BATH, U.K. – Back when the years had only three digits, Romans would steep themselves in the hot waters of the local spring, cleaning themselves off while lending each other their ears. In the first few years of the 1800s, Jane Austen strolled up and down the winding streets admiring the Georgian homes built from local honey-colored limestone.
Bath — pronounced to rhyme with sloth, not path — remains a delightful place to visit, offering not only the Roman baths but also a walkable warren of shops and restaurants. My husband, our friends and I chose it for a 24-hour respite from London, where we’d been pelted by rain for days. We were pleased that the sun decided to come out and join us for our foray to Bath, just an hour and a half by train from London. We paid £31 each for our tickets. (The pound was trading at $1.30, so that wound up being about $40.)
We made our way up a long hill to our accommodation, the Queensberry Hotel, where we were greeted like old friends and offered tea and coffee in the drawing room. A delightful boutique that rambles through several houses, the Queensberry offers all shapes and sizes of rooms, some overlooking the rooftops, others focused on a lush backyard garden. Every one is tastefully decorated and comes with a large bath (and this time you can pronounce it to rhyme with path). We could hardly believe we were paying a mere £116.
Best of all, the staff managed to be attentive and accommodating without venturing into the obsequious. When we couldn’t figure out how to turn on the bathroom lights, a valet arrived immediately to show us the rope — literally — without laughing at us.
The Queensberry is also home to a Michelin-starred restaurant, the Olive Tree, but it’s not open on Mondays, and — wouldn’t you know it? — we were there on a Monday. Oh, well.
We grabbed some brownies from Best of British Deli on nearby Broad Street and ate them while we walked downhill to see the Roman baths. We were given audio tour guides for our self-directed walk through the indoor and outdoor spa areas the Romans enjoyed in what they called, back in the day, Aquae Sulis, the waters of the goddess Sulis Minerva.
Below the current street level, the area includes the spring, a temple (built between 60 and 70 AD), the bath house — huge, with tiled hot rooms as well as a cold plunge pool (yes, all that was trendy long ago), all constructed during the few hundred years after the temple. Glass cases displayed relics including Roman coins, statues and theatrical masks.
We trod on walkways over the very ground where Romans walked and steamed themselves before emerging to the huge outdoor bathing area (about 115 degrees) where they scrubbed and socialized.
Atop the baths, bathed in sunlight, stand statues of famous Romans. The images of Hadrian, Claudius, Julius Caesar and other Romans weren’t part of the original scene. They were installed in 1897, sculpted by G.A. Lawson.
There were a lot of signs warning us against dipping a toe into the deep-green water of the baths. It’s full of algae, bacteria and possibly amoebas and other badness. Do not go in.
If you want to steep yourself in the local thermal waters that have been sanitized, you can do so at the nearby luxurious Thermae Baths, a spa that also boasts a rooftop pool and offers numerous massages and other treatments.
We, though, were hungry. We chose a local favorite restaurant featuring fresh seafood, the Scallop Shell. I dived into a sweet Dorset crab, my husband polished off a whole baked sole, and our friends devoured beautifully golden fish and chips.
All that left us in the mood for a nightcap, so we poured ourselves into the Queensberry’s Old Q Bar only to find ... no bartender. Not to worry. The Queensberry didn’t have one on duty (it was off-season), but they were happy to scare up a staffer to make us drinks. My husband’s request for an old fashioned was met with wide eyes. “I’ll try,” said the young woman, grabbing a few bottles and scurrying off into a side room, probably to consult a bartender book. Damned if it didn’t turn out perfect. Hubby says it was the best old fashioned he’d had in Europe. My gin and tonic was a cinch after that.
The next morning, the blue skies had once again been replaced by pelting rain, but I grabbed my umbrella and walked several blocks west from the Queensberry to check out the Royal Crescent, a crescent-shaped row of 30 limestone terraced houses built between 1767 and 1774, overlooking a lush park. Designed by John Wood the Younger (a well-known architect who was the son of architect John Wood the Elder, who surveyed Stonehenge) it’s considered a prime example of Georgian architecture.
One of the townhouses is a museum featuring furnishings of its first resident, Henry Sanford, but I especially wanted to explore the ha-ha, having heard that the Royal Crescent has an especially nice one.
Ha-ha? New one on me. It turned out to be a stone wall set against a trench. It was designed as a way of keeping cattle away from the buildings without interrupting the view.
I walked up to the trench and peered at a sign on the wall: “Private land,” it proclaimed. “Subscribing residents only.” Since cattle can’t read, it would seem the wall-and-trench thing currently serves to keep out ... tourists. Ha-ha. Didn’t work.
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