Exploring Beautiful Bath

The last stop on my Cotswolds Way walking tour was Bath. Since I didn’t have eight days to hike the entire route from Chipping Campden, instead sampling other routes including the Monarch’s Way and Heart of England Way, I ended up taking a taxi from Stow to Bath.

This fabulously elegant city in Southwest England, designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, feels like a museum bursting with life.

I’d wondered how to include Bath in a story about walking solo in the Cotswolds, but that problem was solved in my first wander around the Abbey in the city centre. There, in front of the entrance to the Roman Baths, was a sign:

The Mayor of Bath’s Guides since 1934. FREE WALKING TOURS START HERE.

At 10:30 the next morning I and about 40 others from around the world gathered around the sign. I’m sure we were all wondering how this would work. A gentleman welcomed us with a little speech then announced that there were four Honorary Guides on duty that day, and we would now divide into groups of 10 for our two-hour historic walking tour.

Which is how I and a bunch from South Africa to Pennsylvania found ourselves rushing to keep up with our knowledgeable long-legged guide Matthew White, former Royal Marine, Chartered Surveyor and, after retirement, history graduate.

He bade us look up at Bath Abbey, a splendid landmark looking like it had stood there forever though it was plundered and left an empty shell in 1539 when King Henry VIII closed Catholic monasteries.

Look carefully at the West front and you’ll see Angels ascending or descending a ladder depending on their fate.  

Behind us and below us stood the Roman Baths, where Romans created the original wellness industry in 60-70 AD. Around the natural springs they built a settlement and temple, Aquae Sulis, dedicated to Minerva, goddess of healing and Sul, a Celtic God. 

The hot springs are created by rain falling on the nearby Mendip Hills. Water percolates deep underground through limestone aquifers where it’s heated to between 69 and 96C. Geothermal energy! The water then bubbles up under pressure to the delight of humans.

From the start, the baths were open to the public for pleasure, relaxation and, many believe, healing. The ruins in Bath were discovered and restored in the late 1750s. Locals continued to swim there until 1978 when a young girl died from a pathogen in the water.

In 1982 a new hole was sunk, providing a clean, safe supply of spa water for the adjoining Pump Room, home to a glamourous restaurant serving coffee, lunch and afternoon tea overlooking the hot spring.

The tour was uphill from there, to The Circus. This historic ring of large townhouses with three main entrances was designed by architect John Wood in the mid-1700s. He died before it was completed leaving the work to his son, John Wood the Younger. The green in the centre of the project had no trees in the early days, White told us, as the architects didn’t want anything detracting from their work.

Uphill again, come along! to Royal Crescent, a sweeping curved façade of 30 terraced houses atop a green slope also designed by the younger Wood and considered one of the UK’s finest examples of Georgian architecture.

Unfortunately we couldn’t see it up close that day as the entire area was closed for the filming of Season 3 of Bridgerton. No actor sightings, either.

Overflowing with history, we arrived back at our starting point just as the Abbey’s 12:30 bell boomed.

I wished I’d returned later and walked behind the Crescent, as White suggested. Though the building presents a unified front, behind the façade owners hired architects to design their own houses, resulting in different roof heights and sizes. “Queen Anne fronts and Mary-Anne backs,” as the locals say.

White also suggested visiting The Holborne museum, located at the top of grand Great Pulteney Street (slow down for the views from Pulteney Bridge over the River Avon). Along with a collection of treasures and paintings donated by the Holborne family in the late 1700s and 1800s, I was surprised to find an exhibition of drawings by David Hockney. Alas, the museums’s café was closed, and the Bridgerton gang had taken over the Sydney Gardens behind. Next time.

At White’s urging I also visited the Assembly Rooms, where the cream of Bath society once partied. The main rooms are lit by rows of chandeliers, which he said some clever person suggested be moved to the basement as World War II began. Good thing, as they remained safe to shine for generations to come.

While there, be sure to head downstairs to the Costume Museum, another treat. And stop in the Jane Austen Centre on the way back down to the city centre. From 1801 to 1806 the celebrated author lived in Bath, inspiring her novels Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.

That night I ate at The Pig & Fiddle, sister property to yet another quirky wee hotel, Broad St. Townhouse. I hadn’t yet had fish and chips, so dined on Butcombe Gold beer-battered haddock with thick chips and tasty green peas mashed with mint.

As it was my last night in Bath, and the Cotswolds, I decided to celebrate my spectacular week by splurging on an evening dip at the thoroughly modern Thermae Bath Spa. Enveloped by the hot, mineral-rich water in the rooftop pool overlooking the beautiful city at sunset, surrounded by fellow bathers from around the world, life was sweet.

Thermae Bath Spa Courtesy VisitBath

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