The big idea

Not so much big as grand – grand ideals, grand architecture, grand spas, grand heritage.

And here’s why: Bath has the largest World Heritage Site in Britain, covering over two-thirds of the city centre, which contains a staggering 5,000 listed buildings. It’s also renowned (as its name of course suggests) for the abundance of its therapeutic hot springs and deservedly earns its status as the ‘spa of spas’.

On top of that, one could claim Bath as ‘the home of good manners’, given its historical emphasis on ‘the done thing’ in this beautiful little city (but more on that later).

So there you have it: health, beauty and impeccable manners. Quite a heady mix, we’re sure you’ll agree.

Architecture: it’s one big Georgian conservation site

So why is two-thirds of the city a conservation area? Well, you could say it’s the standard of the buildings, and that would be true, but the reason that there are so many is that the city’s forefathers were pioneers in conservation – they realised before anybody else that buildings needed to be protected, and with this thought in mind, they started the listed buildings programme.

And although Bath actually has the largest concentration of Roman villa sites in Britain, the historic core of the city is largely of one period, Georgian. It is home to the famous – and dramatically sweeping – Royal Crescent; Pulteney Bridge, one of only four shop-lined bridges in the world; Britain’s largest remaining Georgian pleasure gardens, Sydney Gardens; and the famous Pump Rooms, as well as other architectural gems such as Queen Square and The Circus.

The healthiest city

The Roman Baths and Pump Room are the finest in Europe, and are what this beautiful city is famous for; a tradition that continues with the thoroughly modern Thermae Bath Spa, which adds a real contemporary twist to the city’s legacy of water therapy. So what makes Bath’s water so special? For starters no other city can claim to produce so much natural hot water. Secondly, the water comes through both brimstone and bitumen. Many have endorsed its therapeutic goodness over the years, including various royals, the ‘father of English botany’ William Turner, numerous physicians and no less than Lord Nelson.

In fact, Bath’s healing history goes back even further with legends such as Bladud and his pigs (yes, seriously. To cut a long story short, in the 800s (that’s BC, not AD), Bladud was a prince who contracted leprosy on his travels in Athens. Aware that he couldn’t take the throne in his diseased state, he took a job as a swineherd and lo and behold his pigs also contracted the disease. He discovered that his pigs were cured after rolling in the muddy waters at Bath and gave it a go himself; he, too, was cured and took his rightful place on the throne. Bladud went on to become the father of a certain King Lear...).

Even further back in the mists of time (and myth and legend,) the Celtic goddess Sulis was worshipped as a nourishing mother at the thermal spring here at Bath, so it’s easy to see why Bath has such a long-standing tradition of health and well-being.

The ‘done thing’

If you study the history of this fine city one phrase keeps coming up again and again; ‘most agreeable and polite’. One of the people who would have undoubtedly contributed to this reputation was one Beau Nash, the ex-Mayor and dandy who placed great emphasis on the social round and the importance of good manners, most notably at the Assembly Rooms, in the 18th century. But he was simply building on a reputation the city enjoyed in mediaeval times for hospitality. Shops began popping up to meet the increased demand for fashion accessories and ‘the correct gear’ for the round (this is probably why there’s such a plethora of fashion shops and specialists in the city today).

The reputation for good manners was enhanced further by the publication of Bath’s John Trusler’s books on etiquette (The Honours of the Table, or Rules For Behaviour During Mealtimes) in the 18th century, and the sterling work of Hannah More and the importance of manners.

But if you want the perfect example of a city that believes there is a correct way of doing things get this; even the buskers have their own guild – most agreeable!

The essence

What else than body, mind and soul?

Who’s it for/how will it make you feel

It’s perfect for romantics and lovers. Anybody looking for a recharge/pamper and general beautification – but it’s not just simple relaxation; it goes deeper than that, this is where you come for some healing. It makes you feel alive, full of wellness, but also a touch more civilised. It also taps into the need for good company and being sociable.

History

The legend of the history of Bath started at least before 700 BC with Bladud (you know, the prince with the pigs we met earlier), who was the son of Lud Hudibras, King of the Britons and founder of London. Well, apparently Bladud was so chuffed with his miracle cure, he founded Bath to celebrate. A tall story? Who knows, but what we do know is that although Bath lies at the centre of the largest concentration of Roman villa sites in Britain, evidence suggests that it is Celtic, not Roman, in origin. Remember the temple where the Celtic goddess Sulis was worshipped? Well, it seems that when the Romans did come, Sulis was duly replaced by Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom and healing.

