Bath is one of the most beautiful cities in all of England. Often called a Georgian city – an era named for the monarch King George, who ruled between 1760 and 1820 – the city of Bath has a longer more colourful history than the 18th and 19th centuries. In fact, Bath was originally a Roman city, and a significant one too.
Bath was an important medieval city. It was notable for the Anglo-Saxon history too – the first Anglo-Saxon king was crowned here. In the 1800s, the town was the height of high society spa towns – as well as home to one of England’s most famous writers. Today, the lovely town tucked into the bucolic county of Somerset at the very southern tip of the Cotswolds is often noted as the ‘gateway’ to the Cotswolds.
The Cotswolds name comes from the series of lush Cotswolds Hills that roll through Somerset, Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire, Warwickshire, Wiltshire and Worcestershire. The area encompasses at least 800 square miles (2,100 km2), making it England’s 3rd largest protected area (after the Lake District and the Yorkshire Dales). Recognised as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the Cotswolds stretches from Bath to Stratford-Upon-Avon. The Cotswolds are known for their picturesque charm and beauty.
The hills are defined by the underlying layer of Jurassic limestone bedrock, creating a rare grasslands habitat. Many of the villages and towns are built using the beautiful locally-quarried limestone, usually a golden-brown colour. The city of Bath is built using the honey-coloured “Bath limestone”. Expect to find cheery stone villages, stately homes, grand gardens and emerald-tinted hills perfect for walkers.
By Train: From London’s Paddington Station, Bath is about a 1.5-hour train ride, with trains running every 30 minutes on weekdays.
By car: From London, Bath is about a 2.5-hour drive, or possibly more depending on London traffic.
By flight: If you’re flying into London and want to go to Bath, you’ll likely have to first get from the airport (there are several, including Heathrow, Stansted, Gatwick, Luton, and City) to London before hopping on the train to Bath via Paddington, though not necessarily in the case of Heathrow or Gatwick.
If flying in, the best and quickest way is to fly to Bristol Airport, which has decent connections and is 40 minutes from Bath. Bristol is actually a cool, quirky student town and worth a wander if you have time to spare. By public transport, Bristol Airport to Bath is either a bus to Bristol city, then a quick train to Bath, or a longer direct bus to Bath, with both solutions taking about an hour.
On foot: The 102 mile (164 km) Cotswold Way begins/ends in Bath, with the other end at Chipping Campden. Bath is the perfect entry to start your trip. If doing it the other way around, the spa town of Bath is an ideal place to recoup after a week on the trails.
Bath is, quite frankly, a very cool place. It is a city but manages to maintain small-town charm. It has some of the best and loveliest architecture in all of England and is protected by UNESCO.
From Romans to kings to Jane Austen and her contemporary socialites, it has some of the richest history across the island. Bath is home to a stunning medieval abbey – Bath Abbey. The original structure of the abbey is circa 757. Bath is also home to one of the best examples of a Roman bathhouse outside of the Mediterranean area, as well as some of the most intricate and expansive Georgian facades, a number of museums covering everything from art to literature to history, the endpoint of an impressive canal, which runs 87 miles (140 km), several lovely parks and is surrounded by quintessentially postcard English countryside.
There are plenty of traditional pubs, cosy cafes and quirky bars. Bath is home to the traditional Sally Lunn buns, a type of sweet bread invented in Bath. It’s a great place to try Cornish pasties – southwest England’s delicious and filling street food, and home to plenty of ‘chippers’ where you can gorge yourself on England’s famed fish and chips.
King George III formed Bath from crumbling medieval backwater into Britain’s premier elegant spa town. Blending the Neoclassical style – which was all about bringing back the classics (Greek and Roman classics, that is) – and the newest branch of that style, Palladian, which focuses on symmetry and geometry. To get down to it, Bath’s current appearance owes itself to three influential men: John Wood, Ralph Allen and Beau Nelson. They made it a goal to put Bath in the same league with Europe’s great cities.
Some of the city’s most famous Georgian buildings are the Assembly Rooms, where the members of High Society used to mix and mingle. Today, they are preserved as a museum. The best examples of Georgian Bath though is the Royal Crescent and the Circus. The Royal Crescent is a half-moon neoclassical building once home to Bath’s top addresses and the other is the Circus, a full circle of Neoclassical buildings built just next to the Crescent. Green spaces were a part of Georgian Bath too, and there are many parks, squares and gardens (public and private) dotting Bath.
The most famous example is Prior Park on the far side of Bath, home to 11 hectares of lush parkland as well as several lovely examples of Palladio-inspired architecture, whose landscape gardens were originally laid out by poet Alexander Pope, with later work by the king of landscapers Capability Brown.
