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The Georgian city of Bath is located in northern Somerset (formerly Avon) in the west country of the United Kingdom. It is about five miles across and has a population of about 80,000 people as well as ducks, pigeons, cats, grey squirrels and (bizarrely, being miles from the sea) a lot of seagulls. The city was built around three natural hot mineral springs1 (unique in Britain), upon which the Romans' imaginative name for the city was based. Bath's status as a World Heritage Site was bestowed in recognition of its magnificent Georgian architecture. Today, Bath is a pretty and genteel but busy and congested place, and will be familiar to most in the UK (whether they realise it or not) as the setting of every costume drama ever made by the BBC.
The Hot Springs of Bath - natural temperature 120 degrees F - the most highly radioactive waters in Britain, are unequalled in the cure of many diseases.
Extract from a journal advertisement, 1920s.
The spring water rises from a depth of about 2,000 metres, through a crack in geothermically-heated carboniferous limestone to emerge at a constant temperature of 46.5 oC at a daily rate of around 1.17 million litres. The waters are thought to originate as rainwater which fell on the Mendip Hills to the south between 20-80,000 years ago. On its long journey, the water picks up all sorts of things from the ground. For many years, this has been considered to be 'a good thing', and since Roman times the water has been used for its life-giving and healing properties. In the 18th Century, the waters were considered cures for rheumatism, lead-poisoning2, skin diseases and accidents. Even today, claims are being made that the water can cure or ease stress-related, muscular-skeletal, post-stroke, post-operative and cardio-vascular/respiratory problems and sports injuries.
'The water contains an aetherial essence which is lost when transported elsewhere; it cannot be contained in bottles as it will pass through the corks.'
Dr William Oliver, 17th Century.
Yet the 1.2 million litres of thermal spring water which rise daily in the centre of Bath enriched with sulphate, chloride, calcium, sodium hydrogen carbonate and silicate have remained unused for therapeutic purposes since 1978; their potential for treating rheumatic and muscular disorders, skin ailments and respiratory problems unexploited.
Extract from the Bath Spa Project website, 21st Century.
The reality of course is somewhat different; like all natural spring waters its content is unchecked and unregulated. It has been found to contain levels of fluoride and sulphates well beyond the safety limits set for tapwater, plus traces of several poisons. In fact, up until World War II it was advertised on the basis of the radioactivity3 it contained, a fact that is no longer mentioned. Of course, untreated and unchlorinated ground water also picks up high levels of bacterial contamination. In 1979 a girl swimming in the restored Roman bath swallowed some of the source water, and died five days later from amoebic meningitis. Tests showed that the Naegleria fowlerii bug was in the water and the pool was closed, and remains closed today. Of course the claimed healing properties are likely to be a result of relaxation rather than the chemical composition of the water, and a new centre is due to open soon to again allow the public to experience this.
There is evidence that the area was inhabited up to 10,000 years ago, but the legend states that the city was founded by Bladud, the eldest son of the Celtic King Lud. Allegedly, a hot spring cured Bladud of his leprosy, so once he became king he built a temple by the spring, so founding the city. The Celts believed that deities and ancestors could be contacted through gateways to the underworld such as the hot spring, and worshipped the goddess Sul as the guardian to this gateway. When the Romans arrived, leaving their imaginations back in Rome, they combined the name with a goddess of their own to create a new hybrid which they called Sulis Minerva, and built a temple to her at the site of the druids' gateway around the 1st Century AD. At the site of the temple, they made great use of the natural hot springs and built a luxurious therapeutic spa centre, which became a major attraction over the coming years. Pilgrims came from all over the Roman Empire for the water's healing power and to communicate with the underworld. They named the city that grew up around the baths Aquae Sulis.
