Even though it’s been over two hundred years since Bath was a hotspot for the rich and famous, Jon and I figured it was still worth a visit this past weekend because (1) it’s only two hours southwest of London by train; (2) the restored Thermae Bath Spa has gotten good press; and (3) I love Jane Austen, who lived there on and off and set two novels in Bath.
Despite the summer crowds, I really enjoyed our time in Bath. It’s a small, walkable city with pretty, buff-colored stone buildings and bridges, scenic country views, and just enough history and culture to fill a weekend. You could easily make it a daytrip from London, but I think Bath is a town where you should while away the time. With two nights there, I was able to “do the sights” as well as take advantage of the local bath spas from which Bath takes it name (and original fame).
My three favorite “things to see and do” in Bath: (1) The Thermae Bath Spa; (2) The Jane Austen Walking Tour; and (3) Sitting in the Parade Gardens.
Bath gets its name from the natural hot springs that have drawn visitors since Roman times. Apparently there are only three places in the UK where hot springs naturally bubble up, and all three are in Bath, so you can imagine the excitement people felt for many years about visiting Bath to “take the waters.”
What’s great about the Thermae Bath, which makes use of hot spring water from all three wellheads (I think), is that its architecture and interior design appear super luxe, but the entrance price tag of £20 (i.e., use of saunas and pools without day spa treatments) encourages mass access. You just have to show up in the morning to get assigned an appointment time, first come, first served, and then later in the day, you show up at that time, pay your £20, and off you go.
Lest you hear the word “spring” and think piddly little puddles of cloudy water, apparently 1.25 million litres of 110 F water pour out every day from these hot springs. This enormous flow and temperature explains how relaxing, large and *clean* the Thermae Spa pools are. The lower-ground floor pool is nice and well-skylighted (see photo at right), but its appeal is probably strongest in the cold, rainy months.
Jon and I quickly made our way to the second floor, where there are four sleek steam sauna chambers, each with a different scent. We were big fans of the eucalyptus-and-mint as well as the mountain pine saunas. Lavender and frankincense were appealing, but no match. In between sessions in the different saunas, we took cooling showers in the giant motion-sensored rainfall shower in the middle of all these sauna chambers.
Oh, but there’s more! The rooftop pool was almost as large as the lower-ground floor pool, except it also had beautiful views of Bath rooftops and the surrounding Somerset countryside. And because the pool waters are pumped up from natural hot springs, I didn’t feel guilty about the enormous cost an outdoor heated pool usually incurs. Feeling guilt-free: priceless.
It’s a tough call deciding whether my favorite floor was the sauna or the hot spring pool on the rooftop, but I will definitely revisit the Thermae Bath. And if I call farther in advance, I’ll book one of the additional spa treaments, priced lower than anything you’d find in London. It’d be great to re-visit the spa in February — the heart of dampest, dark winter here.
Even though Jon has never made it through a single Jane Austen novel, he still enjoyed this 1.5-hour walking tour. It’s more a tour of Bath with a few references to Jane Austen than it is a recounting of obscure scenes from Jane Austen novels. Our tour guide, Dickon, was one of those local white-haired guys who you know *loves* doing these tours and whose relatives are grateful that he has this outlet for his chatty friendliness.
We walked through the Pump Room, so named because water from the hot springs, believed to have medicinal properties, was pumped up into a fountain so visitors in Bath could drink the waters. In Jane Austen’s time, all the fashionable people would stop by the Pump Room to see and be seen. The Pump Room even housed a book (“the arrivals book”) where people signed in when they arrived in town, and this way, everyone could find one another and hang out.
The Pump Room is still a high-ceilinged, chandeliered, gorgeous room, and for 50p, you can buy a glass of spa water from the King’s Fountain (click thumbnail at left). I’d skip eating a meal in the Pump Room restaurant, though, as pretty as the room looks. The food appeared to be mediocre and expensive.
The beauty of listing the walking tour as “one” favorite activity is that it covers all the major sights in Bath. I loved walking along the Avon River (there are several rivers in the UK all named the Avon) and listening to the rush of water going over the man-made waterfalls by the triple-arched Pulteney Bridge (see photo at top of this post). And the last of the nice spots we explored on the walking tour were the Upper Assembly Rooms, where the aristos threw parties and dances for themselves (see photo at right).
Of course, all you Persuasion fans remember that the Upper Assembly Rooms are where Anne Elliot suspects William Elliot is not for her and that Captain Wentworth loves her still. Dreamy.
There are lots of green spots in Bath, particularly near the Royal Crescent, but the Parade Gardens are super-central, well-manicured, and include nice sun chairs. You pay £1 admission to get into the Gardens, which seems kind of lame for a public park, but we spent many a relaxing hour hanging out in the sunshine and listening to the brass bands that perform in the Garden’s gazebo. I highly recommend taking a break or two here if you’re tired of shopping or want to get away from the crowds around Bath Abbey.
And that rounds out my fave 3 in Bath. Checking out the pretty Georgian buildings in the Royal Crescent and the Circus are a must, but Bath is so small, you’re bound to walk by these places at some point, so I wouldn’t count them as “destinations,” really.
Number 1 Royal Crescent is now open as a museum, where for £5 a person, you can see what a “typical” aristocratic home in the Crescent would’ve looked like in the 18th century. From our visit to Number 1, my three takeaways (because good things come in three!) are: (1) high-class women in the 18th c. so seldom washed their elaborate hair styles that they needed little maggot scratchers to pick out worms that grew in their hair over time (note to self: if ever I am reborn in the 18th century, I’ll hope to be a respectable middle class lady and not an aristo slave to fashion!); (2) wrought-iron “cones” near doorways are actually snuffers used to put out torches carried by sedan chair boys at night (click on thumbnail at left); and (3) aristos painted their interior wood walls to look like stone. How odd. What was so bad about wood walls?
Jon and I skipped paying the £11.50 each to see the Roman Baths, mostly because we saw the small King’s Bath for free while walking through the Pump Rooms, and we couldn’t imagine what the fuss would be over the slightly-larger Roman Baths next door.
And no matter how big a Jane Austen fan you are, I’d skip the Jane Austen Centre on Gay Street. The mannequin dressed in Regency clothing guarding the doorway should have been a giveaway that your £5 are better spent elsewhere.
The Centre admission price includes a 15-minute lecture recounting Jane Austen’s biography, followed by a guide’s offer to take you upstairs to “have tea with Mr. Darcy” (how embarrassing for all parties involved), and should you decline said tea, you’re then directed to the basement of the house, where you can read a lot of text mounted on the walls and watch a 15-minute video of an interview with the costume designer for the 2007 ITV version of Persuasion.
Choice quotes by the designer included: “I was fascinated by the relationship between [the actress who played Anne Elliot] and the antique paisley shawls I found.”I didn’t know you could have a relationship with a shawl, but there you go.The one plaque at the Centre that was mildly interesting described (of course) money. Apparently, in the 18th century, you were the creme de la creme (i.e., one of only 300 aristocratic families in the UK) if you earned £4,000 a year. Oh, those were the days!
Next post will talk eats in Bath.