In England’s south-west, the site of the modern city of Bath has been an attraction since the Celtic period due to it’s thermal springs. Ejecting water at a constant rate of just under 1.2 million litres per day, and at a constant temperature of 46.5 degrees Celsius/115.7 Fahrenheit (average temperature between the 3 springs), the combination of 42 minerals has offered healing to those who have bathed in the springs since the time of the legendary King Bladud in 9th century BC. There are various warm water sources around the UK but none so productive and warm as the three springs in Bath which qualify as the only thermal spring in the UK due to their temperature. UNESCO recognized Bath’s international cultural significance in 1987 by inscribing the whole city on the list of World Heritage sites however, this status was threatened by a review in 2009 when extensive building work took place. Bath’s people are particularly proud and protective of the World Heritage status the city uniquely has in the UK (all other city based World Heritage sites in the UK currently are only parts of those cities) so the 2009 threat was rather close for comfort, but for now, the city remains unique in so many ways. For the day tripper from London there is normally only an hour or two for a visit after a morning stop at Windsor, Salisbury, or Stonehenge but for the more discerning, it is an inspiration to all the senses rather than just a beautiful city to look at and shop in! So here are some suggestions that make the city of Bath unique on a sensory level:
The city was practically rebuilt in the Georgian period (1714-1830) and there are very few buildings in the city which either don’t date from this period or which at least reflect the style of this period. Neo-classical architecture (the revival of the ancient Greek and Roman styles) is consistent throughout this city with the highest concentration of Grade 1 listed buildings anywhere in the UK. Wherever you stand within the city you can be sure you’re within view of either pedimented windows, carefully rusticated stonework, columns or pilasters of at least one of the great orders of architecture (Doric, Ionic, Corinthian), or a combination of any of these signature components of neo-classicism. Even in the lesser visited edges of the city where you’ll find narrow streets opening out on to gated green spaces surrounded by Georgian residential developments, detail in the architecture is consistent and stunning and is well worth exploring if you can tear yourself away from the city centre.
The ruins of the Roman Baths complex is one of the best preserved in Europe, and although the thermal spring water fills the Great Bath, the Penicuik fault line from which the water emerges is the home to a meningococcal bacteria which can be deadly if consumed so the water in the Great Bath can no longer be used for bathing or even touching. Thankfully, after 30 years of closure to the public, the spring waters were made available for bathing once again on the opening of the Thermae Bath Spa in 2006 and the smell of the spa water now water drifts through the city centre once again. The spa is just a minutes walk from the back of the Roman Baths museum and as it has a rooftop pool the smell of the water is easy to follow to bring you the spot where people would bathe in the waters from the medieval period right up to the 1970s. Today the water is filtered to kill off any harmful bacteria and cooled to 33.5 degrees Celsius (92.3 Fahrenheit) which makes it especially pleasant to swim in, but it still has plenty of the 42 minerals which it picks up on it’s way along the Penicuik fault from 2-3km below the earth’s surface. The distinctive smell you can pick up from anywhere within a block or two of the spa is a result of these minerals in the water, the highest concentration of which being sulphate (1015 mg/l), calcium (358 mg/l) and chloride (340 mg/l).
A 2 hour visit to the spa currently costs £26 and includes access to the rooftop pool, the large Minerva Bath in the basement with massage jet and whirlpool, and the aromatherapy steam rooms with a tropical shower, and hot and cold showers. You could also take a 4 hour or full day session, or you could have a private bathing session in the Cross Bath which can take up to 12 people. On top of all of this, there are various treatments available which cost extra as does the hire of robes, towels and slippers.