The bath complex was, and indeed still is, a remarkable feat of engineering as well as a spectacular example of Roman art and architecture. Once completed in the 4th Century, it housed five healing hot baths, swimming pools and cold rooms, sweat rooms heated by an ingenious early plumbing system, and the Great Bath (now rebuilt as the King's Bath) at the centre, where the surrounding statues of the gods would float eerily in the clouds of steam. The complex is of course now a tourist attraction, where many of the original features can still be seen. The temple was eventually flooded by the rising water levels of the river Avon, and became a dumping ground and then a Saxon graveyard after the Romans withdrew.
In the Middle Ages, as legend goes, the Celts in the west were saved by King Arthur who defeated the Saxons at the Siege of Badon Hill (exact location probably nowhere near Bath). Bath finally fell to the Saxons at the Battle of Dyrham Park (definitely just to the north), who founded an important monastery there in the 7th Century. In the 11th Century, the Norman physician John De Villula allegedly bought the ruined city of Bath from William II, was subsequently instituted as the Bishop of Bath, and started to build a new cathedral on the site of the now-ruined Saxon abbey, as well as rebuilding much of the Roman bath complex. The cathedral, completed in around 1156, was to be one of the largest in Europe, but was soon outdone when the bishops moved back to Wells and built a magnificent cathedral there. The bishop of Bath and Wells resides in Wells to this day. Bath's cathedral decayed, but was rebuilt in its present form (occupying only the nave of the original) by Bishop Oliver King in the 16th Century.
Come the 14th Century, the west country was leading the way in England's fast-developing textiles industry, largely due the fast-flowing streams and rivers enabling the extensive use of water power. Bath was at the centre of this new industry, and began to produce cloths of a quality to rival those of Flanders, the most famous producer at the time. The local industry was immortalised in Chaucer's The Wife of Bath.
In the 18th Century, Bath grew from a small market town of 2,000 people into a fashionable metropolis of nearly 30,000. The upturn was largely due to the efforts of the adventurer, socialite, dandy and gambler Richard 'Beau' Nash. In his desire to climb the social ladder, he brought the mountain to Mohammed and transformed Bath into a fashionable resort to rival London, and in the process became Bath's most famous Master of Ceremonies. At the same time, a young postboy named Ralph Allen made his fortune cutting limestone from local quarries4 and using it for all the fashionable new buildings. To facilitate transport of all this stone, Allen also planted the seeds of the Kennet and Avon canal, which formed the main commercial transport route to London until Brunel's Great Western Railway was built.
The buildings themselves were designed by the architect John Wood and his son of the same name. The pair were responsible for Queen's Square, the Parades, the Circus and the magnificent Royal Crescent, which collectively represent the opulent Georgian image of Bath that persists today. Another member of the elite group of friends that included Nash, Allen and Wood was William Oliver, a Cornish physician. Together they founded the Bath General Hospital (now Royal National Hospital for Rheumatic Diseases), and Oliver himself was instrumental in promoting Bath as a health resort. He is also credited with the recipe for the famous Bath Oliver biscuit.
In 1706, the pump room adjacent to the Bath complex was opened to give the public the opportunity to taste the spring water. The head of the Roman goddess Minerva was discovered in 1727, but it was not until 1790 that the remains of the Roman temple were uncovered when rebuilding work on the Pump Room commenced. The same year saw the completion of Great Pulteney Street, named after richest man in England at the time, Sir William Pulteney. This was Bath's heyday, during which many of the great luminaries including William Pitt, Jane Austen, Thomas Gainsborough, Charles Dickens and William Herschel5 lived and worked.
During World War II, Bath was not considered a strategic target. The fact that it hosted the admiralty's entire warship design operation was lost on the Nazis. It did receive the odd bomb, but only as a result of the Luftwaffe's spectacular inaccuracy (they were aiming for Bristol). That all changed in April 1942 when Bath itself was targeted in retaliation for the bombing of Lübeck. Many buildings were destroyed or damaged over two nights of bombing, and over 400 people were killed. Many buildings were quietly restored or rebuilt and little evidence of the war exists today.
