Bath in a Day
Known for its natural hot springs, beautiful Bath stone and gorgeous Georgian architecture, Bath is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a must visit while in England. Surrounded by seven hills, like Rome, Bath has a long and very interesting history. The Romans who after discovering the hot springs built a large complex around them and called it Aquae Sulis. They became the original tourists to Bath, flocking here to relax and be rejuvenated by the springs. But the Bath we know and to which millions travel to each year is a stark contrast from Roman days. During the 10th century it rose from a sleepy town in south-western England to the Georgian gem it is today. Many of Bath’s landmarks were created during the Georgian period and much of which were created by the outstanding architect – and artist – John Wood the Elder, who fashioned many of the streets, squares and buildings we admire.
I chose to base myself in Bristol, just two hours west of London, so I could not only explore the eccentric, maritime city but because it was a prime location to make day trips to both Glastonbury and Bath. Bath is a quick 15 minute train ride from Bristol’s Temple Meads station. I left my hotel just after seven one morning to head down to the train station to grab a ticket and await my train to Bath. Along with a flood of tourists and those traveling for work that morning I boarded the train, grabbed a seat by the window and watched as the foggy countryside breeze by. A calming respite from the buzz of Bristol.
Arriving at Bath Spa railway station just after eight I slowly made my way down the cobblestone streets. I nearly had the small town to myself, even if only briefly before the flocks of summer tourists descended upon its historic streets. Under threatening grey skies I passed the beautifully kept Parade Gardens on my way towards the main square, the Abbey courtyard. There before me stood the striking facade of Bath Abbey towering towards rain clouds. I was amazed and perplexed by its strange characters and scenes – it wouldn’t be until later I’d learn of its interesting story.
I was waiting for the free walking tour which didn’t start for nearly an hour and a half so I decided to wander into the grand Bath Abbey. Founded in the 7th century, it wasn’t until the late 15th century that the present church was built. Walking in my eye was immediately drawn upwards to the astounding fan vaulted ceiling. It seemed everywhere I looked I was confronted with stunning detail after detail, from the intricate wood carvings on the benches to the impressive stain-glass windows. There are a staggering 52 windows, of which take up 80% of the wall space, creating a flood of light that I hadn’t noticed in other churches in England.
A light mist started as I emerged from the warm Abbey so I went in search of a hot coffee and bite to eat and ducked into Pret-A-Manger, a common British coffee shop chain. As the time neared for the walking tour to begin I headed back to the Abbey courtyard. The courtyard is also home to Bath’s famous Roman Baths which is where the meeting spot is so I stood below my umbrella with an ever increasing crowd awaiting our tour. As I stood in the dampness of a typical English morning I was warmed by a man playing his violin outside the Abbey. It was whimsical and he made it look effortless, as though his violin was merely an extension of his arm and through it poured this sweet, romantic melody, perhaps a soundtrack to an Austin novel.
Bath’s free walking tour is put on by enthusiastic and honorary guides and they do not accept tips (unlike most free walking tours), they do it out of their love for Bath, its history and the reward is sharing their passion and stories with visitors. The tour lasts approximately two hours and runs every day except Christmas Day. For more information and times visit Visit Bath.
Our guide was fabulous! She took us by all the main attractions of Bath starting in the Abbey courtyard. She explained the story of the west facade of the Abbey. Legend goes, it was created from a dream the Bishop of Bath at the time, Oliver King, had about angels descending down ladders from heaven to help rebuild the church, which is represented with images of angels climbing ladders on either side. He also cleverly made sure to have his name put on the building with images of an olive tree with a crown above it.
We headed off through the streets of Bath, past beautiful buildings of Georgian architecture. I felt like we learned so much about Bath, its people and its history but also about its architecture and stone work. With the famous Bath stone used throughout the town she pointed out the three types of Bath stonework, from the expensive to the cheaper as well as pointing out the newer restored buildings with brighter stone in contrast to the old, soot and pollution stained stone. We also learned about the three types of Greek columns that were used in the construction of the Circus. The Circus, Latin for circle, is a circular stretch of grand houses with a grass courtyard in its centre and a grand old tree standing centre stage. Afterward we ambled up to the Royal Crescent, a curved stretch of expensive flats that look so cohesive as though they were built continuously at the same time. But it turns out each individual flat was built at different times.
We were also able to go into Bath’s Assembly Rooms, a building where the elite dined, partied and gambled. It was full of beautiful rooms and grandiose chandeliers that remarkably are original, from the late 18th century. Our guide even told us that the one in the card room is insured for a whopping 3 million dollars. From the back alleyways of Bath to its iconic sites, our tour was a great introduction to Bath and I highly recommend it!
After ending back at the Roman Baths I decided to go in and check them out. I was not prepared for what was behind those doors. Within the Roman Baths complex are not only various old Roman Baths but an extensive multi-leveled museum covering the history of the baths, the awesome finds that have been discovered in the area and reconstructions of some of the old Roman temples that once graced the grounds. Deep below you can even see the old Roman ruins below your feet. I was blown away by it all!
The storm clouds had disappeared by the time I exited the Roman Baths so I set out to explore more of Bath’s sights. I strolled through the Bath Guildhall Market which is from the late 18th century though there has been trade taking place on this site for 800 years. I was charmed by the sweet shop stalls, 50’s style café and the wide array of stalls within covering everything from books to household goods. Right across the street was the Pulteney Bridge, erected between 1769 and 1774, is lined with enchanting shops; a café, a flower shop and even a shop dedicated to antique maps.
With time to spare I opted to try out one of Bath’s many charming cafes and found The Jazz Café. It had a young, yet quaint atmosphere and with the sun shining I resolved to sit out front and watched all the activity going on in the square. Tourists fluttered by mixed with locals grabbing fresh produce at the small market set up in the middle of the square.
I had no preconceived notions of Bath before visiting. Though many have called it one of the most beautiful places in Europe – I’d have to disagree. But don’t get me wrong, Bath was full of allure in a way I’d never experienced. It has strong and deep roots in history, was home to some very artistic citizens from architects to writers, and it has a strange grit to its beauty.
I highly recommend a trip to Bath, if but for nothing else than its Roman Baths and amazing free walking tour. But don’t be discouraged if all you have is a day, it is very achievable to do and see a great deal!