Welcome to Jane Austen’s Bath…
One of Bath’s most interesting features is the Pulteney Bridge. It’s not particularly long – it spans the River Avon in the town centre for 45 metres. It was built to connect the centre of Bath with what was the Pulteney family’s lands (and now a further region of the city) along Great Pulteney Street.
Finished in 1774, Pulteney Bridge is famous for being one of the few bridges in England built to house shops along the bridge itself. After all, Great Pulteney Street was quickly becoming another top address and the Georgian designers wouldn’t want to miss out on the chance to get a few more addresses on the street. Today, it is a Grade I listed structure.
As mentioned before, the Circus and the Royal Crescent are Bath’s most impressive (and expensive) Georgian-era buildings. Constructed in 1767 – 1774 according to the designs of one of Bath’s top architects John Wood, the Royal Crescent is an elegant half-moon shaped building with a lawn overlooking the town of Bath.
Made up with 30 houses (long-coveted addresses), you can go there simply to admire the structure or you can visit the museum housed at No 1 Royal Crescent to learn more about the history of this amazing place and the changes in Bath’s social make-up over the past 250 or so years.
Very close by is the circle containing the Circus, composed of four curved buildings that together form a circle. If nothing else, these impressive feats deserve a visit to admire them!
The beloved suburban gardens are named for Prior Park House, built in the 1730s to showcase the versatility of Bath limestone. The Prior Park of today is a quiet, well-manicured landscape garden managed by the National Trust, owing its original appearance to several famous men, including the poet Alexander Pope and the great landscaper Capability Brown.
Like the house, Prior Park is full of 18th century Palladinian architecture, including several follies, a grotto, a temple as well as the famous Palladinian-style “Sham Bridge” (similar in style to Sham Castle, and commissioned by the same Ralph Allen) – a picturesque structure that seems straight out of a Jane Austen novel.
Located a little way outside of town up the slopes of a hill, Prior Park is a lovely place for a stroll and afternoon picnic.
Jane Austen is possibly Bath’s most famous resident we still know today – which is ironic because Austen actually disliked Bath. As an unmarried daughter of a mildly well-to-do family, she lived with her parents most of her life. They moved to Bath in 1801 and stayed there for 5 years. The Austens stayed at several addresses throughout Bath, most of which are now private residences, marked with just a wee plaque. (There is one across the road from the Holburne Museum but unfortunately not open to the public).
Jane Austen fans should head to the Jane Austen Centre, housed in a charming Georgian townhouse, where you can learn more about the author, her life and work, and her time spent in Bath. Jane’s descriptions of Bath in her novels, most famously those in her final novel, Persuasion, are very clearly based on her time spent in Bath.
The Assembly Rooms are another important place associated with Georgian (and Jane Austen’s) Bath. Just like their name implies, these were rooms (very large fancy rooms) for assembling (for parties, of course). Bath’s Assembly Rooms, still preserved in former splendour, were the place where Bath’s high society met to mingle, gossip, flirt, dance and match-make.
No one is really sure who the original Sally Lunn is. What is known is that a woman now called Sally Lunn is reputed to inventing a sweet bread that was named for her. She is sometimes thought to be a Huguenot on the run from France (which at the time was wildly Catholic and not a fan of the Protestant Huguenots). She got a job at a bakery and somehow taught herself the art of baking, culminating in the Sally Lunn bun. Whatever the story, these buns are now quite famous in Bath, served in a very old teahouse – in fact, one of the oldest houses in Bath.
The other important time period for which Bath is known is the Roman era. Roman Britain was an important frontier colony of the Roman Empire, and Bath was a thriving spa town then as now. Read on to learn more about the Romans who once lived in Bath.
Bath gets its name thanks to the great Roman bathhouse in the heart of the town centre. The Romans first arrived in Britain on a series of raids (famously led by Julius Cesar) but it wasn’t until the emperor Claudius arrived in 43 AD that they were here to stay. And stay they did – the Romans did not pull out of Britannia until 410 AD. Bath was founded by the Romans in the 1st century AD.
Though most of Roman Bath is gone besides the Bath complex, Bath remains one of the most important Roman sites in Britain (along with Hadrian’s Wall in the north). Though no one knows for sure, there’s a good chance that the medieval street plan was based on the original Roman plan, though a lot has changed since antiquity.
Bath is home to natural hot springs, and the Roman town of Bath sprung up around these springs by way of an intricate Roman bathhouse.
At the Roman baths, you can visit the remarkably well-preserved bathhouse, walk on ancient Roman walkways, check out the remains of the Temple of Sulis Minerva and take a look at the collection of artefacts found here during excavations, including the great sculpted head of Minerva herself. The site is remarkably well-preserved and it’s easy to imagine yourself a Roman citizen out for a spa day with friends.
Though not much else of the Roman era has survived Bath’s many renovations, the bathhouse remains one of England’s most significant Roman sites.
