By Michael McCarthy
It’s not very often that I go to a “tourist town” and act like a tourist, seeing all the tourism sites and checking off the mandatory “must see” list. The city of Bath in southern England, however, is the most stunning example of a preserved landscape I have ever visited and I couldn’t recommend it more. A walk around town is like travelling back in time. You have two eras from which to choose, Victorian times or all the way back to the Roman Empire.
Bath gets the name because of its natural hot springs. Local inhabitants have been enjoying the hot water since time immemorial. The Celts were basking in the water for centuries and when the Romans showed up to extend their empire they decided to improve the bathing experience by building a permanent structure around the water. The building still stands.
Bath may be the most beautiful city in the world because most of it is comprised of warm honey-coloured substance known as “Bath stone.” The rock is limestone comprised of granular fragments of calcium carbonate, so-called “freestone” that can be sawn or “squared up” in any direction, unlike other rocks such as slate or granite. Bath freestone has been used extensively as a building material throughout southern England for churches, houses, and public buildings such as railway stations.
A walking tour, either by book or with a guide, is a must. Should you wish to save a pound or two, free walking tours are available from an organization known as Mayor of Bath Honourary Guides, a terrific tour that include the main points of historical and architectural interest.
Tours last approximately 2 hours and start in the Abbey Church Yard. No booking is necessary for individuals. This service operates from Sunday – Friday at 10.30 & 14.00 and Saturdays at 10.30 every day of the year. Just look for a sign board outside the Pump Room at the Abbey Church Yard marked ‘Free Walking Tours Here’. On the day I was there our guide proved patient and funny with a storytelling style that brought the sites alive. The pace was slow and easy for everyone in our group to keep up.
The tour started at the beginning, which was to say we started with the ancient Romans and then progressed through time with the medieval ages, the Victorian age and finally up to modern day. The dominant architectural style of the city is Georgian, popular in the early 18th century when the town first became a fashionable spa. This led to a demand for substantial mansions for the rich and subsequently guest houses for tourists. The city was named as a World Heritage Site in 1987, largely because of its architecture. Its many examples of Palladium architecture are purposefully integrated with urban spaces to provide what is known as “picturesque aestheticism.” It is the only entire city in Britain to achieve World Heritage status. Bath deserves the award as do all those citizens in the past century who maintained the city in the style it was conceived.
After the tour we went back to the Roman baths and bought a ticket. The tour of the catacombs and underground rooms was fascinating. The actual baths are still in operating shape, the only problem being that there is no swimming allowed. The building reminded me a lot of Hearst Castle in northern California. You can’t swim in William Randolph Hearst’s castle either, but it’s worth a trip just to look.
The Roman occupation started in the 60s or 70s AD, when engineers built a stable foundation and surrounded the spring with a stone chamber lined with lead. It fed a bathing complex on its south side within a vaulted building. The complex was gradually built up over the next 300 years. The spring is now housed in 18th-century buildings designed by architects John Wood the Younger and Elder.
In fact, much of the town was designed by the Woods, who laid out streets and squares in patterns, the façades of which gave an impression of palatial scale and classical decorum. The “Circus,” for instance, consists of three long, curved terraces designed to form a circular space or theatre intended for civic functions, the inspiration behind which was the Colosseum in Rome. The best known of Bath’s terraces is the Royal Crescent built between 1767 and 1774 and designed by the younger Wood, who designed the great curved façade of what appears to be about 30 mansions strung together with Ionic columns on a rusticated ground floor.
You may also want to visit the home of its most famous citizen, Jane Austen. She paid two long visits here towards the end of the eighteenth century, and from 1801 to 1806 Bath was her home. You may find a lineup at the door. Austen still has many fans and a pilgrimage to her home is a must.
The Industrial Revolution made Britain rich and created the beginning of the Middle Class, when you didn’t have to be a member of the Royal Family to have money, or enough time to be able to travel in style. Thomas Cook was the first to start a tourism business, taking those customers who could afford it to places like Switzerland for a Grand Tour. Those would could not afford such largesse went to Bath. It may be said that Bath represents the birth of the modern tourism industry. So much of what passes for tourism today is artificial, contrived to give the tourist an escape from daily life. Bath is completely different. It’s the real deal. Go check it out for yourself.
Michael McCarthy is a freelance travel writer whose articles have appeared in many Canadian newspapers and magazines. For more travel stories log on to www.transformative-travel.ca.