Bath lies in a natural bowl in the Avon Valley, which provides the mechanism for the collection of spring water in the centre, and endows most of the elevated suburbs with spectacular views over the city. Less favourable is the traffic pollution, which tends to linger in the bowl and often causes pollution levels in excess of those found next to London's infamous M25. Like many cities, Bath is split into two parts by a river, one part good, the other not-so-good. The posh areas are generally, though not exclusively, to the north of or adjacent to the river Avon. If you plan to live there, pick your area very carefully. Students should go for Oldfield Park, which is largely rented accommodation and is staggering distance from town. If money is not a problem, go for the town centre, Lansdown, Bathampton, Widcombe, Newbridge or Claverton. The multicultural, cosmopolitan end of town is to the east, along Walcot St and the London Road. The largest residential area is Twerton to the west, a slum by Bath standards but actually pretty nice by anyone else's. If access to Bristol and the motorway is a consideration (as getting across the city can take a while) go for Weston which is also, unsurprisingly, to the west.
Things to see and do
Bath is not a large place, and most of the main attractions can easily be visited on foot in a day. If you are feeling particularly lazy, you can see them all from the top of one of the thousands of open-topped tour buses you will find holding up traffic, chewing up the cobbles and destroying the facades of buildings with their corrosive fumes. In rough order of importance, you should visit the following:
The Roman Baths and Pump Room.
The baths speak for themselves; visitors can see the full splendour of the (rebuilt) Roman baths and the sacred spring. One of the must-dos when in Bath however is to have afternoon tea and scones in the adjacent Georgian pump room, rebuilt in in its present form in 1795, where you will be serenaded by a live classical trio or solo pianist. Save up for that one. If you want to try the naturally-heated spring waters yourself, the Bath Spa Project, a brand new complex, is due to open up in 20046 where you can bathe and swim, and generally become healthier in a non-specific kind of way. Clearly society hasn't progressed much in 2,000 years, although nowadays you don't usually have to share the pool with lepers. So far, the site's promoters have resisted making claims for contact with the underworld.
Pulteney Bridge and Weir
For no particular reason other than being rather pretty, this bridge with its curio shops and weir underneath is one of the most popular picture-postcard images of Bath. The best way to appreciate this view is to sit in the beer garden of the Boater pub. Don't on any account be tempted to jump into the weir while drunk – the water is shallow and full of the bodies of the many unfortunate students who made this mistake.
The Royal Crescent, the Circus and Victoria Park
John Wood's greatest achievements, the Circus and Crescent should be seen just for the architecture. The best way to visit is on foot, but remember that people actually live there so please refrain from gawping through the windows. Then head down from the Royal Crescent into Victoria Park and have a picnic, frolic with your other half on the grass, wander round the Botanic Gardens, feed the ducks or visit the excellent children's play area.
The Tudor Abbey, standing on the site of the original vast Norman cathedral, still houses many Saxon and Norman artefacts in its vaults. The Abbey is a fully-functioning parish church, and is open to the public for visits, services and concerts. The Abbey churchyard is a great place to hang out and eat ice-cream in the summer, and is the main haunt for street artists and performers. It is also right next to the main taxi rank in the city and is therefore a place to avoid on a Saturday night.
No trip to Bath would be complete without a visit to Sally Lunn's in North Parade Passage, just round the corner from the abbey. This is claimed to be the oldest house in Bath (c1482), and is the home of the famous bun baked by French refugee Sally Lunn in the 17th Century and still made to the same recipe.
Bath Race Course is located on Lansdown Road, to the North of the city towards the M4.
Bath has a rather good rugby team, who can be seen at the Bath Recreation Ground ('the Rec') which is controversially located bang in the centre of town. The Rec also plays host to numerous other events including the obligatory November fireworks display.
Bath University is located on Claverton Down to the southeast, about one mile from the centre, although it's up a very steep hill. It is regarded as quite a good university with good facilities, if slightly unattractive. Alternatively, there is Bath Spa University College, originally a teacher-training college but now covering most arty subjects, located in Newton Park to the west and in the town centre.
