It is truth universally acknowledged that a single gentleman in possession of a good appetite must be in want of a person to share it with.
I paraphrase and twist the words of Jane Austen to suit my purpose, but what I mean is that 20 years ago, I, too, was wooed in and by the city of Bath. The handsome, grizzled photographer “gentleman” was eager to show off his home city of creamy neoclassical crescents, parades and promenades that sit high on the ridge of the Mendips Hills, and had booked a table at the famous Pump Room.
Once upon a time, the glitterati and literati of 18th-century London—see: artist Thomas Gainsborough, satirists Swift and Henry Fielding, as well as Jane Austen—gathered to take the waters here, to see and be seen. Beau Nash, the famous dandy of the era and unofficial master of ceremonies in this then most fashionable spa town in England, was fond of posting a list of rules that included dress codes (no wearing of hats or aprons for women, no boots or spurs for men) in the Assembly Rooms. Would he have blanched at the scene, 200 years later — less Bridgerton and more bridge and tunnel, perhaps: the shuffling queues of blue-rinse dames, anoraks and backpackers waiting to drink the water, which can still be drawn from the Baroque fountain beside the Roman baths?
The Pump Room pianist did his best to elevate the space, trying his hand at Handel, but when the salad arrived, undressed and tossed with indigestible chunks of raw onion and a rogue Brazil nut or two, my new beau and I succumbed to our first row. Did this spell the demise of a beautiful association with Bath, or nip a blossoming relationship in the bud? Dear reader, let me not keep you in suspense: I married him. A winter’s ring ceremony in Bath was preceded by a wedding breakfast nearby, against the glorious Georgian backdrop of Babington House (a Soho House property). Later came a honeymoon weekend in the even more filmic surroundings of Lucknam Park, a grande dame of a Palladian villa hidden away in a 550-acre park.
Since the millennium, a multi million-pound investment in the antiquated Victorian South Western railway system has brought London — now just over an hour away by train — within commuter reach, and Bath is no longer just the stunning but touristic provincial backwater that I first clapped eyes on. There are now seductive hotels with just the right combination of intimate, grand and camp that haven’t been Disneyfied (nor exploited the Jane Austen connection to death). And while Bath still doesn’t do cutting-edge, its formerly fusty boarding houses have been dragged into the new century, where they stand as charming guest houses with some surprisingly good restaurants that, happily, now serve their salads dressed. Even the Pump Room has upped its game, offering an agreeable dose of nostalgia and retro-chic, which is a balm in our unsettled times. There is the prawn cocktail special, for instance, or scones at afternoon tea, a ritual concocted and popularized by the Duchess of Bedford, another doyenne of the 1800s Bath scene. And behind the flawlessly made-up façade Bath presents to the world, I have gotten to know its refreshingly real, free-spirited and bohemian mindset, discovering an exhilarating city of blink-and-you-miss-it treasure troves and hidden watering holes.
Sitting atop an amphitheater of hills and woodlands, this compact urban community keeps one foot solidly in the countryside. Its architectural beauties and pedestrianized cobbled streets give suddenly onto river, parkland and open pasture, and everywhere is best explored on foot. Central Bath is made for browsing, strolling and grazing. Take your time, keep your eyes open for period details such as the cast-iron street candle-snuffers and masonic symbols and, above all, allow yourself to get lost. This way you are sure to uncover a hidden junk shop or artisanal sole trader in a dead-end alleyway — though damned if you can ever find it again.
Where To Wander, Window-shop and Graze
Amble along Walcot Street to get a sense of the city’s thriving creative spirit. A high stone bulwark along the western length of the street holds back 18th-century patrician Bath from the grittier working-class district with a grip like a dowager’s corset. Pick up some snuff boxes at the Saturday flea market, where once cattle were traded, or, if you’re lucky, a 1970s silk scarf at the Yellow Shop. Ever since London’s Notting Hill became colonized by oligarchs and lost its bohemian soul, many of its independent design and concept stores like Graham and Green have migrated here. For lunch, pause at Landrace Bakery, which serves a variation on the legendary Bath bun and specializes in naturally leavened breads from stoneground U.K. grains. Alternatively, there is the Hobbity Bell Inn, a pub and beloved institution with live music and a taste of alternative Bath.
