Just twelve miles from Bristol, Bath has a very different feel from its neighbour – more harmonious, compact, leisurely and complacent. The city’s elegant crescents and Georgian buildings are studded with plaques naming Bath’s eminent inhabitants from its heyday as a spa resort. It was here that Jane Austen set Persuasion and Northanger Abbey, and where Gainsborough established himself as a portraitist and landscape painter.
Bath owes its name and fame to its hot springs – the only ones in the country – which made it a place of reverence for the local Celtic population, though it took Roman technology to turn it into a fully fledged bathing establishment. The baths fell into decline with the departure of the Romans, but the town later regained its importance under the Saxons, its abbey seeing the coronation of the first king of all England, Edgar, in 973. A new bathing complex was built in the sixteenth century, popularized by the visit of Elizabeth I in 1574, and the city reached its fashionable zenith in the eighteenth century, when Beau Nash ruled the town’s social scene. It was at this time that Bath acquired its ranks of Palladian mansions and Regency townhouses, all of them built in the local Bath stone.
Although Bath could easily be seen on a day-trip from Bristol, it really deserves a stay of a couple of days. There’s a rich concentration of museums to take in, but some of the greatest enjoyment comes simply from wandering the streets, with their pale gold architecture and sweeping vistas.
There are hours’ worth of entertainment in Bath’s premier attraction, the Roman Baths, with commentary provided by hourly guided tours and audioguides (both free). Highlights include the Sacred Spring, part of the temple of the local deity Sulis Minerva, where water still bubbles up at a constant 46.5°C; the open-air (but originally covered) Great Bath, its vaporous waters surrounded by nineteenth-century pillars, terraces and statues of famous Romans; the Circular Bath, where bathers cooled off, and the Norman King’s Bath.
Among a quantity of coins, jewellery and sculpture exhibited are the gilt bronze head of Sulis Minerva and a grand, Celtic-inspired gorgon’s head from the temple’s pediment. Models of the complex at its greatest extent give some idea of the awe which it must have inspired, while the graffiti salvaged from the Roman era – mainly curses and boasts – offer a personal slant on this antique leisure centre.
You can get a free glimpse into the baths from the next door Pump Room, the social hub of the Georgian spa community and still redolent of that era, which houses a formal tearoom and restaurant.
At the top of Gay Street, the elder John Wood’s masterpiece, the Circus, consists of three crescents arranged in a tight circle of three-storey houses, with a carved frieze running round the entire circle. Wood died soon after laying the foundation stone for this enterprise, and the job was finished by his son, John Wood the Younger (1727–81), who was as instrumental as his father in defining Bath’s elegant Georgian appearance. The painter Thomas Gainsborough lived at no. 17 from 1760 to 1774.
The Circus is connected by Brock Street to the Royal Crescent, grandest of Bath’s crescents, begun by the younger John Wood in 1767. The stately arc of thirty houses is set off by a spacious sloping lawn from which a magnificent vista extends to green hills and distant ribbons of honey-coloured stone. The interior of No. 1 Royal Crescent, on the corner with Brock Street, has been restored to reflect as nearly as possible its original Georgian appearance.
At the bottom of the Crescent, Royal Avenue leads onto Royal Victoria Park, the city’s largest open space, containing an aviary and botanical gardens.
Richard “Beau” Nash was an ex-army officer, ex-lawyer, dandy and gambler, who became Bath’s Master of Ceremonies in 1704, conducting public balls of an unprecedented splendour. Wielding dictatorial powers over dress and behaviour, Nash orchestrated the social manners of the city and even extended his influence to cover road improvements and the design of buildings.
In an early example of health awareness, he banned smoking in Bath’s public rooms at a time when pipe-smoking was generally enjoyed among men, women and children. Less philanthropically, he also encouraged gambling and even took a percentage of the bank’s takings. According to his rules, balls were always to begin at 6pm and end at 11pm and each one had to open with a minuet “danced by two persons of the highest distinction present”. White aprons were banned, gossipers and scandalmongers were shunned, and, most radical of all, the wearing of swords in public places was forbidden.
There’s a great range of festivals throughout the year, notably the Bath International Music Festival, held between mid-May and June and featuring jazz, classical and world music; the Bath Fringe Festival, with the accent on art and performance; and Bath Literature Festival.