If you’re craving a few days of culture in a classic British city, you can’t go far wrong with Bath – one huge UNESCO World Heritage Site ready to be enjoyed. It’s got the historical depth and arts connections to provide you with a bulging itinerary, or there are plenty of beautiful open spaces where you can just lazily take in the scenery at a much slower pace.
Whilst I’ve visited a handful of times before, I’d never really ‘done’ Bath in the traditional tourist sense, and I was looking forward to seeing it through new eyes. These are the places I made a beeline for…
Easily one of the most recognisable sights in the city, this sweeping curve of grand 18th century design, created by John Wood the Elder, is a great place to start discovering Bath. The Crescent contains 30 houses overlooking a lawn, which sits above a public park; the first house has been converted to a museum, allowing visitors to see what life was like for the Georgians who lived here. You might also recognise the Crescent as a backdrop to period dramas such as Northanger Abbey and The Duchess.
Although I didn’t manage to spot any actors in the area, I did see a group of men dressed in suits and straw hats on the lawn in front of the Royal Crescent, casually playing croquet. I’m not sure if this bout of English eccentricity was put on for tourists or not, but it was a good photo opportunity nonetheless.
Another calling card from John Wood the Elder is the Circus, a (you’ve guessed it) circular stretch of sophisticated Georgian houses, not far from the prestigious Assembly Rooms. Part of the fun of seeing the houses in the Circus was reading the little green plaques beside some of the doors, telling you about notable former residents. The first one I spotted was dedicated to a ‘Mrs. Piozzi’, whose name didn’t exactly ring a bell for me, but I’ve since discovered she led a very interesting life as a diarist, with serious connections to the rich and famous.
Hester Lynch Piozzi, also known as Hester Lynch Thrale, whose diaries have been posted online by the excellent Project Gutenberg archive, was an author and society figure who loved the arts. She formed close relationships with the literati of the day, including Samuel Johnson, and she also found the time to travel extensively and have 12 children. If you want to find out more about her, there’s a promising looking biography reviewed by the Telegraph here.
Georgians are the focal point of the current exhibition at the Fashion Museum – pretty apt, considering how much of the city’s architecture and style dates from this period. Playing to their strengths, Visit Bath have even devised a set of special offers for Georgian-themed attractions, including the Fashion Museum, so it was easy enough to grab a discount simply by printing off a voucher from the website or picking up a leaflet from the tourist office. Taking in the Georgian collection, it was hard to relate the fussy and elaborate clothing to today’s trends, particularly the insane mantua dresses worn at court, but the curators did find some wider links to current designers such as Vivienne Westwood and Meadham Kirchhoff.
Other displays in the museum included designs that had previously won Dress of the Year, pieces from the Bellville Sassoon Lorcan Mullany archive, and men’s suits by top designers. A free audio guide expanded on the visitor notes, but the best interactive element was the encouragement to take photos during your visit and socially share them. So many museums ban photography and can feel very strict, but there was a genuine enthusiasm for design and inspiration here, which I loved.
Vintage and Antiques Market
A self-styled ‘old school’ Sunday market, held on the first and last Sunday of every month, this is something of a treasure trove for anyone who has a love of all things vintage. You’ll find it at Green Park Station, next to Sainsbury’s, and within easy reach of the city centre. As I was staying at the Holiday Inn, it was only a few minutes’ walk from my hotel.
With Bath containing quite a few antiques shops already, I was expecting most things to be competitively priced and well beyond my budget, but it was definitely a purse-friendly market. Stalls overflowed with buttons, fabric, antiques, paintings and clothing. Amongst my bargains, I bagged a vintage skirt for £5, and I can’t wait to wear it.
This was an unexpected highlight of the trip; I’d read up on the American Museum and thought it might be worth a look around, but I didn’t expect it to have quite so much to offer. Billed as a folk art museum with some background to the history and formation of the USA added in for good measure, there’s arguably a great deal more substance and style to folk art than many of us (myself included) realise. I’d assumed I’d be faced with room upon room of lumpy handmade blankets and strange amateurish paintings – think the US-based Museum of Bad Art – but this couldn’t be further from the truth. A temporary exhibition by textiles legend Kaffe Fassett, packed full of rich colours and experimental techniques, is a fun place to start your visit.
You don’t need to be an ardent lover of Americana to appreciate what’s on display here. The timeline of American history kicks things off inside the main house, whilst dressing up areas helps younger visitors to channel their inner Pilgrim Father. The exhibits dedicated to Native American Indians and Hispanic culture are great additions, giving more of a background to marginalised communities. There are also some interesting rooms styled to particular periods of American living, alongside carefully preserved textiles such as intricate quilts. After you’ve explored the displays, pop into the cafe and indulge in some American-themed food, including seriously good cakes and cookies, and then chill out in the gardens.
I can barely remember my last visit to the Roman Baths, when I was about nine years old, yet I do remember the souvenir I brought home as a result: a glass bottle filled with colourful gemstones. Sixteen years later, I’m happy to report that the bottles of gemstones are still available in the shop (now at the princely sum of £1.99, thanks to inflation), but there’s little of the museum layout that’s recognisable, thanks to renovations. As you wander around, there are audio guides for adults and children to better explain the exhibits, topped off by sound bites from Bill Bryson.
If you’re lucky enough to arrive here in the height of summer, the baths have late night openings throughout July and August, when an evening visit might cut down the number of kids you have to contend with – I found it hard to see all of the exhibits during my trip because I was surrounded by bored French teenagers on their school day out. However, the pieces I did see gave a good background to the formation of the Baths, and Roman lifestyle, back when the city was known as Aquae Sulis. At the end of the tour I got to taste some of the supposedly healing waters, which was a slightly grim but memorable experience – I’d recommend making sure you’ve got a mint for afterwards!
One of Bath’s most hyped tourist attractions, Sally Lunn’s will appeal to foodies as well as history buffs, and with good reason. Huguenot baker Sally brought her recipe for light and delicious brioche-style buns over with her to England in 1680, and soon formed a loyal customer base. Her buns can be styled as a sweet or savoury dish, but I plumped for a good old-fashioned jam and butter option, washed down with Russian Caravan tea – definitely worth trying if you get the chance.
Whilst I wouldn’t say it’s essential to eat here if you’ve got huge queues to battle through, I’d recommend Sally Lunn’s when it’s a bit quieter and you have the breathing space to enjoy this very tiny but interesting cafe and its attached museum. The bakery building dates back centuries before Sally arrived in Bath, more of which is explained in the downstairs museum, where you can see the history of the street through the ages.
In just a couple of days, I tapped into touristy Bath and got to know why the city is so deservedly popular – even drinking its healing waters. With so many attractions in close proximity, you can easily devise an itinerary to suit your interests, whether you’re into architecture, food or fashion.
Visiting Notes: You can buy combined tickets for the Fashion Museum and Roman Baths, with entry lasting seven days. This saves money and time, as it allows you to skip the queues for the Baths.
Disclaimer: I booked my train ticket from Sussex to Bath using GoEuro. Conveniently, Bath Spa Station is close to all of the major city sights and is a stone’s throw from the main shopping streets.