• Tue. Jun 25th, 2024

WHY BATH IS WORTH A SPLASH: A DEEP DIVE INTO THIS HISTORIC ENGLISH CITY

ByMATTHIAS SCHARF

Feb 4, 2023

There’s a brouhaha brewing in Great Britain, and I don’t mean the debate about the plummeting pound or the monarchy’s future following the passing of Queen Elizabeth II.

Rather, I refer to the tempest in a teacup that’s been simmering since two British broadcasters threw Bath, one of the country’s best-loved cities, under the (hop-on, hop-off) bus.

Dan Snow, historian and host of the History Hit podcast, has suggested that a tour of the north leaves the classic quartet of UK must-sees–London, Windsor, Stonehenge, and Bath–in the dust.

Compounding the controversy, Tom Holland—also an historian and co-host of The Rest is History podcast—agreed that he “wouldn’t bother” with Bath. Shock! Horror! Sacrilege!

While I am not an historian and may be the last 21st century biped bereft of a podcast, I am a long-term resident of the UK and a travel writer with plenty of mileage under my belt.

Having recently revisited Bath, a ludicrously picturesque Georgian city where sinuous terraces of sunbaked stone gleam like drizzled honey on the hillsides, I’m more than willing to slip on my wellies and wade into a debate which has grown murkier than a cup of over-steeped tea.

To wit: I absolutely advise visitors to adventure beyond the “usual suspects,” but for heaven’s sake, don’t toss out Bath with the bathwater.

BATH IS FULL OF HISTORY

Located about 100 miles west of London, Bath has been a popular destination for thousands of years. Ancient Romans flocked here for its hot springs, which they duly enshrined in temples and public baths; the excavated ruins of the Roman Baths remain a top attraction even now.

In Georgian times, elegantly clad female gladiators engaged in the cunning sport of husband-hunting, their white-gloved battles played out in blocks of Palladian mansions arranged in Colosseum-like curves around Bath Circus and the Royal Crescent.

Today, the city—a World Heritage Site unto itself–strikes a delicate balance between celebrating (and monetizing) its historic glories while still feeling fresh, with funky shops, restaurants, and bars in abundance. Stop by Jack & Danny’s for fabulous vintage and theatrical fashions.

Stay for a chat with shop owner Sheila Gwilliam, whose adventures have ranged from encounters with 60s-era London gangsters to a long-running battle which she fought to save Walcot Street, a hip haven for independent businesses like hers, from being razed for a motorway.

In an artsy little street called Margaret’s Buildings, browse for brightly colored, handcrafted housewares and gifts at Wyrd. It’s run by stained-glass artist Catherine Manford, who moved here from Cambridge in 2019. “Bath is very friendly,” says Catherine’s husband, Mark.

“Everyone stops and chats. We’re walking distance to everything, and there are always little festivals—literary, comedy. There’s a buzz.”

Speaking of a buzz, I’m certainly feeling one after a few brews at The Boater, where I spend a sun-dappled afternoon in a breezy beer garden near the River Avon.

This is followed by a wine-drenched dinner at Corkage, which I highly recommend for its curated wine list and flavor-packed seasonal tapas menu…and definitely not just because my waiter, Alex, is a doppelganger of the late, great INXS frontman Michael Hutchence.

Afterward, I top up with a nightcap at the Dark Horse, a subterranean cocktail bar where carved wooden dragons and cherubic wall sconces keep company with African sculptures and Turkish carpets.

IT’S THE PERFECT PLACE TO STROLL

Bath is the perfect place for a slightly fuzzy-headed wobbly wander, as you never know what unexpected sights might greet you in a city where creativity seems to permeate its very stones.

On any random day, you might find a performance artist prostrating herself on the ground with a rolling pin, a guitarist playing a free concert in Abbey Square, or a trio of “pot heads” (with potted plants atop their shoulders in place of their heads) parading through the city.

Even if you’ve never set foot beyond your hometown, Bath’s cobblestone streets may feel familiar. It has guest-starred in numerous films and television series, including BridgertonPoldark, The Remains of the Day, and more Jane Austen adaptations than you can tip a silk top hat at.

BATH IS FULL OF INTERESTING CHARACTERS

You can hardly walk twenty paces without tripping over some site associated with Austen, who lived in the city from 1801 and 1806 and mentioned Bath in many of her novels, including Persuasion, Northanger Abbey, and Emma.

The Jane Austen Centre, in a Georgian townhouse on Gay Street, includes a brief lecture and film about her life and an opportunity to try on Regency fashions and pose with a characteristically reticent statue of Mr. Darcy.

Just two doors up the street, House of Frankenstein pays homage to another famous female author, Mary Shelley, who wrote most of Frankenstein while living in Bath Abbey Church Yard.

The museum, which opened in July 2021, tells the story of Mary’s traumatic life and how it influenced her tragic novel, detailing her complicated relationship with her husband, the poet Percy Shelley, who was also sleeping with Mary’s stepsister, Claire, who had a child with the louche Lord Byron, who impregnated his own half-sister… Are you keeping up?

What makes this immersive house of horrors so impactful is its theatrical flair. One room illustrates Mary’s grief over her children’s deaths with a soundtrack of heart-wrenching sobs and an empty cradle rocked by unseen forces, while in the darkened wreckage of a laboratory, we encounter a seemingly living, breathing eight-foot monster, brought to life by an award-winning special effects company.

Upper floors feature a grainy 1910 film in which the beast looks like the lovechild of Chewbacca and a mange-riddled dog, as well as 20th century Frankenstein movie posters and commercial merchandise, illustrating how Mary Shelley’s creature has continued to evolve.

Ending my visit with a descent into the dungeon-like “haunted house” in the basement, I can’t choke back a scream that seems to emanate from the very gutter of my id. The author, who famously wrote, “If I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear,” would be pleased.

Less than half a mile away, the No. 1 Royal Crescent Museum also uses dramatic devices to resurrect the ghosts of a fictional family who might have inhabited this townhouse in the late 18th century. Bridgerton fans may recognize No. 1 as the home of the Feathering tons, and the wealthy imaginary residents portrayed here could very well have been their predecessors.

Through recorded performances, with actors’ images projected upon a wall or in a mirror, or simply overheard in conversation, we’re introduced to a middle-aged man and wife and their children.

There’s Richard, the irresponsible heir, gambling away a family fortune based on slave plantations; Edward, a British soldier battling George Washington’s rebel troops in the Colonies; Charlotte, “in want of a husband”; and bookish younger sister Alice.

As you move from one well-appointed room to another, the story progresses, drawing you into this late 1700s soap opera to a surprising degree.

Better watch your back, BridgertonThe Residents of Royal Crescent could be the next Netflix hit.  Thanks to modern technology breathing new life into the dusty past, Bath won’t be retiring from a well-earned place on Britain’s stage anytime soon.