Fancy dipping your toes in Bath’s natural spring waters? There is a modern bathhouse next door using the same spring the Romans would’ve used. Climb the nearby Bath Abbey tower for arial views of the ancient Baths.
One of the most interesting things found here are the so-called “curse tablets.” These were basically messages scratched into lead or pewter sheets and thrown into the hot springs in an attempt to get these messages to the gods who supposedly inhabited the thermal springs.
Some curses included complaints about the theft of a cape, another about a theft of a cloak, another listing potential suspects of an unknown crime.
These ‘curses’ were attempts to exact revenge for perceived slights against the writer – though it was up to the gods to judge for themselves who was in the right.
Bath is usually talked about in either its Roman or Georgian sense. But there was more than a millennium (1,300 years to be more precise) that took place between those two eras!
Sadly there isn’t too much visible from that 1,300 years. During medieval times, Bath was a relatively modest city, growing steadily until all was pummelled in the name of Progress during the Industrial Revolution. Walls were broken down (nothing is left), shops flattened, houses wiped out.
The most important vestige of medieval Bath is, of course, Bath Abbey (often mistakenly called the Cathedral) built in the English Gothic style. Bath Abbey isn’t the first (or even second) church to occupy this bit of sacred land at the heart of Bath. But starting in 1499, the present structure was built, tucked in right next to the Roman Baths.
It wasn’t technically finished in its present state until the 16th century (even later, if you want to count some of the minor works that went on in the 1800s), but there’s no doubt that Bath Abbey is at its heart purely medieval. Take one look at that wildly impressive vaulted ceiling or the towering pile of stone comprising the great tower, and you’ll know. It was actually probably the last great cathedral or abbey to climb up to the skies during the Middle Ages.
There are even slight vestiges of earlier eras, such as the Gethsemane Chapel, which is dated back to Norman times (12th century) as well as a few other Norman attributes. It was in this building – or rather the one that predated it – that the first King of England, King Edgar, was crowned, all the way back in 973 CE. The oldest version of Bath abbey was founded in 757 CE and was once a Benedictine Abbey.
Climb the tower to get not only an interesting behind-the-scenes peek at Bath Abbey, but also an amazing view of the city and the Roman bathhouse.
Bath was once a small walled town, and while the Georgian reboot of the city removed most of the medieval traces, the modern streets still trace their medieval roots, built and fortified by the great warrior king, Alfred. Some other vestiges remain – just one gate (the East Gate on Boat Stall Lane, once offering an important access point to the river) and a wee bit of the walls around Upper Borough Walls and further down the steps, as well as on Old Orchard Street. Long-gone gates are sometimes remembered in the name of present-day street names, restaurants and houses.
Starting from Bristol and running through Bath all the way to Reading for a total of 87 miles (140 km), the Kennet and Avon Canal is a rather impressive work of engineering. Home to 105 locks that were once manually operated by lockkeepers, this was once a main artery for traded goods.
Though the opening of new railways made it obsolete, the Kennet and Avon Canal is still an impressive place. It is home to a number of houseboats, many of which are lived in year-round, while others serve as holiday homes for those who like the idea of a nautical lifestyle, but also appreciate dry land. There is a path that runs parallel to the Canal and is a great place for walking, running and cycling.
For those so inclined, you can make the Kennet and Avon Canal a lovely day out. From Bath, you can follow the canal for 8-10 miles (depending on where you pick up the canal) south along the canal-side path.
Along the way, you’ll pass historic locks, bobbing houseboats, and enjoy picturesque views before arriving in the quaint, medieval village of Bradford-on-Avon, home to a great tithe barn and a number of lovely preserved buildings.
Wander around the wee village and have a cosy cup of tea or a cheeky pint of ale by the fire in one of the pubs before grabbing the train back to Bath.
Another lovely (and shorter) walk will take you up the hill on Cloverton Down to a “building” that is affectionately known as Sham Castle. You can see the castle from the centre of Bath if you look up the hill – its turrets pop out of the trees looking properly gothic (it is also illuminated at night).
But the castle is actually nothing more than a facade. A rich man living in town called Ralph Allen wanted to “improve the view” from his home in town with a view of a gothic castle. There wasn’t one available so he jumped on the 19th-century folly bandwagon. No ruined castle available? Just build a ruin yourself!
Allen found land that was in perfect view of his window, built a front screen wall with two round turrets, two square towers and a great arched doorway and fake arrow slits. Today Sham Castle, known as a folly or fake castle, makes for a great walk and offers a stunning view of Bath.
It might sound a little silly to go to the American Museum while in England, but that’s just what we have in what was once a lovely Neoclassical-style stately home. Now, this museum just out of town is a place to learn about everything from pioneers to folk art to quilting and the Founding Fathers, all aimed at aiding the largely British audience to better appreciate American history.