Elizabeth O’Neill is delighted by the majestic city of Bath, the setting of Jane Austen’s novels and a world heritage site.
Bath first entered my consciousness through Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. Her heroine Catherine Morland exclaims “Oh! Who can ever be tired of Bath?” The Pump Rooms, “taking the waters”, the fashions, the balls, the grand Georgian buildings.
This view was cemented by repeat viewings of BBC adaptations. In the flesh, or more accurately the muted-yellow Bath stone, it’s so much more majestic.
A city break in Bath offers a serene and self-contained alternative to other UK hotspots. The city is situated in a basin, surrounded by rolling green hills on all sides, with neat rows of buildings and spires marching up the hillsides.
It’s compact and easy to navigate on foot. Arriving late on a Friday, my first port of call is the Velo Lounge for a drink with an Irish friend who’s made Bath her home.
Over a glass of Pinot Grigio she tells me about a new build causing local headlines and headaches. The developer has been charged with knocking it down due to planning law breaches. Locals are worried about developments in this Unesco World Heritage site. On my visit, I counted two cranes and a scattering of newer buildings. It would put Dublin to shame.
Saturday morning, and we arrive at the Jane Austen centre early — there’s a lot to fit in. Situated on Gay street, the house is all high ceilings and rich terracotta walls. We’re given a quick lecture on Jane’s time in Bath, not always happy as her family’s fortunes declined, but certainly a rich source of material.
Northanger Abbey and Persuasion are set here. The walls are adorned with quotes and timelines, with weird moustache trimmers, and bonnet irons from Regency England behind glass. Towards the end of the tour you can try on said bonnets or dip a quill in crimson ink. I’d like to say I’ve never felt closer to Jane, but it’s a bit of a pantomime and highlights how difficult her life must have been.
I learn that her first novels were published anonymously, to hide her gender from readers.
Moving uphill from Gay Street, the buildings become incrementally more spectacular until we reach the Royal Crescent, a semi-circle of pure elegance.
There are 30 buildings designed by John Wood the Elder dating back to the 1760s. I was told John Cleese and Johnny Depp took apartments here. So would I, if I had Hollywood money.
The Royal Crescent Hotel is discreetly set in the middle and you can enjoy a “cream tea” for £32 a head. It’s a place where the Regency kingmakers could look down on the Roman Gods of old.
Back down the hill, past the shopping district and realm of mere mortals, it’s time to check out the Roman Baths. It’s only now the real significant of “taking the waters” dawns on me.
Not only medicinal, the waters were also considered holy. Bath was previously Aquae Sulis, a Roman settlement, and before that Sulis, a Celtic shrine. Minerva was worshipped here, a Roman Goddess of opposites — wisdom and commerce, magic and medicine.
The spring has been bubbling for thousands of years at 46 C and it flows through the Earth’s natural geothermal ingenuity at a rate of 1,170,000 litres per day. It tastes metallic, like blood.
The museum exemplifies so much about the influence of the Romans in Britain. It’s also consoling to realise Britain was once colonised.
Alongside the Bath house are plunge pools, changing rooms, and a temple. A 3D model shows the habitat that sprung up around it. There are many excavated votive gifts.
A simple cup tells us the story of a Roman soldier who came to Aquae Sulis to recover from battle and offer his precious military issue cup to Minerva (also Goddess of war).
Like the later scallop shell for Camino pilgrims, this cup had many uses and would have gone everywhere with the soldier. Such possessions were invaluable, worthy of a gift to a goddess. Mind blowing when you think of how little value we place in anything now.
Today if you want to fraternise in the waters like the Romans you can take yourself around the corner to the newer version in the Thermae Spa. The infamous Pump Room, the scene of many an Austenian misunderstanding and romantic entanglement is next door to the Roman Baths.
In Jane Austen’s time the Pump Room was the place to promenade your style, find a husband and “take the waters” for gouty conditions.
Today it’s a place for tourists and afternoon teas. In the evening we head to the Gin and Canary Bar to sample the cocktails. It’s truly a gin palace, with samples of the liquor from all over the world, including exotic Dingle.
I try something that sounds light and refreshing with elderberry and rhubarb bitters. I’m sorry to report that it tastes far worse than the luke warm Bath water.
The following day, before catching a return afternoon flight, there is time to take in the Bath Skyline Trail. It’s 10 kilometres of way-marked trail through fields and paths and forests with views of Bath on all sides.
The trail ends at a look out post at Sham Castle where carved on a bench are Catherine Morland’s words; “I really believe I shall always be talking of Bath, when I am at home again”.
As we head for a traditional roast beef lunch at the Victory Park and Kitchen pub, I truly believe I shall visit Bath again.
How to get there
Ryanair flies to Bristol — Bath is 40 mins away and there is a airport shuttle service
Where to Stay
Accommodation is expensive, so check out B&Bs, Air BnB and hostels
Royal Cresent Hotel
Brindley’s Boutique B&B
University of Bath Hostel
What to do
Roman Baths Bath Thermae Spa Afternoon Tea at the Pump Rooms Bath sky trail starting at Claverton Downs Shops including NYC favourite Anthropologie Jane Austen Centre at Gay Street Royal Crescent
Where to eat/drink
Canary Gin Bar The Velo Lounge Victoria Pub and Kitchen Jamie’s Kitchen
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