Once the royals’ playground and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it’s time to rediscover the watery charms of Bath
As the sun set over the gothic spires of Bath Abbey, flooding them in golden light, I bobbed about in the rooftop pool and watched the cool air form a mist on the surface. The weather hardly matters when you’re enveloped in the mild waters of Britain’s only thermal spa – except when you climb out, and your wet body collides with the chilly air. But even on a bitterly cold evening, this is the best introduction you could have to the city of Bath.
These waters, which come from natural hot springs, are the lifeblood pumping through the city’s historical veins – so it seems strange that there was a period of 28 years during which there was no place to enjoy them. Until the Thermae Bath Spa – a big glass cube sitting next to the Georgian stone buildings of the Cross and Hot Baths – opened in 2006, this unique natural resource remained untapped. But now residents and visitors can once again do as the Romans did and luxuriate in the warm, mineral-rich waters. At £22 for two hours, it is pricey – but worth it just for the sheer novelty of bathing al fresco in Blighty without catching hypothermia. (Look for the special ‘spa’ pig outside – there are varieties dotted around the city, all different colours and some with wings.)
Sufficiently relaxed after a couple of hours at the spa, including sessions in the steam rooms and the indoor Minerva Baths, I headed back to my Saco apartment on St James’ Parade – a grand Georgian terrace with very modern spaces behind its façade. Hotels are great for a dose of lazy luxury, but for the freedom to come and go, and lie in for as long as you please, a serviced apartment can be bliss. One big bonus is being able to cook for yourself and consume supermarket booze – saving you pounds.
If you do fancy a meal out, though, a cheap and cockle-warming option is Sally Lunn’s – home of the Sally Lunn bun, which tastes a bit like brioche. Most of the main meals are served on half a bun, and consist of beautifully-cooked lamb, beef or pork, gravy and veg. Nothing fancy, but that – and the elbow-to-elbow dining room – adds to its charm. And most mains are under a tenner.
All of Bath’s main attractions, including the spa and Bath Abbey, are a gladiator sandal’s throw away from the apartments. One of the most fascinating places to visit is, again, all about the water: the Roman Baths. After having a dip in the modern-day spa, a look around this ancient building gives you a sense of the historical importance of these waters. It also shows how integral the natural hot springs have always been to the people of Bath, and those who travelled hundreds of miles to reap their legendary healing benefits. After touring through the maze of interlinking plunge pools and communal bath houses, the end point is the magnificent Great Bath. Lounging against a pillar, it’s only the lack of togas and the fact you can’t actually go into the water that stop you feeling like a real Roman. On the way out, be sure to taste a small glass of the magic waters in the Pump Room. It isn’t exactly pleasant, but in these days of ‘superfood’ madness, you might just be tempted to drink it anyway.
But back into the real world, and another cultural treasure Bath has taken to its hearts: Jane Austen. Each year in September, people of all ages and from all around the world – especially the United States – gather in their Darcy/Lizzy finery and ‘parade’ delicately around the city, starting outside the Roman Baths and ending at Queen Square. Even the dogs wear fine waistcoats and neck scarves. It is a lovely sight, especially around the Royal Crescent – the first crescent in the UK, which reeks of Georgian finery and decadence and overlooks the Royal Victoria Park. But it is a little strange, all this fuss for a woman who did not particularly like the city – in fact following her visits she couldn’t wait to return to the countryside. Yet, aside from this annual festival, there is a Jane Austen centre and souvenir shops selling ‘I Heart Mr Darcy’ shopping bags.
But then Bath, a UNESCO World Heritage Site itself, never misses an opportunity to collect little pieces of history and claims to fame. In the centre is the crest of Queen Victoria – who refused to ever return to the city after, as a child, a local journalist insulted her dress. There is also a towering monument to her outside the Royal Victoria Park. And one thing Bath does brilliantly is to show off. It has several crescents, most of which are literally all façade – top architects oversaw the curving, grand fronts and then left builders to cobble the backs together.
One place you can see the evidence of this is from the water, on a boat tour along the River Avon. Try Bath City Boat Trips for a less formal tour, fascinating nuggets of information and the chance to feed the swans. From here you can see Bath Spa Station, designed by Brunel with a castle-like façade. In the hills, which surround the city like a basin, is the ‘Sham Castle’. All turrets and towers, from the front it looks like the real thing – but really it is just a wall. The river tour ends with a view of the Pulteney Bridge, one of the most photographed bridges in the country. It is also one of very few in the world to be lined with shops on both sides. As the boat pulls away, a wave of cool river water splashes our faces – reminding us, once again, what the real star of this city is.
Where to stay
At the Saco bath apartments, on St James' Parade, prices start from £61 per night for a standard studio apartment.