Lottie Gross takes a step back in time and finds the perfect historical retreat in the city of Bath.
The year is 1723. My name is George Wade MP and I’ve just returned from London after a stressful week in the House of Commons. It’s late on a Saturday morning and I’m nursing a cup of English tea – or perhaps it’s nursing me – as I stare through the window at the common folk buying and selling in the square below. Ladies in their finery are spilling out of the Abbey and into the streets for an afternoon of petticoat shopping before tonight’s dance, and the young men are lighting their pipes while a violinist plays unnoticed in the tumult.
“Are you finished with that?” My partner offers to take the empty cup from my hand before we head out – and I’m back to reality. It’s not 1723 but 2014 and I’m in Bath for the Bank Holiday weekend. The “common folk” are actually tourists, wielding cameras and iPads, taking photos of the gay-wedding party posing outside the Abbey, and while I’m not George Wade MP and it’s most definitely the twenty first century, I have to admit, I’m still just as smug as he probably felt while standing at his window looking down on the crowds below.
I’m lucky enough to be staying in one of the Landmark Trust’s historic properties, this one once owned by Marshal George Wade MP. It sits above a London souvenir shop right in the churchyard next to Bath Abbey and opposite the Roman Baths; a prime location for any MP, let alone a tourist like me. It’s almost 300 years old, with warped floorboards that creak at a single breath, and it’s got an air of modest regality about its five simple rooms.
Eventually we decide to brave the Bank Holiday crowds and coach-loads of day-trippers to head for our own afternoon of shopping. At Green Park Station – a former railway station now used for public events – to the west of the city, we find an eclectic vintage market and browse everything from Star Wars action figures to some questionable fashions from the 1980s. I’m not sure when I’d ever need a bunch of rusty old keys, but I’ll keep Bath’s twice-monthly Vintage Market in mind. Fortunately, for the shopping-addict in me, the city’s independent shops provide retail therapy galore.
The innovatively named Antique Map Shop on Pultney Bridge is a haven for carto-geeks, with enough sixteenth century John Speed work to excite even a novice like me, and the expensive boutique next door makes for a fun game of “how overpriced is this pen?” (it was £10, if you’re wondering).
Next we head back to the main square in pursuit of a spot of mead. We find it at Ora et Labora, which sells produce made entirely by monks and nuns from around Europe. The irresistibly kind elderly lady behind the counter also talks me into buying some fat-free-but-sugar-filled medieval pudding and a couple of monastic-made beers. There’s leather from an Italian convent and the mead is from Lindisfarne in the north of England. One door down and we stumble upon Charlotte Brunswick, a locally handmade chocolate shop. It’s impossible to hold out against the alluring smell of dark cocoa and we soon fill a box with multicoloured delights.
It’s hours since breakfast so the only way to end the day is at Sally Lunn’s; an historic eating house and mini museum where the famous “Sally Lunn Bun” was invented by a French woman in the 1600s. It’s so popular there’s a queue out the door but I take it as a good sign; we wait and reap the rewards in less than twenty minutes. I’m served an enormous toasted brioche-like bun, topped with melting cinnamon butter, thick clotted cream and sweet strawberry jam. With buns like this, afternoon tea doesn’t get much better.
By the time we leave the restaurant the sun is shining, the square is heaving and the street entertainers are obviously getting tired as a blonde “musician” attempts to play his flute to the backing track of Hey Brother by Avicii. Fortunately, we can scrabble through the throng of tourists and retreat for a glass of wine in our eighteenth century lodgings. I perch on the ledge of the open living-room window, glass of white in one hand and that smug feeling in the other. There’s something incredibly satisfying about shooing the other tourists off our front step to unlock the hefty wooden door, knowing that no other accommodation in the city affords such fine views, from the Roman Baths to the 400-year-old Abbey.
Soon the churchyard outside is quiet again and it’s about time we sampled another of the West Country’s traditional delights: cider. The Stable on George Street runs twice-weekly cider tasting sessions, which are actually more like life lessons for those only familiar with Strongbow and the like. Who knew that the famous Irish Magners was actually made from concentrate and not real apples? I feel cheated and embarrassed at my naïve ways, but Matt, our cider savant, promises to change that as he presents me with a stick of five third-pints of their finest apple-based tipples.
We get through them at rapid-pace and before I know it I’m drunk and we’re moving onto the hard stuff. Some perries (pear ciders) join the mix and we get a tasting of my favourite, the Pilton keeved cider, before trying an aperitif and a digestive – all made with real apples of coruse. Within an hour the lesson is over and the table is peppered with semi-drunk glasses and half-full bottles, surrounded by four inebriated twenty-somethings. It’s our challenge to finish them all off and we more than happily oblige. Matt hands us each a menu – thank God – and we slur our pizza order. While I might be intoxicated I know this is the best pizza I’ve ever tasted: roast lamb, mint and thyme-roasted sweet potato on top of goats’ milk cheddar and mozzarella is arguably the most British-Italian dish you could eat, and it’s divine.
As the bread soaks up the booze, I buy a few Pilton to take away and realise I’m ready for a cider-induced slumber – of which I’m almost certain Marshal Wade would not approve – so we stumble back to hit the hay. On the walk home the streets are empty and, eventually, yet again I’m enveloped by the 300-year-old walls of this historic house. As I lie in bed I fall asleep to the sound of the hourly bell chimes from the Abbey, just as Marshal Wade would have done once upon a time, save the distant shrieks of high-heeled clubbers looking for a way home in the rain.