Between the Circus and Royal Crescent, the pedestrianized Margarets Buildings and its outlets are more refined, as suits its patrician setting. Inexpensive first editions are still a feature at the antiquarian’s favorite, Bath Old Books, which packs more books into cubby holes than you would possibly imagine. On the same street, Alexandra May does a great display of contemporary costume jewelry from all around the world. A relative newcomer is 8 Holland Street (another Notting Hill émigré) for interiors and design in the fascinating premises of the original Bath Oliver biscuit shop, with a calendar of events and talks promised as soon as lockdown ends.
Bartlett Street is for fashion, ethically sourced and locally designed at Bibico and The Loft, which also has a cafe and lifestyle store offering craftsmanship that is unique to the locale, while opposite, Same Same But Different is the kind of unbuttoned coffeehouse that is a feature of Bath city life: it stayed open in lockdown to the gratification of its many regulars. Meanwhile, the historic railway terminus at Green Park Station becomes a farmer’s market on weekends, showcasing the best of Somerset produce (especially dairy, orchard and pork products, for which Southwest England is renowned), with street food from hole-in-the-wall Goulash or Maureen’s Mediterranean. On the first and last Sunday of the month, the area becomes an open-air antiques emporium, with stalls selling old maps, clocks and reclaimed furniture and taxidermy.
Unique Buys and Destination Stories
Toppings and Mr. B’s Emporium | In a city where you are spoiled for independent bookshops, two stand out. Toppings is a success story of lockdown: England has turned into a nation of bookworms, and this wonderful independent bookshop moves to new premises this year to house its growing collection of over 50,000 titles. And there is always a pot of tea being brewed at Mr. B’s Emporium, which offers an ingenious Reading Spa or library concierge. Over a cuppa and a consultation, they will supply you with enough inspirational reading material to suit your time, appetite and purse.
Paxton and Whitfield | Winston Churchill once suggested that a gentleman only bought his cheese at Paxton and Whitfield. Here is the hallmarked purveyor the “Harvie and Hudson” of English cheeses, a brand as old as the city itself. Compare Somerset cheddars on the premises, best tasted atop a dry Bath Oliver cracker that is the same color as the local stone.
Grace and Ted | The individualist Brits have never balked at secondhand, and this mother-daughter “storehouse of affordable luxury’ is where you might unearth a 1980s Mulberry or Céline bag or a Bella Freud sweater for a song. These spacious premises in a Georgian building make for relaxing browsing in the company of the resident dog, Charley.
Found | A fun place to dig up undiscovered fashion labels and indie magazines from around the world. The owners’ restless souls and love of travel has found an outlet in this light-filled store near Pulteney Bridge. Stationery and design freaks will covet the bright leather diaries by Comme des Garçons, while others make beelines for unstructured smocks and slouchy boiler suits by New Zealand duo Twenty Seven Names.
Francis Gallery | Owner Rosa Park, of Cereal magazine fame, found her spiritual home in Bath. Like many others, she subsequently moved her London art gallery to these noble Georgian premises, where abstract objects are beautifully displayed with a minimalist’s eye.
Bath’s Raison D’Être: Hot Springs
The city of Bath, of course, owes its existence to these thermal waters, which filter through the limestone of the Mendips as rain and emerge from beneath the earth’s surface as hot springs. The Romans called the settlement Aquae Sulis, “health through water.” They invented the concept of the spa, turning it into a cultural, social, as well as curative activity. Centuries later, thanks to the vision of Beau Nash, Bath of the Georgian 1700s became “the first pleasure resort in the kingdom” to include not just the bathhouses, but the pump room, where the thermal water was also drunk, a casino, chocolate houses, theaters, promenades and parks.