And boy, did the Romans set to work at Bath, building what would have been the premier town in the West country, Sadly though, when the Romans scarpered in AD 410 , they left behind a legacy of Roman baths, but left the town a shadow of its former self. Bath came under Anglo-Saxon rule and became a fortified town known as a ‘burh’. It had its own mint (a sure sign of prosperity) and was where the first king of England, Edgar, was crowned. When the town became part of Wessex, King Alfred the Great re-planned the layout of the town within the walls. Bath Abbey was built in the early 12th century, and the town ticked along nicely for 400 years until the 16th century, when its remarkable growth as a spa destination began. Some two hundred years before a physician recommended taking the waters at Brighton (which boosted their visitor numbers accordingly), Bath received endorsements from royalty (the wife of King James I, Anne of Denmark famously arrived hoping to be cured of dropsy), eminent physicians, and was helped massively by the publication of The Bathes of Bathe book.

Then in the 18th century came the wave of buildings for which Bath is justly famous. Although it’s said that the Georgian square as a concept was taken from London; the opposite is true of the Crescent and the Circus – these impressive styles of building and terracing originated in the city of Bath and from there were transported to the capital and beyond. Bath has thus had a significant impact on the shape of many other towns and cities across the country.

Also, at the time, the reputation of Bath as a centre for the ‘done thing’ was further strengthened by the publication of Trusler’s books on etiquette, Beau Nash’s relentless efforts, the increased affluence and demand for entertainment; and the growth of the social round. Bath’s reputation as the ‘spa of spas’ was cemented in the Victorian era, a reputation that it is working hard to retain today.

How to experience Bath

Bath’s a lovely city to stroll around; nice and compact, shaped by the waters for which it’s so famous. It’s probably best to start at Royal Crescent as there’s no point in gently easing yourself into Georgian architecture. This magnificent crescent, designed by John Wood the Younger, is simply breathtaking both in scale and beauty – the house at Number One is now a museum and has been restored throughout, creating a vibrant picture of life in the 18th century. If you follow the road along you’ll come to the Circus (in the circular sense of the word, not the clown sense...) – another creation of the Woods family, and just past here (although we’d recommend a gentle pause here to take in this magnificent example of Georgian planning and architecture) is the Fashion Museum and Assembly Rooms, where the social round was such a big part of life in Georgian times. Also nearby, off Julian Road, is the Museum of Bath at Work, which takes you through 2,000 years of life in the city.

Time to pop down the aptly named Gay Street (in the bright and jolly sense) and drop in at the Jane Austen Centre for a taste of Regency costumes and period atmosphere (many of her novels were set in Bath). Carry on down here and you’ll come across the delightful Queen Square, an early development by (guess who?)... John Wood, the elder: the obelisk in the middle of the park was erected by Beau Nash in 1738: the Square hosts a number of events each year such as French and Italian weekends and a boules weekend. After this, cut through Wood Street (seems only fair doesn’t it?) and you’re on Milson Street, an attractive sloping shopping street in the city centre.

If you head up Milson Street, you’ve got George Street at the top with boutique and independent shops, Jolly’s department store, first opened in 1831; check out the arched doorway with the carved peacocks which were the store’s emblem, and over the road the Milson Quarter, which offers fashionable shopping in a maze of streets and cobbled passages.

Head down though and sweep around and you’ll come to Pulteney Bridge, which crosses the River Avon. (Lesson time: did you know that ‘Avon’ comes from the Welsh ‘afon’, which means, well, ‘river’. So you’re actually crossing the ‘River River’. Doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, does it?)

Cross over the bridge and you’re next to Bath RUFC’s famous Recreation ground, ‘the rec’. Stroll along the riverside walk, and cross the River Avon at the next bridge and you’re into the heart of the city.

Right in front of you is a tea stop at Sally Lunn’s House, the home of the famous Sally Lunn bun, and Bath’s oldest house. From here it’s a short stroll round the corner to Bath Abbey – with 640 monuments it’s got more than any other abbey outside Westminster Abbey. See if you can find the grave of Bath’s master of manners himself, Beau Nash.

Stroll through the Abbey Churchyard – there’ll likely be crowds for the various entertainers in this popular spot – and on your left you’ll find the heart of this wonderful city. The Pump Rooms, a striking neo-classical salon and part of the social whirl for two centuries, and next door the Roman Baths themselves: check out the Great Bath and look out for the Gorgon’s Head carving and the gilt bronze head of Sulis/Minerva. Beautiful.

If you head south down Stall Street you’ll find Southgate, a new shopping area with 56 shops and restaurants, including in the middle Little Southgate, with 13 unique fashion and lifestyle boutiques (this used to be a rather un-inspiring area with 1970s buildings – it’s been imaginatively put together as a replacement).

Finally pop back up and veer off to the left along, ahem, Beau Street and experience the beautiful new Thermae Bath Spa. What a way to end the day, luxuriating in the rooftop overlooking the skyline of Bath as the sun goes down.
Good for your mind, body and soul. That’s the beauty of Bath.

When to visit

City pics

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