I first visited the UK back in 2007. I spent almost a month in the country (almost half of that in London) in the traditional Australian way; I wanted to get my feet wet there before diving into the seemingly strange and foreign continental Europe.
About three weeks in, I came to a realisation. With one Aussie dollar getting me only forty pence, I was going through my savings fast. As a result, I wasn’t eating properly, I was staying at quite dodgy places and I was skipping sites because of the cost. Begrudgingly I cut out about a week in southern England and Wales, with the biggest casualty being Bath. I made for ‘proper’ Europe, and never really looked back.
So this visit to Bath, seven years later, felt quite overdue. I had heard nearly universal praise from visitors to Bath, which is quite unheard of, really. Big, well-known cities like Paris and Bangkok divide travellers, yet everyone seems to love little old Bath. With a few little adjustments, we managed to tack a few hours in Bath onto the end of our southern England road trip before we flew out of Bristol.
With limited time, we made a beeline for the Roman Baths. Even though I’m an historian, I don’t actually know a hell of a lot about the Romans. I haven’t even seen Gladiator, much to many other tour guides’ disgust. But I still wanted to see Bath’s number one historical site; I’d seen so many pictures over the years which made it look just wonderful.
And I wasn’t disappointed. I was thinking that the attraction was simply the main bath you see in so many pictures, but it’s so much more than that. It’s an entire bathing complex and temple, built up over around three hundred years from 60 AD until the Romans’ eventual decline. Excavations have uncovered cold baths, warm baths and hot baths, plus plenty of other rooms.
We wandered around for ages, and I was really impressed with the the whole experience put together by the museum. Along with the (normally shockingly boring) regular audio commentary you could even choose a kiddie option, or even Bill Bryson. You could get really close to the Grand Bath’s water (though not in it, as the water is actually quite toxic) and even drink some of it. It kind of tasted like a warm version of that liquid they give you at the dentist.
We pushed on through Bath. We also visited Bath Abbey; the lovely, light-filled church that was surprisingly free to enter. It was a happy, friendly-feeling church which was so different to so many of England’s serious, dark Gothic churches. I gave it a big tick of approval.
We had the most perfect weather; it was probably the loveliest day we’ve had so far this year. So we pounded the pavement, marvelling in the fact that Bath just matches. Strangely enough, I kept thinking that you could be forgiven for forgetting that you were in England. The town’s architecture often reminded me of France, and Bordeaux in particular.
Whatever the inspiration, Bath is gorgeous. It’s as if the whole town (and it is a town, with only 80,000 or so residents) has been designed by Trinny and Susannah. On such a lovely day, the stone buildings seemed almost to glow. I couldn’t see any graffiti or even street art, there were no visible junk shops or even old cars. Everything was easy on the eye, refined and tasteful.
It was different to what I am used to. My hometown of Melbourne is well-known for its street art and brown ‘upside-down’ river. Living among the Dutch for the last few years, I’ve gotten used to bikes flung everywhere and scruffy hippies tumbling out of coffee shops.
Bath was like a magazine cover in comparison.
Nowhere did I feel this more than near the Royal Crescent. The 230-year old row of terraced homes is so elegant, completely matching on the front and a jumble of all sorts of individual designs at the rear. The lawn in front is accessible to residents only, a key to the low fence clearly a prized possession. The plebs were all kept a hundred metres or so back, cut off by a small ditch.
It was a perfect example of ‘oh, England’; the way we of European descent can look back at the old country and shake our heads at the old fashion-ness of it all.
My parents though were lucky enough to be staying at the Royal Crescent Hotel; an anniversary present to themselves. Paul and I got to peek in before we hopped on our easyJet plane and oh my, it was certainly a case of how the other half lived. The hotel is so exclusive that it doesn’t even have a sign outside identifying itself so Mum had to inquire with a very well-dressed gentleman if she was indeed in the right spot. The man who showed us all around had the poshest accent I’ve heard save for the royals on telly. Oh, and Hugh Grant. I’ve always thought he sounds really posh.
Bath is wonderful, so believe everything you’ve heard about it. I only had a taster; half a day was all I had to discover the place. It is an absolute gem and I know I’ll be back.
Next time though, I’ll wear my pearls.
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