I spent a few days in Bath this month, and these, for me, were the highlights:
The Roman Baths
These go back to Celtic times when a shrine was built around the hot spring in honour of the goddess Sulis. When the Romans invaded, they cleverly incorporated the name and cult of Sulis into worship of their own goddess Minerva. Since then, the baths have had a chequered history which is reflected in the extraordinary hotchpotch of their architecture, so that it’s possible, looking one way, to imagine Romans bathing, and, by looking another, to conjure decorously dressed eighteenth-century ladies with floating trays of nosegays.
A short ten-minute walk from the centre, in a district still inhabited by artisans, is a glass blowing studio. Here, it’s possible to watch glass objects being made using tools and techniques that have changed little over the centuries. There’s something magical and also hypnotic about the transformation of a small nob of molten glass into an exquisitely molded vase or decanter.
The Sally Lunn Bun
One of Bath’s commercial legends. Sally Lunn (Solange Luyon) arrived in the City in 1680, a Huguenot refugee from France, and quickly established herself as a successful baker with her famous and still-secret bun recipe. Make no mistake, the buns themselves are dispiritingly ordinary: plate-sized and plain toasted white-bread rounds with a slight sweetness of brioche. They may have been a novelty in the 1680s, but today they have about as much culinary interest as cotton wool. The tea shop where they are served, though, is fascinating. And the look of dismay and disbelief on the faces of visitors as the buns are set in front of them is one of Bath’s must-sees!
This has a beautiful eighteenth-century ballroom. What’s more, it isn’t a tourist destination: there’s no sign, no fee, no multimedia gimmicks, just a welcoming smile from the man at the reception and a joke about how the three magnificent chandeliers (each containing 15,000 glass pieces) are about to be put on ebay!
The Assembly Rooms
More stunning Georgian rooms peopled with ghosts from Jane Austen’s novels.
and The Fashion Museum
Though in the same building as the Assembly Rooms, this deserves a separate mention. A local designer and author, Doris Langley, began the collection in 1963, and today the museum contains items from 1600 to the present. Each case gives fascinating glimpses into the ingenuity, exuberance and sometimes sheer absurdity of fashion.
No 1 The Crescent
The elegant crescent is a landmark of the City and thanks to the work of the Bath Preservation Trust, it’s now possible to visit one of the houses restored to all its eighteenth-century glory. One of the joys of the house is that the volunteer guides don’t have a set patter, but, when prompted, reveal fascinating information in answer to specific questions. I learned that the derivation of the phrase ‘rule of thumb’ comes from the fact that husbands were legally permitted to beat their wives as long as their sticks were no bigger than this digit, and that the patches women wore to disguise smallpox scars could be employed as signifiers in complex courtship games.
Bath still has a reasonable number of independently run small shops tucked in amongst the chains. There’s a double-windowed butcher specializing in locally produced meat, a cheese shop, two or three bakers, some excellent second-hand bookshops, and even a haberdashers. These days, in Britain, such sights are all too rare….