Bath (pop. 90,000, with suburbs 170,000) is a Georgian spa town predominantly built of limestone, not unlike Oxford and Cambridge. It is one of England (and Europe)'s most attractive and tourist cities, and is listed by the UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
The site of Bath was already settled by Celtic tribes several thousands years ago. According to the legend, Bladud, of the mythical lineage of the Kings of the Britons and himself father of King Lear, built the city of Kaerbadum (present-day Bath) some 2800 years ago. Balud was a leper and he had many hotspring baths built in the city, which supposedly cured his illness.
The first written records of Bath date from Roman times. The Celts already had a shrine dedicated to local goddess Sulis (identified with Minerva/Athena, Greco-Roman goddess of crafts and wisdom), and the Romans founded the temple-town of Aquae Sulis ("Waters of Sulis") in the first century AD.
King Ceawlin of Wessex took control of the region around 577 AD and the Saxons renamed the hotsprings Bašum ("at the baths"), although the town itself laid in ruins at the time.
A monastery was founded in 645. Bath became a royal possession and King Alfred the Great redesign its street pattern in the late 9th century, leaving its south-eastern quadrant as the abbey precinct. Edgard, first king of all England, was crowned at Bath Abbey in 973.
King William Rufus, second son of William the Conqueror, made John of Tours bishop of Wells and abbot of Bath in 1088. The bishopric of Somerset was moved almost immediately to Bath, and the town's first cathedral was built. Baths were built around the three springs, but the town was mostly a wool-trading centre and did not become a popular spa town until the late 17th century.
Architects John Wood, father and son, remodelled the whole city and gave it a palatial air, with a rational street plan and a homogenous classical facades built of creamy gold limestone from the nearby mines of Combe Down.
Post Master and Mayor of Bath Ralph Allen (1694-1764) commissioned John Wood to build his Prior Park estate in 1742. From then on, Bath had become a fashionable town with the elite, and quickly aquired its own theatre and assembly rooms.
Richard 'Beau' Nash (1674-1761) was appointed Master of Ceremonies of Bath in 1705. He played an important role in the revitalisation of Bath as a spa town, presided over social life and imposed strict regulations in regard to the upper-classes' garments and behaviour.
Jane Austen spent a few years of her life in Bath, where she wrote Persuasion and Northanger Abbey. However, Bath's popularity with the aristocracy declined sharply in the early 19th century for the profit of the new sea resorts.
The Roman Baths, established nearly 2000 years ago, were rediscovered in the 18th century and are one of the city's most visited attractions. The waters are now considered unsafe to bath owning to its passing through the lead-pipe built by the Romans and still functioning nowadays. The Roman Baths Museum include the Great Bath, the 12th century King's Bath, as well as the ruins of the Temple of Sulis and the 4th century East Baths.
The tiny Cross Bath on Stall Street is where James II's wife, Mary of Modena, errected a cross in 1688 to thank god for her pregnancy.
If bathing, relaxation and thermal treatments is what you are after, then the brand new, multimillion pound project Thermae Bath Spa is the place to go.
Founded in 675, Bath Abbey saw the coronation of the first king of all England (see History above). It became the seat of the diocese of Somerset in 1088 and St Peter's church was raised into a cathedral. This latter was not completed before 1156.
However the bishop moved to Wells and Bath cathedral fell into disrepair. In 1499, Oliver King, Bishop of Wells and Bath, shocked at the poor condition of the church, ordered it to be rebuilt, smaller than the first cathedral but in a lighter, more elegant style, with angels climbing stone ladders, first up then down, head first. When Henry VIII dissolve the monasteries, Bath Abbey became a possession of the Crown and was stripped of lead, iron and glass and left to rot. The citizens of Bath undertook to restore it between 1572 and 1617.
The Abbey has no less than 640 wall monuments, which only Westminster Abbey exceeds. Several great names are interred in the abbey, including demographer Thomas Malthus, Sir Isaace Pitman and Richard 'Beau' Nash.
The Royal Crescent
One of Bath's jewels, the Royal Crescent is an exclusive semicircular residential estate of 30 Palladian-style houses. It was designed by John Wood the Younger and built between 1767 and 1774. They overlook the Royal Victoria Park.
House No 1 was completely restored to its original state and is open to visitors (Tue-Sun 10:30am-5pm from March to October, and until 4pm in November; entry £4). The Royal Crescent Hotel occupies numbers 15 and 16 Royal Crescent.
Brock Street connects the Royal Crescent to the Circus, a roundabout surrounded by another series of Palladian houses designed by John Wood the Elder. The Circus takes its name from Latin, and was part of the 18th century neo-classical (Roman) reconstruction project.
Designed in 1773 by Robert Adam, Pulteney Bridge is one of the only four bridges in the world with shops across the full span on both sides (like Florence's Ponte Vecchio or Venice's Ponte di Rialto). It was named after Frances Pulteney who commissioned Adam for the construction. The bridge was altered 1792, damaged by floods in 1799 and 1800, but was rebuilt in its original form just after. The windows were later enlarged by shopkeepers, and the pavilion at the western end was demolished in 1903.
Built in 1779 by Thomas Baldwin, the Guildhall acts as a venue for conferences and meetings. Some of the rooms are sometimes open to the public (admission free). Check to see which can be visited when you are there. The most impressive are the neo-classical Banqueting Room and Aix-en-Provence Room. Smaller rooms include the Brunswick, Kaposvar and Alkmaar Rooms.
Bath abounds with museums to match almost anyone's interest. The may want to check the official website of the following museums for detailed information :
Jane Austen Centre
Assembly Room & Museum of Costumes
Building of Bath Museum
Holburne Museum of Art
Victoria Art Gallery
William Herschel Museum
Bath Postal Museum
Museum of East Asian Art
How to get there
Trains from London Paddington take 1h30min (£39.50 saver return) to reach Bath. There are also frequent connections to Bristol (20min, £4.60), and a few trains to Exeter (1h30min, £16.10), Portsmouth (2h, £27.40) and Oxford (1h15min, £22.50). Most trains require a change at Bristol though.
National Express buses connect Bath to London (3h30min, £21 economy return), Bournemouth (2h45min, £16), Oxford (2h, £14) and Manchester (6h15min, £31).
There are short-distance buses to Bristol (No X39, 332 and 339, 50min), Bradford-on-Avon (No X5 and X6, 30min) and Wells (No 173/773, 1h15min) among others.
Bristol can also be reached from Bath by bicycle following a cycle-path of a disused railway along the Avon River.
Train timetables & reservations