Museums and Galleries
There are many museums and galleries covering most things, and most tourist attractions (such as the Roman Baths) have their own museums. These are well-documented in the cheesy flyers you will find in your hotel or tourist information centres. However a few to note:
The Victoria Art Gallery is located by Pulteney Bridge. The Bath Costume Museum was opened in 1963 and now contains over 30,000 items of fashion from the late 16th century to the present day and is located at the Assembly Rooms, Bennett Street. The Holburne Museum, in Great Pulteney Street, houses a collection of 17th and 18th Century silver, porcelain, glass and fine art. No. 1 Royal Crescent, once the Duke of York's house, has been restored to its original glory and is now open to the public. The rather out-of-place American Museum can be found in Claverton near the university, and exhibits American decorative arts showing American life from the 17th to 19th Centuries.
The centre is full of the usual chainstores you will find anywhere in the UK. There are a number of more upmarket stores and boutiques if you have the money, mainly in and around Milsom Street. Where Bath excels though is the vast number of antique and curio shops you will find represented in nearly every back road. Not all of these sell just tourist tat either, many specialise in period or reclaimed furniture, and the expensive antiques beloved of the American tourist. There are a couple of markets in the Guildhall and Greenpark Station. Most things can be found in the centre, but if you want something basic like a toaster, look elsewhere.
Fringe Festival/Music Festival
The Bath International Music Festival and Festival Fringe, taking place every May/June, is similar in most respects to the Edinburgh Festival, albeit scaled down by a factor of a million. The music is mainly classical, jazz and world music. The music festival begins with a Friday night free open-air-concert-beer-and-fireworks extravaganza in Victoria Park. The fringe ends with a Sunday afternoon street party in Walcot Street (Walcot Nation Day). Both events are worth seeing, as many of the festival performers are here, and the public is allowed to get extremely drunk and make a lot of noise. Most people miss out the middle bit.
Boating and Walking
Boats can be hired on the river Avon, or you could go on a river cruise to see the sights - or the riverbanks, at any rate. The river joins up with the Kennet and Avon Canal near the city centre, and there are lovely walks to be had down the canal, where you will find some nice pubs. In the opposite direction you could head west along the riverbank on foot or by bicycle towards Bristol, stopping at more nice pubs on the way.
There are also themed walks available, from the usual superficial touristy sightseeing tours, to ghost walks, comedy walks and a Jane Austen Walking Tour.
The best place to appreciate the splendour of the architecture is in the sky. If you're lucky and the wind is in the right direction you will fly over it landing at Bristol Airport - the combination of Bath stone and its crescents and circles make it instantly recognisable from the air. However, you get a rather less hurried view from a balloon. During the summer, the skyline is littered with these brightly-coloured aerial advertisements.
Travel and Accommodation
Catch a train. Bath Spa station is on Brunel's London to Wales railway and is thus very well-served by trains from London Paddington. Unusually for the UK, these trains are sometimes fast, reliable and comfortable. They depart generally every half-hour during the day and take around 90 minutes. The downside is that Bath is consequently well within London's commuter belt, which never fails to push up prices.
Bristol Airport is only about 15 miles away. It is expensive by taxi, but there's an excellent fast coach straight to the airport which goes from Temple Meads station every 20 minutes or so. There are also direct and regular buses to Bath city centre from London's Heathrow and Gatwick and other major UK airports.
Like most 10,000-year-old cities, cars were not high on the designers' priority list when Bath was at the planning stage and the centre is a hopelessly confusing mass of one way streets and bus-gates. Parking is scarce and expensive, traffic busy and there is a sporadic draconian tow-away scheme. Having said that, the city is small enough that it can be traversed by car without wasting a whole day, and is served by three good park-and-ride sites. Most of the big hotels have good car parks, but beware the small bed and breakfasts near the centre, as you'll fritter all your holiday money away on parking charges. Also beware the bus gates – in the centre, there are actually traffic lights that only ever change to green when a bus or taxi approaches. Sitting at a red light for two hours in a crowded shopping street is without doubt the most embarrassing thing that can happen to a tourist. Bath is easily found by taking junction 18 south from the M4 and heading down the A36 and turning right onto the A4 and the permanent traffic jam that is the London Road.
