A weekend break is perfect for getting away from it all. But why limit yourself by just visiting a new location? Why not try exploring a different era as well? Jenny Waugh delves into historic Bath in this guest post.
Bath is probably best known for its links to the Romans. It was the Romans who first established the city as a place of rest and relaxation with the building of the Roman Baths, a series of temples and bathhouses making up one of the first spa complexes. But Bath really became the city it is today during the Regency and Georgian eras when it became the place to go for parties, for health and for a good time. Exploring modern cities is great but just for a change I decided to try stepping back in time and taking a city break 1800s-style.
Walking around Bath it’s not hard to imagine that you’ve left modern life behind. Well mostly, I want to experience Bath as it was in the time of Jane Austen but I’m not quite ready to give up conveniences like my mobile just yet. Technological aids aside though, I have a checklist in my head of things I want to see and experience in order to give me a feel for what the city would have been like for a visitor to the city two hundred years ago. First on my list is the Royal Crescent.
Built between 1767 and 1774 by John Woods Senior and Junior, the impressive Palladian façade is built entirely from Bath’s iconic cream-coloured Bath Stone. One of the most striking things about the city is how cohesive and grand all of the buildings are on mass. Planning regulations can be a pain a lot of the time but in a city like Bath they really are a blessing – no big stainless eyesores to ruin the historical atmosphere here.
Having taken the requisite panoramic shot I pay my entrance fee and enter Number One The Royal Crescent. Inside the building has been carefully restored to become a museum that recreates the interior of a typical Georgian town house of the time. The luxurious upper rooms are a stark contrast to the servant’s quarters in the basement, but both are equally fascinating when it comes to providing an introduction on how to holiday in the correct Georgian fashion. Do observe late lunches and long drawn out candle-lit dinners. Don’t hold back on the shows of wealth; if you have access to a pineapple, display it proudly as a centerpiece.
Next on my itinerary just a short walk away is the Jane Austen Centre. Here, as well as learning a little bit more about the author and her time in the city from costumed tour guides, is the opportunity to dress up in Regency clothing. Although I think the top hat is more to my taste than the bonnets…
By now it’s about time for lunch. The Regency tearoom at the centre does look tempting but I’m keen to experience as many different aspects of Bath-life that Jane and other young ladies like her would have done as I can, so I head off in the direction of the Pump Rooms.
I can see why they were so popular. Today they still hold the wow-factor and I have a very enjoyable time gazing around at the general splendor and listening to the resident live trio of musicians over my delicious lunch of pan-fried seabass. In the Georgian era the Pump Rooms weren’t a restaurant but were used for ‘taking the waters’; drinking plenty of the egg-scented water from Bath’s thermal springs in order to improve general health and to treat a whole variety of ailments. I much prefer my glass of apple juice but each to their own.
Just next door are the Roman Baths themselves but it’s the Abbey that I’m interested in. With it’s gothic architecture and impressive fan-vaulted ceiling I can imagine how inspiring it would have been when filled with singing choirs. I book myself on to go up the tower and after a great many steps am rewarded by stunning views across the city and surrounding countryside. Well worth the climb.
There’s just time to take a short horse and carriage tour of the city before I round off the day with dinner at a lovely restaurant called Garfunkel’s, followed by a stroll next to the river and along Pulteney Bridge. This leads me nicely back to my accommodation.
Bath has a wealth of hotels and bed and breakfasts to choose from, but I want to soak up as much of the historical atmosphere from my time in the city as I can so I’ve opted for Dukes Hotel. Independently owned it still retains a wealth of original period features and antique furniture. Also, as it’s not part of a chain, it’s managed to retain its character and feels like the ‘real deal’ rather than a modern imitation. Most importantly though, the four-poster bed is so comfortable that I think I might never leave.
After a delicious breakfast of smoked salmon and scrambled eggs I start the day by visiting the nearby Sydney Gardens. Completed in 1795 they were the first commercial pleasure gardens to be created. Taking long walks and generally ‘being seen’ here would have been the order of the day for any fashionable visitor to Bath. In the adjacent Sydney Hotel (now an excellent museum called the Holburne Museum which is well worth a visit in its own right and is free to enter) galas, dancing, card games and firework displays were a common occurrence. Today the gardens are free to go into and I’m convinced they must still be as beautiful as they were when they first opened; although now they also have the welcome addition of a stretch of the Kennet and Avon Canal running through them.
Leaving the greenery behind for a while I head back into the centre of town. Shopping in the Georgian era in Bath would have involved plenty of milliners shops where new lace and ribbon would have been bought for the updating of bonnets, and also haberdasheries where new dresses in the latest fashions could be ordered. Heaven forbid you were seen out wearing last year’s variant style of empire gown! Bath is still a great place to go shopping with its many independent clothing shops and quirky boutiques, but to continue on my historical theme I head to the Fashion Museum and investigate the displays of fashions through the ages instead.
Just above the Fashion Museum are the Assembly Rooms where, during the season, two balls per week would take place along with nights dedicated to gambling, concerts and cards. The Rooms are owned now by the National Trust and retain just as much glamour as ever with their Whitefriars Crystal chandeliers and their sheer size. The ballroom alone I discover could hold up to 500 people!
Lunch today is at Sally Lunn’s; a quaint restaurant with a small museum attached, Sally Lunn’s can be found near the Abbey down a small side street and housed in one of the oldest buildings in Bath. Although it may be tucked away it is not wanting for custom. After a very brief wait I am led to a table and get to sample the famous bun from which the tearooms take their name. Still made to the same traditional recipe from the 1680s it can be served with sweet or savoury accompaniments and I’m spoilt for choice at the range of options on offer.
In the afternoon, once I’ve had a brief peak into the adjoining museum (free to enter if you’ve eaten in the restaurant), I make my way to hire a rowing boat from Bath Boating Station and take a relaxing trip down the river. While I’m taking in the scenery, and doing a small spot of bird watching into the bargain, I reflect back on my short stay in Bath. I haven’t had a chance to visit the Herschel museum, Prior Park or the Theatre Royal, and the more I explore the more I find that I want to do. My list of places to go, rather than shrink in size after my time, has definitely grown.
The other thing that I’ve discovered is that it’s a shame that I didn’t visit during September because this is when the annual Jane Austen happens. For a week each year the city hosts an array of Austen-themed events including parades, walking tours, a variety of works of theatre and, of course, a traditional ball (happily you can learn the dances through a workshop before the big event, just in case you’re not already an expert in how to perform a reel…). So I think I’ll certainly be making a return trip to the city then, and to the exceedingly comfortable bed at Dukes.
To quote Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey – “Oh who could ever be tired of Bath?”