This happens to be my favourite thing about this city – the distinct difference between the two very close surroundings of town and country. As we draw towards the Christmas period, the city gets busier and busier with shoppers and Bath’s Christmas market is the time of year when the city is at it’s most lively with thousands of visitors pouring in to pick up their unique Christmas gifts. The hustle and bustle creates an exciting atmosphere, especially when it’s enhanced by groups of Christmas carolers, bands and entertainers making the city feel like it’s buzzing. There are always street performers and buskers around the town throughout the year, entertaining shoppers and adding to the hustle and bustle. Yet you only have to walk for 10 minutes into the fields beside Bathwick or Widcombe hill, or to Kensington Meadow next to the River Avon, where that vibe and buzz of the city suddenly feels like it’s a hundred miles away as you’re surrounded by birdsong, the sound of oars splashing on the river as rowers pass by, or cows ‘moo-ing’ in the fields above the city. These hills offer spectacular views across the city and stunning, countryside which surrounds Bath. There is a unique closeness between the town and country here, offering a chance to switch between the buzz of the city and the quiet stillness of green surroundings within only a few minutes. This has made the city a magnet for people searching for different environments since the time of the Georgians who would take the waters in the mornings then take carriage rides in the fields of Bathwick in the afternoons. Today, the city’s Skyline walk (mostly on National Trust property) offers great views across the city while you stroll through beautiful countryside and this walk is both accessible and a wonderful opportunity to escape the buzz of the city when it becomes too much!
I’ve already mentioned that the design work in the architecture is something unique in it’s concentration and consistency, but also consistent in the 18th century design choice was the building material which came from the quarries and mines of which you can see some of the remains while walking on Bath’s Skyline. This unique honey-coloured stone was created in warm waters between 145-196 million years ago when the land-mass we now know as the British Isles was 30 degrees south of the equator. Marine sediment known as ‘oolites’ (from the Greek ‘òoion’ meaning ‘egg’) gathered on the ocean floor and compacted over the millennia to form oolitic limestone, better known locally as Bath stone. First quarried by the Romans, and again in the medieval period, production of the Bath stone became most popular in the 18th century due to Ralph Allen (the man who revolutionized the British postal service from his operation in Bath) as he owned the mines and quarries on Claverton Hill which were sadly lost in the 1990s due to an operation to stabilize the land and stop subsidence. The stone is a freestone (without a grain, so it can be cut in any direction) and the oolites from which it is formed are clear to see if you get close enough. It is smooth to the touch due to the nature of the oolites from which it is formed, though its warm colour is a result of a form of rotting owing to weathering over time.
When you visit Bath, make sure you take a moment to run your hands over the smooth, oolitic limestone (see above close up image of the stone) which provides the city with its distinctive character and honey-coloured warmth.
The last of the traditional five senses could easily bring us to Bath’s wealth of excellent eateries catering for any budget you care to come up with, but this is a subject worthy of far more detailed exploration. But the city also has uniqueness to offer in its culinary creations from the past which are marked on the city’s history. Notably, Bath buns, Lunn’s buns, and Bath Olivers!
Firstly, Sally Lunn’s buns originating from the city in the 17th century were said to have come from a recipe provided by a Huguenot immigrant from France. It is a deceptively light, large, and sweet, bread roll which has been produced at Sally Lunn’s in North Parade Passage since the late 1600s. Even though it is a sweet bread and can be served in varying guises as a dessert, it is equally delicious served as a savoury trencher for dinner, as a warm or cold lunch sandwich, or with scrambled eggs for breakfast.
Next, the Bath bun – another sweet roll, but far richer than the Lunn’s bun, and with a lump of sugar baked into the bottom and crushed sugar covering the top after baking. Variations include Bath buns baked with candied fruit peel, currants, raisins or sultanas, and they are available from various locations in Bath but arguably the best are served at The Bath Bun Tea Shoppe in Abbey Green, behind Bath Abbey.
Lastly, Oliver’s biscuits are a hard cracker or biscuit made of flour, butter, yeast and milk, and often served with cheese. Dr William Oliver invented the biscuit in 1750 to prescribe to his recovering patients and on his death, he passed the recipe to his coachman who set up a shop in Green Street to sell the biscuits. The shop is still there with vestiges of its former purpose including a sign with the Oliver’s name on the front, although the building is now a lively bar/restaurant. Oliver’s biscuits however, became a phenomenon and are widely available in supermarkets across the UK.
This is just a selection of Bath’s unique assets, but there is so much to discover in the UK’s only city which can claim the whole city is inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list. The city’s closeness to London also means that there is a large selection of day trip operators offering visits from the capital combined with other destinations but such a short visit only works as a taster for a destination which has more than enough to offer to week long visitors, and longer if used as a base to explore the surrounding area of Wiltshire, Somerset and Bristol.
Watch out in the future for more posts about hotel choices in the city, or check out my post about restaurants in Bath (https://www.mikejames.org/bath-good-food-in-a-georgian-city/).