Following in the Footsteps of Jane (Austen, that is)
“Bath is the finest place on earth, for you may enjoy its society and its walks without effort or fatigue,” wrote 18th century Scottish essayist James Boswell of this English town that dates to Roman times. I daresay should Boswell visit Bath today he would find those walks somewhat more tiring as he dodged the throngs of tourists and vehicles alike, but once he took those in stride, he would likely discover that Bath is still indeed a fine spot for a visit—as I recently found out for myself.
Bath is just a 90-minute train ride from London (whether you\’re coming or going, try to avoid rush hour). After leaving the train station, I took a quick taxi ride to my home for the night, Dukes Hotel. (Bath is so compact I could have walked, but if you have luggage, spring for the taxi. Besides, I always find that taxi drivers—especially in the United Kingdom—are a wealth of information and helpful tips that you may not necessarily get elsewhere)
Dukes, a Georgian townhouse located on one of Bath\’s grandest boulevards, Great Pultney Street, is only a few minutes\’ walk from the city center. The rooms are comfortable and the on-premises restaurant good, but what makes Dukes even more special is its affable manager, Mike Jackson, who makes you feel as if you\’re his new best friend, always on hand to answer questions, offer suggestions, call a taxi, or simply have a chat.
Since I was on a tight schedule this trip, I immediately headed out to try to get as much “Bath-time” in as I could. When I\’m in an unfamiliar city, I first like to get the lay of the land (given that I have absolutely no sense of direction in the best of circumstances, this is pretty much a necessity for me) and one of the best ways I\’ve found to do that is by taking one of the hop-on, hop-off guided coach tours that most cities offer. I did a once-around-Bath loop that took me past the Roman Baths, the Bath Abbey, over Pultney Bridge, by Royal Victoria Park, the Royal Crescent, and through the main shopping district.
Back to the beginning, I did indeed hop off the bus and walked over to one of Bath\’s most famous attractions, the Roman Baths. The bubbling waters of these hot springs first rose to the surface thousands of years ago, a phenomenon that caused the Celts to adopt the spring as the home of their goddess Sulis. The invading Romans did their best to destroy the site, but in 65 AD (give or take a year but who\’s quibbling at this stage in time), the two communities made peace when the Romans built a beautiful spa, complete with bathing and leisure facilities, as well as a temple dedicated both to their own goddess of healing, Minerva, and to the Celtic goddess, Sulis. The settlement that grew up around the spa was known as Aquae Sulis.
Through the centuries, the baths were used to heal the sick, as well as for social outings. In 1880, the full complex was rediscovered and excavated, and today visitors can see the hot springs themselves, as well as the sculptures, mosaics, and other artifacts of life in Aquae Sulis in the underground museum.
Upstairs in the museum is the Pump Room, which has been the center of Bath\’s social life since the early 1700s. You can have a meal here, or if you\’re so inclined—although I must say, I wasn\’t—you can ask to try a glass of the warm, sulphurous waters that many people still believe to have healing powers.
After leaving the Baths, I walked over to Bath Abbey, said to be the last great medieval church in England. If you go on a sunny day, as I did, you\’ll be able to enjoy the spectacular stained glass in the interior of the Abbey at its finest. At one end of the Abbey, 56 stained glass scenes depict the life of Jesus Christ; the other end commemorates the crowning of King Edgar.
It\’s been said that Jane Austen, who lived in Bath in the early 1800s, didn\’t have a particular liking for the city, but it did figure prominently in her Bath-based novels Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. If you\’re an Austen-ite, make sure you visit the Jane Austen Centre where guides in period dress will tell you about Austen\’s life when she herself lived there; you can even take a guided walking tour of Austen\’s Bath. (A more contemporary author who uses Bath as her setting is mystery writer Morag Joss, whose books can be found in the US as well, so you can get started on your Bath journey before leaving home)
Like Boswell, I found that one of my greatest pleasures in Bath was simply strolling through the city. I loved walking up Great Pultney Street to the Pultney Bridge, enjoying the city\’s gardens, and taking a turn about (hmm…apparently I\’ve now “channeled” Austen herself) the Royal Crescent, a semi-elliptical terrace of 30 magnificent Georgian houses (No. 1 is owned by the Bath Preservation Trust and has been restored in the Georgian style and opened to visitors).
You might not think that a city so rich in history is also a shopper\’s mecca, but there is no lack of opportunity to spend your money here—and apparently that has always been the case as Isabella Thorpe in Northanger Abbey said: “…I saw the prettiest hat you can imagine in a shop window…I quite longed for it.” You can shop for antiques (Bath is one of the most important antiques centers in Britain), designer duds (the main shopping district of Bath runs from Southgate Street up to Stall Street, Union Street, and Old Bond Street, and then runs into Milsom Street), or Bath-inspired trinkets, such as Bath Aqua Glass, which is created by adding copper oxide to molten glass, to form glassworks that are representative of the color and elements that are found in Bath\’s spa waters.
Finally, enjoy one of the tasty treats that Bath is known for–the Sally Lunn Bun, named for the French Huguenot refugee who brought her recipe for brioche to Bath more than 300 years ago. This golden, light round bread is served with either sweet or savory accompaniments; go right to the source at the Sally Lunn House, thought to be the oldest house in Bath and now a restaurant and museum. But leave room—at least on the same trip—for the Bath Bun—a spiced current treat with sugary topping available in bakeries and tearooms around the city. Just the thing to take with you as you leave town!
If You Go
- Dukes Hotel, Great Pultney Street, www.dukesbath.co.uk/
- Tourist Information Centre, Abbey Church Yard, www.visitbath.co.uk/
- Roman Baths, Abbey Church Yard, www.romanbaths.co.uk
- Jane Austen Centre, 40 Gay Street, www.janeausten.co.uk/
Bath Aqua Glass, 105-107 Walcot Street (next to the Bath Abbey), www.bathaquaglass.com
Sally Lunn House, 4 North Parade Passage, ww.sallylunns.co.uk/