Small as it is, Britain’s second-most popular tourist destination after London packs a serious punch

In this two-part feature we visit the English cities of Bath and Bristol. Neighbours as different as can be, and yet an unbeatable team. Today’s spotlight is on Bath, the first stop of our tour. Stay tuned for the Bristol instalment.

 
Easter is around the corner and you’re still trying to figure out where to go for a quick jaunt. Something within a two hour flight radius, hopefully a bit off the beaten path and not packed to the gills with tourists. Some place where you get your fill of cool, hip and trendy while your Significant Other can indulge in classical culture and history. You both love sports and the outdoors, and you enjoy eating, drinking and merrying around…. Impossible? Absolutely not. Bristol and Bath, just 20 km (13 miles) apart, are two cities as different as they could be but they go hand in glove as we discovered on a recent visit.

As our itinerary would have it, we started in Bath as the first stop of our blitz, and this is why the honour of the first instalment of our two-part feature goes to this fair city. Nevertheless, you’ll fly into Bristol airport, which rightfully deserves its ranking as best airport of its size, being compact and extremely efficient. From here, you have an option of taking a bus into Bristol and then go on to Bath by train, or – smarter, more efficient and cheaper – take the direct airport-Bath bus.

2,000 Years of History in One 360° Turn

Looking at Bath’s tumultuous past, it was far from evident that this elegant town, pop. 85,000, would one day become a UNESCO World Heritage site. Its history features several near wipe-outs since the days of first human cultural activity around 5,000 BCE. And yet, whoever came through it – from the Neolithic settlers to the Romans, the Saxons, the Vikings, and a number of English monarchs – left their signature, still clearly legible today, making a stroll through Bath a veritable journey through time.

The baths at Bath

Bath hot springs plaque

When the Romans settled in Britannia a good 2,000 years ago, the lovely hills and endless vistas of Somerset must have impressed them enough to stay a while. Some four hundred years, in fact. While homesteading the area, they built of course also the baths that were the heart and soul of every Roman settlement, handily using the thermal springs that bubble up from deep below the town centre. These spas would later become the town’s namesake. After Roman authority declined in the fifth century the site, and with it the town, gradually fell into disrepair.

Enter English kings, queens, and bishops. In the early sixth century, King Arthur fights his epic battle of Badon against the invading Saxons. Over time though the Saxons do settle the area and fortify it against the Vikings. In the tenth century French-born Norman John de Villula buys the dilapidated city for a handful of silver, appoints himself Bishop and lays the foundation to a Norman cathedral of truly monumental proportions – with 100 meters long it was to be one of the largest in Europe (today’s abbey, vast as it is, only takes up the space that used to be the original nave.) In 973, King Edgar, the first King of all England, was crowned here. The church service in honour of the occasion would become the blueprint for all future kings’ and queens’ coronations.

Bath Cathedral

The baths, and the wool and clothmaking trades that sprung up on the side, are good business. The town starts to prosper again but the medieval plague and political pandering once again undoes all progress. The present abbey church as we know it is started around 1499, but after King Henry VIII’s gripe with the Pope and the subsequent dissolution of monasteries in 1539, the abbey lays once again in ruins for over 70 years. It would take three more centuries until it finally finds its present glory.

From Rags to Riches

Bath eventually turns the corner for good during the reign of Elizabeth I, when it becomes a popular spa, gaining in prominence and wealth. By the time of Queen Anne at the early 18th century, it has firmly established its status as a posh resort, frequented by English and European nobility and fortune. The city’s architecture changes its face forever when in the second half of the 18th century one of its crowning glories is built, the Royal Crescent, a sweeping row of townhouses 150 m (500 ft.) long and adorned with 114 Palladian columns. Well, to be precise, there are seven such crescents all over the city. The distinctive honey-colored “Bath stone” used as building material for these and many other buildings is locally sourced and becomes the hallmark of this elegant town.

Roman baths, monumental abbey, and Royal Crescent – all Must See’s on any first time visitor’s list. But the town is not stuck in the past, and it has a knack for bridging its historic heritage with modern architecture as the new Thermae spa demonstrates. Another such example is the Holburne museum. Housed in a Georgian building in the picturesque Sydney Pleasure Gardens, it received in 2011 an extension of contemporary combination of glass and ceramic ‘fins’ glazed in blue and green. While you’re there admiring the façade, also step inside. Its fine and decorative arts collection and its ever-changing events, readings and lectures are well worth a visit.

And there is something you may not have known: never mind the town’s elegance, it has a favourite pastime very unlike its genteel image, and that is rugby. Its fierce professional team Bath Rugby plays in the English premiership, and also competes in the European Rugby Champions Cup. The sport occupies a central place in the life of the people of Bath – quite literally…. unlike in most other cities the stadium is smack in the center of town, The Rec is just a five minute walk from the Roman baths.

This is a small and eminently walkable town, so just meander along and you can’t go wrong. There are plenty of unique shops and boutiques to browse – Bath is fiercely independent and promotes small businesses rather than turning its High Street into chain store central. And there is a pretty sight, an interesting monument or a beautiful vista around every corner. You may also stumble upon the oldest house in Bath or the entirely unexpected village scenery immediately behind the bustling train station as you cross Halfpenny Bridge leading into Widcombe.

Good Eats, Good Sleeps

Ah, keyword Widcombe! After so much walking, you’re certainly ready for a good bite to eat, and there is no shortage of places for all tastes and budgets. A quick consultation with your trusted foodie friend or the folks at Visit Bath tourist office will point you in the right direction. We like to stick to places where the locals go, and quite by chance stumbled across two we really enjoyed. If you are interested in perfectly executed traditional English Sunday roast, then your Go-To place is The Ram at Widcombe. At this quintessential English pub, just a stone’s throw from the train station, (Irishman!) Mick Dempsey (pictured below) and his lovely wife Liz welcome you like a long-lost friend. (Mick, by the way, isn’t only a brilliant pub landlord, but also a walking talking rugby encyclopedia and quite the character, in the best possible way.)

Mick Dempsey Bath barman

The Ram at Widcombe

Another great pub we came across, this one with a more contemporary flavour, is the rather new Black Fox  smack in the city centre. As a free house it is not affiliated with a particular brewery but instead has an amazing selection of locally made artisan beers on tap. Along with that, tuck into any of the dishes on the extensive menu, which features English fare with a modern twist.

The Black Fox also has guest rooms but we headed to the Abbey Rise to rest our travel-weary bones. A Bed & Breakfast where you are treated like royalty. Quite literally. Before opening her guest house, owner Katherine Dewhurst was Deputy Chief Housekeeper at Buckingham Palace, and she applies the same high standards here. Located in walking distance to the city centre, with a bus stop right outside the front door, and a rare private car park in the back, this is a terrific address if you want to be close to town and yet get away from the hustle and bustle. Abbey Rise is truly a home away from home, complete with pristine rooms, tasty homemade cookies and brownies, and a breakfast where you are spoilt for choice as you are trying to decide between a full English one, or smoked salmon, or avocado, or omelets any which way…. all served with charm and, if you like, Katherine’s inspiring company. If her three guest rooms are booked, despair not. She and four friends of hers who also run B&Bs have created an informal network, so if Abbey Rise is full, she can send you over to one of the other guest houses which are all in the same area and at a similar rate and standard.

Rivier in Bath

Time to bid Bath goodbye and take the 12 minute train journey over to what is locally known as Brizzle… the neighbouring city so close and yet so completely different.

another grey line

All photos © and courtesy Natja Igney

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