The hot-water springs, bubbling up at a hot 46 degrees Celsius, contain over 30 minerals, including iron, calcium and sulphur: an alleged elixir for the liver and skin. The Cross Bath, in a beautiful Regency building, can be booked for exclusive use for up to 12 friends. Steaming under an open roof is a unique way to enjoy the city’s twilight skies.
Or book a session at the spa at The Gainsborough opposite the Thermae Bath Spa. It was the first hotel to have its own borehole to the thermal spring source, thus avoiding the chlorine-tainted, locker-room atmosphere of the public spa baths. Beneath the filtered sunlight of the atrium, various heated pools of increasing temperature take the experience of wallowing to a new level, with underwater massage jets, sauna and infrared-heat room — not to mention a lavender-infused ice mountain to close the pores afterwards. In a nod to Georgian tradition, there is also a chocolate and chili drinking fountain if you have flaked out in the heat.
Where to Stay
Eight is simply a very good restaurant with rooms — eight of them — and a menu of eight dishes that change with the season. Shoehorned into the city center, within minutes’ walk of the Roman baths, this medieval building has massive hearths you could roast a goat in, wonky wooden floors and no right angles in sight. The cooking in the candlelit dining room is elegant, interesting and French.
The Royal Crescent | Staying at this perfectly proportioned mansion on the perfectly proportioned and most celebrated street in Bath — conceived so that the ladies could pass each other comfortably with open parasols and full skirts on the sidewalks— is to breathe in the rarefied and refined atmosphere of the Regency era. Its sugared-almond-tinted interiors exude old-school calm, where children are best seen, not heard. The biggest suites have the best views over the historic Crescent, while the Beau Nash suite opens onto the lavender-fringed gardens, where you can order from an extensive green tea menu or lunch in the summer. The spa has two beautiful bathing pools in a church-like barn with vaulted ceiling and Gothic windows.
Bath Priory | Close to Victoria Park, this ivy-clad 1840s villa is striking for its beautiful four-acre gardens, a croquet lawn and the area’s only outdoor swimming pool. A multi-course summer’s lunch on the terrace is worth the journey to Bath alone. If “caractère, courtoisie, calme, charme and cuisine” are the defining principles of the illustrious Relais & Châteaux consortium, of which Bath Priory is part, then this should be its flagship.
Brindley | The epitome of English vintage chic, with its free-standing baths, chintz and toile de jouy furnishings, this quirky B&B sits in a quiet, wisteria-covered cottage garden near the Holborne Museum.
…And Where to Stay (Just) Out of Town
People get misty-eyed about English country-house weekends, epitomized by a design style that marries comfort with a careless elegance (threadbare chintz, bald patches on the velvet cushions, dog hair on the cashmere throws). Refined but not try-hard. This is exactly the kind of place you can find within 15 minutes drive of Bath: Georgian gems with the requisite gravel drives through avenue of limes, walled kitchen garden, racks for Wellington boots and the necessary flat croquet lawn. If Lucknam Park is large and grand with a stable of thoroughbreds, dress code for dinner, destination spa (great Anne Semonin facials), a drive between mature beeches so lengthy it was repurposed to hide RAF spitfires in the last war, members’ club Babington House is rock ‘n’ roll. There is a no-ties-or-suits policy, and the Soho House atmosphere spills from billiard room to bar and onto the double daybeds around the outdoor swimming pool that steams invitingly, even in midwinter. The Pig Near Bath attracts a younger crowd of couples or young parents with tots who can’t be dealing with the slightest whiff of formality, so the dining room is like a sweet potting shed, with scrubbed wooden tables and seedlings and shelves of pickled treats plucked from the estate orchards and fruit cages.
Tivoli Cinema | Anyone tired of streaming on their laptop will appreciate the glamour of the Tivoli, a proper cinema with wide velvet armchairs from which you can enjoy a cocktail and preordered dinner, served by a real live usherette while the film rolls.
