Bath on a budget

by jamestennet

Ancient Roman Baths, medieval churches, stately Georgian architecture - this UNESCO World Heritage Site is alive with history and extravagance. Here's how to enjoy it on the cheap

Travelling in England is almost always an expensive affair, and Bath is no exception to that rule – the city’s close proximity to London is reflected in the high number of tourists, and the inflated prices they have to deal with. However, it is possible to enjoy all Bath has to offer without breaking the bank – all it takes is a little restraint and some forward planning.

Where to stay

First, where to stay. As you’d expect from such a popular tourist destination, there is an abundance of hotels, hostels and guest houses in Bath, but the vast majority would put a substantial dent in the finances of any budget-conscious traveller.

However, if you’re able to avoid visiting at the weekend, and don’t mind staying a little out of town, then you can find some real bargains.

Garston Cottage, situated in the charming, chocolate-box village of Bathford, is a small B&B with doubles from £55 a night (including a cooked breakfast big enough to sate even the heartiest of appetites).

Bus number 13 makes the 20 minute journey from Bathford into Bath city centre four times an hour, and if you’re planning on making this journey more than twice a day then the £4 day pass is a shrewd investment. For those frugal travellers with more time and energy, the three-mile journey can also be covered on foot – providing the opportunity to admire some of the gorgeous, undulating countryside that surrounds the city.

Exploring the city

Bath is fairly compact in size, and walking is by far the most rewarding way to explore the city. As you’d expect from a UNESCO World Heritage Site, almost every other structure is a listed building, and it can be a little overwhelming at first, trying to decide which are the must see attractions in this sea of historical treasures.

However, help is at hand – the Mayor of Bath’s free walking tour provides an excellent introduction to the city and takes in all of the main sights. The tour sets off at 10.30am and 2pm everyday (except Saturday, when only the morning session occurs) and can last up to 2 and a half hours. The starting point for these comprehensive explorations is the Abbey Churchyard. Tourists tend to gravitate here to stand in the shadow of Bath Abbey and gawp at the ornate West façade – where intricate carvings depict Angels traversing ladders (commemorating a dream of the Abbey’s founder, Bishop Oliver King).

Once the herd of eager explorers have been split into more easily-manageable groups the tour begins with a little history lesson from one of the always-enthusiastic volunteer guides (on our trip we had an elderly lady who seemed old enough to have witnessed the Roman invasion firsthand, but she was fantastically entertaining and so endearingly passionate about her city).

Along with the Abbey itself, the other main focus in the Churchyard is the Roman Baths. However, due to the complimentary nature of the Mayor’s walk, the steep entrance fee means that the baths don’t actually feature in the tour. Still, a good three hours are required to get the most out of this deceptively large complex, so it’s best to put aside half a day and explore the baths independently anyway. A single adult ticket costs £11.50 (£12.25 in July/August), but the money conscious can still save funds in the long run by purchasing a combination ticket for £15 that also covers the nearby Fashion Museum (well worth a visit, and £7 to enter on its own). The entrance fee for the Roman Baths also covers an audio guide – featuring contributions from popular travel writer, Bill Bryson. It may sound a bit cheesy, but this is no cheap gimmick – the audio tour and walk-through museum combine to create a hugely engaging and entertaining experience. Following the meandering route through the exhibitions and lovingly-preserved bathing facilities, visitors are visibly enthralled by their surroundings, and leave with a much improved knowledge of local Roman history and a fitting appreciation for the importance of this town.

The free walking tour may be forced to bypass this undeniably major attraction, but most of the other ‘must-see’ sites are still covered. Participants are led on an extensive trek around Bath – from the Abbey Churchyard in the south, past the Theatre Royal and one-time residences of local legends Beau Nash and Jane Austen, through the gorgeous Assembly Rooms and opulent Guildhall, before finishing in the far-northern reaches of the town centre, and gazing in wonder at two of Bath’s most astonishing architectural achievements – the Royal Crescent and The Circus. Both are brilliant feats of Georgian engineering, and seeing them first-hand really brings home the beauty of the city as a whole.

Depending on time restraints, the tour may finish here – leaving you free to wander aimlessly for a while around the lush, green expanse of Royal Victoria Park – or continue back into town, and onto Pulteney Bridge (one of only four bridges in the world with shops across the full span on both sides). Another agreeable aspect of the Mayor’s tour is that it is made expressly clear at the start that punters are free to leave whenever they want (as long as they inform the guide before doing so), and that monetary contributions are neither expected nor accepted.

Victoria Art Gallery

If you have another day in town, the Victoria Art Gallery is worth a visit, and entry is absolutely free. Inside, you’ll find Bath’s largest arts collection, with artefacts dating back to the 15th Century, and a wide selection of fabulous paintings from Thomas Gainsborough (and other artists of the same high calibre). Also, if you didn’t have time to properly explore Bath Abbey before the walking tour, head back there now. This awesome structure was the last medieval church built in England (completed in 1616) and you can scrutinise the wonderful interior for a ‘suggested donation’ of £2.50.

Other money-saving tips

As you might expect for such an established short-break destination, hungry tourists are spoilt for choice when it comes to quality restaurants and pricey eateries. However, it’s much more of a challenge to find somewhere easier on the wallet. A clever solution is to visit one of the many supermarkets or tempting deli shops (such as Chandos Deli on George Street) scattered throughout the city centre and, once you’ve stocked up on tasty grub, take a picnic for lunch in Royal Victoria Park. If you’re also staying at a budget B&B, then this covers two (or possibly even all three) meals for the day at a fraction of the price you’d pay in any restaurant.

For those who are planning to stay in Bath longer than just a day or two, the Bath Visitor Card is a worthwhile purchase. Available for just £3 from the central tourist info centre (or - this special piece of plastic grants the holder substantial discounts at a wide range of restaurants, bars, shops and attractions.

Follow the few simple steps outlined in this guide and you can enjoy a fulfilling trip to Bath, minus the money worries.