2,000 years of history, John Chambers finds there’s more to the historic town of Bath than buns and Jane Austen.
IT is a truth universally acknowledged that a visitor to Bath, in possession of free time, must be in want of some diversion on which to spend money.
OK, not quite Jane Austen, but the novelist’s spirit is everywhere in this city, which has been attracting and entertaining visitors for about 2,000 years.
There are books by Austen, and on Austen, in the bookshops and the museum shops; there is the Jane Austen centre on Gay Street; there is the gravel path which features in Persuasion; there are the novelist’s homes in the city, while the ball in Austen’s most famous work, Pride and Prejudice, was, it’s said, conducted according to rules based on those drawn up by Beau Nash in his Rules to be observed at Bath.
You will learn about Nash, the master of ceremonies in the city and the man responsible for building Bath’s reputation as a place for society to see and be seen, on one of the many tours of the city on offer.
You can choose a bus tour, a ghost tour, a comedy tour and the one we picked, the Mayor’s of Bath’s guides walking tour.
This provides a two-hour long ramble through the millennia, touching on myth and how the Celtic prince Bladud and his pigs had a skin condition cured by the spring waters for which the city later became famous, on history and how the Romans arrived and built a giant bathing and social complex on the site, and on how fashions and fortunes can change: the Romans left, summoned home to defend Rome itself, the baths fell into ruin; Bath’s later popularity as a bathing spot was threatened by a new taste for bathing not in spring water but in the sea; Nash himself, once social master of all he surveyed, died poverty-stricken.
There tour is free of charge – you are not even allowed tip the guides - and leaves twice daily (once on Saturdays) from outside the Pump Rooms. Three are also evening tours in the summer.
Of course you don’t have to take any tour, or even wander very far to experience the 2,000-year-old chain of human experience that makes Bath one of the oldest tourist destinations in the world.
We spent our first full day completely entertained without travelling more than a few hundred yards.
The city’s new state-of-the art Thermae Bath Spa is built round the corner from both the Pump Rooms and the old Roman Baths.
You can opt for various packages and treatments ranging from massage sessions to a twilight experience which includes the chance to see the sun set over the city from the roof-top hot baths and a meal.
We chose the basic entry package (£34-£37 per person) which gives you two hours split between the basement pool, the four steam rooms with steam infused with, for instance, lemongrass or eucalyptus , and those roof-top hot baths.
One tip: arrive early, and on a weekday if you can. Our Friday 10am visit had no queues; it was a different matter when we walked past at around noon the next day.
If you do have to line up, then once inside you might reflect that you are bathing in water which last saw the light of day when it fell as rainwater 10,000 years previously — something to put any modern-day worries in some sort of perspective.
A chance to dry off and a quick change of clothes back at our city-centre bed and breakfast brought the opportunity to indulge in a bit of time travel.
We slipped back 200 or so years and had champagne afternoon tea in the Pump Room.
As we tucked into scones, cream, jam, sandwiches and cakes, washed down by both champagne and tea, all to the strains of a classical music trio, it was easy to see the attractions of Georgian high society.
Tea over, it was time to walk off the calories while looking at how modern buildings can blend with perfectly preserved Georgian architecture before our final bit of time travel — this time back 2,000 years to the Romans and their bathing complex.
You can wander round on Roman pavements, looking at the great baths and the steam rooms while hearing how the baths became covered for more than 1500 years and that the full extent of the site is still being discovered.
Later, in the on-site museum, we learnt how the attractions of Roman Bath – Aquae Sulis – had drawn visitors from France, Germany and even, in one case, Syria.
But modern Bath isn’t all history and decorum — its vibrancy and bustling street life were always on display: there were buskers (some surprisingly good); there was a man entertaining kids with a contraption that blew giant bubbles; there was even a man balancing on top of a ladder, clad in his underpants, who seemed to be juggling with knives.
On top of this there were the tourists, the wanderers, and, on Saturday afternoon, the rugby fans making their way down to the Rec.
If all this got too much then you could always retreat to the shops— the usual department stores plus a huge array of high-end outlets stretching from Southgate up to Milsom Street (think Karen Millen, Kurt Geiger, The White Company) – or to the Victoria Art Gallery.
Admission to the gallery’s permanent exhibits is free, and while not huge, it does contain a couple of Gainsboroughs, a Turner and a Sickert, in a beautiful building.
You could also stop off in one of the many tea rooms where you could try a Bath bun (great if you have a very sweet tooth). But dining in the city isn’t all about buns and sandwiches, it has a huge range of restaurants.
Sotto Sotto had been recommended to us by a colleague, and it is always a good sign when the host at your B&B says “Ah you managed to get in there.”
Just over £80 bought us two starters, two beautifully cooked main courses, dessert and champagne (look, don’t get the wrong impression – it was our anniversary).
We also tried the Loch Fyne fish restaurant at the top of Milsom Street where just over £50 produced excellent fish and chips, a starter and a few glasses of wine. We also visited the Tagine Zhoor Moroccan restaurant for a starter, main courses of kebabs and tagine and some wine — £65.
There were plenty of other dining options available from Indian to Thai to burger bars to the almost ubiquitous pasty shops.
So far, our adventures had been confined mostly to the heart of the medieval city, down by the Roman baths but our walking tour also took us out beyond the line of the old city walls to Queen Square, with its monument to Frederick Prince of Wales who before he died in his 40s had, it’s said, spent and gambled freely in the city, to the Circus and the world-famous Royal Crescent.
All three — the Circus, the Square and the Crescent — were designed by John Wood the elder or his son John Wood the Younger.
Their creations have drawn famous residents ever since: Thomas Gainsborough, William Pitt the elder, John Cleese, Nicolas Cage.
Standing in front of the Crescent, looking down over the city and up to the hills beyond it is easy to see why the entire city is a UNESCO world heritage site, a distinction it shares with Venice.
Or you could pick the other direction and head over Pulteney Bridge — where a scene from Les Miserables was filmed — and take a stroll by the Avon.
But even amongst all this history and grandeur it is the human that remains. This area is also home to the Fashion Museum.
The £8.75 admission charge not only allows you to view outfits from the 1600s to the present day but also to gawp at the beauty of the building that houses them, the Upper Assembly Rooms.
But all that paled into insignificance compared to the delight of the women visitors, ranging from their 30s to their 50s, when they discovered there were Georgian — and Victorian-style outfits they could try on. A giant and enthusiastic game of dress-up ensued.
Somehow, you felt, that most of Jane Austen-inspired, creations, the Bennet sisters would have understood.
Aer Lingus flies to Bristol airport from both Cork and Dublin. www.aerlingus.com
Ryanair flies to Bristol from both Dublin and Knock www.ryanair.ie
From Bristol airport a pre-booked taxi to Bath costs £70 for a return trip. We used Onward Travel Solutions. (0044 117 9807087)
There is also a bus service (£20 return) from the airport to Bath www.airdecker.com
There is everything from backpackers’ hostels to the luxurious Gainsborough Hotel. We picked The Henry B & B in Henry St. It’s central and convenient to both shops and the baths, as well as Bath Abbey (and the Rec).
As it’s a Georgian house there are stairs, and the odd guest has found the rooms a bit on the small side.
We had a premier double at £120-£140 a night, which was big enough for us, and looked out over the small garden with its lovely magnolia tree. The cooked breakfast is excellent.
For information on accommodation, things to do and special events, try www.visitbath.co.uk
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