoint Edgar king –the first coronation of a King of England.
Bath becomes fashionable
But the abbey too was to fall into disrepair until 1499 when the building of a new church began - the beautiful Bath Abbey that we see today. And, at about the same time restoration work began on the baths.
Queen Anne of Denmark, wife of James I, suffered from dropsy and in 1610 she travelled to Bath to take the waters in the hope of a cure. News of her visit spread rapidly and people began to follow her example and flock to Bath. So much so that work was begun in earnest to make the rather shabby city more presentable for visitors.
By the end of the 18th century old Bath was unrecognisable, the medieval half-timbered buildings had gone and in their place elegant new houses, theatres and assembly rooms where balls, under the direction of Beau Nash, were held. There was even a regular coach service from London. Bath was fashionably ticking boxes.
A list of famous Bath residents reads like a veritable Who’s Who – Jane Austen, Lord Nelson, William Pit, Clive of India, Thomas Gainsborough – to name but a few.
Having checked into the wonderfully centrally located Abbey Hotel I set off to explore Bath. One of the best ways to get a feel for Bath and its history as well as to get bearings is to take one of the excellent guided walking tours.
And so it was after a fascinating couple of hours tour I found myself standing admiring one of Bath’s many iconic sights, the elegantly beautiful Royal Crescent, designed by John Wood the Younger. (It was his father, John Wood the Elder, who was responsible for that other masterpiece of Bath architecture The Circus.)
No 1 Royal Crescent has been converted into an historic house museum and gives a fascinating insight into a Georgian home. It was originally the home of wealthy Henry Sandford, a gentleman with wide ranging interests. Whilst the furniture and furnishings are not of the house, they are of the period and also reflect Sandford’s hobbies and pursuits.
Jane Austen lived in Bath for some five years and based two of her novels in the city – Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. The Jane Austen Centre offers a fine example of life in Bath in Regency times.
The Abbey and Roman Baths
In the city centre there is lovely Bath Abbey. Before entering stop for a moment and look at the carvings on the west front and spot the angels going up and down their ladders. Inside the light and airy building look up and marvel at the stunning stone, fan vaulted ceiling supported on soft, honey-coloured stone columns. Check out the many memorial plaques on the walls – Beau Nash has one, as does Sir Isaac Pitman – the inventor of Pitman Shorthand.
A few yards from the Abbey are the Roman Baths. Every day some 170,000 litres of spring water fill the baths. On a cold day it is an impressive sight as the steam rises from the 46˚C water. There is an excellent audio guide that tells the story of the baths and of the people who used them. It’s a strange feeling to look out onto the Great Bath and walk on the very stones, now well below street level, as did the Romans some 2000 years ago. Allow a good couple of hours to appreciate them fully, they are truly astonishing.
Taking the water
I found where I could drink the water. It contains 42 minerals and is, in my opinion, quite frankly disgusting. I had to agree with Charles Dickens character Sam Weller who also found the taste particularly unpleasant and reminiscent of ‘a warm flat iron’. I made a hasty exit and headed straight over to the Roman Bath Kitchen for an excellent cup of coffee to take the taste away.
Unfortunately there wasn’t time for me to enjoy the other Bath baths – but it is on schedule for my next visit. The Thermae Bath Spa is Britain’s only natural thermal spa where today’s visitors enjoy bathing in the warm, mineral spring waters of the Minerva Bath and also the open-air rooftop pool with its skyline view of Bath. The water temperature in all four baths is 33.5˚C.
Noble and elegant
There was however time to visit the elegant Assembly Rooms – a series of rooms used in Regency days and where, under the glittering chandeliers, dances, music, games of cards, tea and
conversation took place. Not for nothing were they described as ‘the most noble and elegant of any in the kingdom’. Beneath the Assembly Rooms on the ground floor is the Fashion Museum with displays of clothes from the end of the 16th century to the present day.
We might not have been as splendidly dressed for the occasion as our Georgian forebears but a friend and I followed up the visit to the Assembly Rooms by taking afternoon tea in the neo-classical Pump Room to the gentle accompaniment of live music. The Pump Room is open for morning coffee, lunch and afternoon tea and also for anybody wishing to partake of the spa water.
In Georgian times partly to accommodate the influx of visitors who descended on Bath in their droves a new town, Bathwick, was built on the opposite bank of the river Avon. To link the two in 1774 Robert Adam designed Pulteney Bridge. It is rather a special bridge – one of only four bridges in the world with shops on either side of the road across its full span.
Bath ticked all my boxes too.