Once in Bath, walking is the best way to get around. All the major sites are within 20 minutes' walk of the centre, and you can reach any part of the city on foot in less than two hours. If you must catch one, the buses and taxis offer a pretty good service but you will pay the same price as you would to get round a much larger city.
There are two campsites, both on the east side and not particularly close to the centre. Both are nice however, and therefore not cheap. There are a number of excellent five-star hotels if money is not an issue, and a few marginally less expensive ones if it is. Particularly recommended are the Bath Spa Hotel and the Royal Crescent Hotel, both of which are frequented by the stars. There are a couple of standard chain hotels too, which can never be recommended but are undoubtedly convenient. There are also many reasonable B & Bs in and around the centre, but many are on main roads so choose carefully if you want a quiet night's sleep. The YMCA is one of the more popular places to stay, as it's cheap and situated right in the centre.
Pubs and Restaurants
The pub and club scene is, like everywhere else, dominated by the big chain pubs that took over most of the city centre banks in recent years. However, there remain a large number of traditional pubs in the centre and in particular in the outlying villages. The George Inn, rumoured to be the oldest pub in England, is situated just to the southeast, in Norton St Philip. In the city, it is probably worth doing a bit of research prior to a pub crawl as all the best pubs are hidden away. Many sell real ale and good European Lagers, and Bath has two breweries, Bath Ales and Abbey Ales, the former conveniently located in Bristol. Pub food is generally excellent, but again if you really want something special or have a family, go to one of the village pubs outside the city. There is no shortage of wine bars either, many of which are actually quite good and maintain their sophisticated and intellectual atmospheres by strategic pricing policies aimed at the high end of the market. The clubs are best avoided at weekends as none are particularly fussy about who they let in, and trouble is not uncommon. That said, they often have theme nights during the week (students' night Thursday), and many of the pubs will let you drink until 2am, at a price. There is a fairly good gay scene too, and some of the best pubs are reserved for the gay crowd.
As Bath is a city of rich people, the melee of drunken teenagers and students making lots of noise and dropping kebab meat everywhere on a Saturday night never fails to attract controversy. To their credit, the authorities have attempted to mitigate this by relaxing opening hours (though not by very much) and introducing such things as taxi wardens. You are still unlikely to spot a policeman at night, but the main police station is only a five-minute crawl away from the centre towards the train and bus stations. As for etiquette, this is the south of England and one of the wealthiest areas at that - don't expect to make a load of friends on your first night out. The locals do not expect strangers to talk to them, and will most likely assume you are an axe-murderer and leave. In fact, many of the barstaff seem genuinely taken aback when asked for drink. However, this is just the local culture and once you get to know them, the people are normal and quite friendly.
Bath is blessed with a plethora of fantastic restaurants of most varieties, although the really good ones are predictably very expensive. It is very difficult to go wrong when eating out, but one useful hint would be to avoid the big glitzy eateries in the centre and seek out the little bistros hidden away in the backstreets. There are also innumerable Italian, Indian, Chinese and Thai places, all of which are good (again with the exception of the big trendy city-centre ones). Some of the hotels also serve good fare, and surprisingly often offer good value for money.
Music and Culture
Most Bath culture is a bit highbrow, with classical recitals, museums and art exhibitions the norm. For the average pleb, there is a dearth of music venues, with the semi-famous Moles club being the most notable exception. There are one or two small pubs that occasionally put on live music - head towards the cosmopolitan east end of town - but to see a performer of any stature you have to go to Bristol or beyond.
The main cultural venue is the Theatre Royal, built in 1863 following the previous theatre's destruction by fire. Most major productions find their way to Bath at some point, as well as classical concerts, contemporary drama and comedy. Do not however expect to see your favourite hardcore rock band perform there.