Beckford Bottle Shop | For a buzzy atmosphere and relaxed service, with sharing plates and any wine available from the shop to try for a small corkage fee, this place is a great newish addition to Bath. The boys from the Beckford Arms, a phenomenally successful Wiltshire country pub that has mushroomed to included various offshoots, introduced their wine shop outlet to the city as a place to kick back (plenty of leather sofas), bring the dog and enjoy quasi-extinct English favorites such as Bath chaps (fried pig cheeks) and brown butter skate wings.
Noya’s Kitchen Supper Club | If you ask why you would come to Bath to eat Vietnamese, then know that Noya’s is the kind of soul food that sets it apart. The cozy, convivial atmosphere is as comforting as the five-course tasting menu on Friday’s Supper Club nights.
Royal Crescent and Circus are the main stage set for the popular Netflix drama Bridgerton (No. 1 is the Featherington family manse) and home to famous residents past and present, from Gainsborough and Manolo Blahnik to Nicolas Cage. A lesser-known detail is that this residential terrace was designed according to a masonic system of symbols representing the moon and sun by architect John Wood the Elder, who was also a Druid and into paganism. I like to stand between the clump of trees in the center of the Circus and clap to catch the mystical echo while counting the Druidic serpents, acorns and anchors above the front doors. There is said to be one for every day of the year. The two areas are connected by Brock Street, which is reputedly on a ley line aligned to Stonehenge.
The Holburne Museum, which also doubled as the private mansion of Lady Danbury in Bridgerton, is a favorite 18th-century landmark and treasure trove of inspiration. Its permanent patrician collection and classical ceramics and oils are counterbalanced with edgy and exciting exhibitions of (often local) contemporaries, such as Grayson Perry and Peter Blake. In fine weather, the cafe is a good lunch spot, spilling out onto Sydney Gardens, the only intact 18th-century gardens in the city. Here you will find promenades, a folly and access to the Kennet and Avon canal, where you can hire narrow boats or paddleboards from Original Wild to drift beside the wonderful Pulteney Bridge, built by Robert Adams on an old design for the Venice Rialto.
Victoria Park is a happening scene, named after the Queen Victoria who visited the spa once and never again because, as the story goes, someone made a disparaging remark about her ankles. Winter is for ice-skating, summer is hot-air ballooning, and the permanent skate park draws a crowd at Bath on the Beach for games such as petanque in the sand bar and hammock-lazing beside the cocktail bar, not to mention the promise of themed party nights. Roll on, summer.
The British Pilgrimage Trust is a young organization revitalizing ancient pathways along ley lines and holy trails. Its growing popularity in lockdown highlights an incipient desire to connect with the landscape, myth and ancient history. Bath’s pilgrimage trail is free and downloadable on an app from their website, or book on their group pilgrimage, which take you to secret places, sacred oaks and hidden springs around Bath, including a wild swim at Warlegh Weir and a visit to magical Iford Manor, which is in the Domesday Book. The latter is also famous for its Italianate gardens and cloister, where in summer you can listen to opera and jazz concerts and explore the walled terraces and flower beds used as a backdrop for The Secret Garden with Colin Firth. New this year is the three-bedroom Rowly Cottage, now available to rent.
The SkyLine | This six-mile walk takes you on a loop above Bath and embraces all the best views over the golden city. Highlights are an Iron Age hill fort, Roman settlements, 18th-century follies like Sham Castle and the open fields of Widcombe and Bathwick and bluebell woods at Smallcombe, home to the most ancient trees. The historic dams of Prior Park are under repair this year, but the estate is better than any, with its Palladian bridge by Ralph Allen so harmoniously set in the sweeping parkland landscape of Capability Brown.
A former travel editor of Bazaar and Net-a-Porter’s Porter magazine, travel writer Catherine Fairweather is spiritually at home in Greece, her mother country, where she lives for some of the year in a stone cottage in the midst of an olive grove and harvests virgin oil. When she isn’t on the road (preferably off-track in a 4x4) or blinking in the bright lights of London, she hunkers down in Somerset in an ancient farmhouse with no mobile reception or light pollution that she shares with her photographer husband, Don Mccullin, an 18-year-old son, and a handful of indestructible guinea fowl.