This vibrant university town of about 80,000 inhabitants, beautifully situated in the valley of the River Avon (not the same one that runs through Stratford), is one of the prettiest in England. It owes its world wide fame to its hot springs, which have been the centre of the town's life from the very beginning. They are the only hot springs in Britain.
A Bit of History In the C1 A.D., the Romans founded a city around the hot springs, and called it Aquae Sulis ("Waters of Sul"), after a pagan British goddess Sul who the Romans identified with Minerva. A temple was built to Sul, and lavish baths were constructed. Their remains - undoubtedly the best Roman ruins north of the Alps - still stand, and are the chief attraction of the town. The pools, lead pipes, statues, and steam rooms (still fed by hot springs) are intact. Steam still rises from the pools. On display are many pieces of sculpture with Latin inscriptions. A large collection of Roman coins feature busts of Nero, Augustus, Trajan, and other emperors, along with other fascinating knickknacks. Here on the very edge of the Roman world, on the edge of civilisation as far as the Romans were concerned, is a unique synthesis of two worlds colliding: Rome and the native Celtic cultures of Roman Britain.
When the Romans left the British Isles Bath went into something of a decline. It underwent a resurgence in the Middle Ages as cloth making, produced from Cotswold wool, rose to great importance. The splendour of Bath Abbey is the finest testament to this era in Bath's history. It is not, however, nutil the C18 that Bath enjoyed its incomparable days of glory.
In the C18, the baths were rediscovered, and the city rose to fame as a spa and health resort. It soon became the most fashionable spa in England. The architect John Wood set out to re-design the whole town, with handsome boulevards and Georgian-style villas. The result is that Bath is often called the "best-planned town in England." All the famous personages of the time came to Bath, and told of its magnificence. Beau Nash, a sort of master of ceremonies for English high society, entertained in style. A list of names of some of the rich and famous who flocked here in the C18 and C19 is given below. More than anyone, Jane Austen (who disliked the place) is the person who has immortalised the frivolous and privileged lifestyle that Bath encapsulated.
A Bit of Science The water is known as "lime-carbonated", suitable for the treatment of rheumatic diseases, high blood pressure, and in general metabolic disorders. The hot, radioactive waters are cooled by the mineral waters springing up from the ground, making for an agreeable temperature. The hot radioactive waters are caused by volcanic conditions deep in the earth. The temperature of the waters remains constant no matter the climate above ground. These waters have flowed continuously throughout the known history of Bath, and seem to be independent of weather conditions, drought, flood, etc. on the surface of the ground. There are three springs: the King's Spring, the Hot Spring and the Cross Spring. Together they pour forth about 280,000 gallons a day. The temperature of the different springs ranges from 114 F. to 120 F.
Sightseeing in Bath You will not generally have a local guide so you need to do the visit yourself. The centrepiece of the tour is the Roman Baths. Other than that you should do a little tour by coach of Georgian Bath (do this first) and take anybody who is interested to see inside Bath Abbey (another of these compulsory voluntary donations). Then leave free time for shopping, etc.
The coach tour is a bit unsatisfactory — this is definitely one of those cities best seen on foot — but in the limited time you have no choice. You should try to include the following: Pulteney Bridge and Great Pulteney Street (as far as the roundabout where you must turn back and recross the bridge), the Assembly Rooms and the Circus, Gay Street, Queen Square and the Royal Crescent. (You cannot actually get near the Royal Crescent with the coach but there is a good, if distant, view from the gardens below.) Below are some points worth mentioning along the way:
a) We owe the beautiful harmony of the Georgian townscape to the C18 architect John Wood and his son who designed the buildings you are looking at in the same Palladian style and in the same honey-coloured stone, known as Bath stone.
b) Bath stone is easy to clean, hence the pristine condition of much of what you see.
c) Though Bath was badly bombed in WW II, much of the old stuff was rebuilt as before, so Bath does not really suffer, as so many other English cities do, from insensitive modern town planning.
d) Pulteney Bridge is the only survivng bridge in England still lined with houses and shops (cf. Ponte Vecchio in Florence). As you drive over it - if they let you - you have no impression whatsoever of crossing over a bridge.
e) The streets off the roundabout on Gt. Pulteney St, Laura Place and Henrietta St, are named after Beau Nash's two daughters.
f) The building at the end of Gt. Pulteney Street is the Holbourne Museum of Fine Art, with a nice collection of C18 English Painting (Gainsborough, Reynolds etc.)
g) The Assembly Rooms now house the superb Museum of Costume. This was the social centre of C18 Bath life, for dancing, concerts, card playing etc. All the ball scenes in Jane Austen's novel Persuasion take place here. The Assembly Rooms were destroyed in WW II and subsequently restored.
h) The Circus was intended by the architect John Wood to represent the sun; the Royal Crescent to represent the moon.
i) The obelisk in the centre of The Circus commemorates the visit of Frederick Prince of Wales in 1723.
j) The houses of The Circus have three storeys supported by pilasters in respectively Doric, Ionic and Corinthian styles. They are surmounted by a parapet topped with acorns.
k) No. 1 Royal Crescent has been furnished again as it was in the C18 and is a beautiful and fascinating museum. No. 16, in the centre, is Bath's finest and most elegant hotel.
If you follow the tour more or less as above you will pass the houses where the following people stayed on their visit to Bath. You may want to enhance your mystical aura of expertise by memorising and pointing out one or two of them:
27 Gt. Pulteney St Mrs Fitzhebert, mistress of King George IV
36 Gt. Pulteney St William Wilberforce, driving force behind the abolition of slavery
55 Gt. Pulteney St Emperor Napoleon III of France
72 Gt. Pulteney St Louis XVIII, King of France (1814-24)
2 Broad St John Wesley, founder of Methodism
7 The Circus William Pitt, C18 Prime Minister and statesman
13 The Circus David Livingstone, explorer of the African interior
17 The Circus Thomas Gainsborough, portrait painter
25 Gay St John Wood, principal architect of what you see
13 Queen Square Jane Austen, author of Pride and Prejudice, etc.
Among other great names who have lived or stayed are, for example, Charles Dickens (much of the Pickwick Papers is set here); William Wordsworth, the romantic poet; and Admiral Lord Nelson, British naval hero of the Napoleonic Wars. Probably the most famous contemporary resident is Van Morrison who lives on St. James' Square, next door to where Charles Dickens used to stay.
After you've done the coach tour the driver will drop you at the coach park down by the river from where it is a 10 minute walk to the Roman Baths. (Ideally you want to be dropped off, if there's room and the driver is willing, at the bus stop by Bath Abbey where the open-topped sightseeing buses pick up.) Walk the group to the square in front of the Roman Baths. Make sure to point out the late Gothic Bath Abbey whose highlight inside is its breathtaking fan vaulting. When you pay the entrances to the baths you will be given audio guides which are excellent and take you through as much as you want to see in as much detail as you require. The tour generally takes people about 45 minutes. They come out from the shop on the Stall Street side. Let them know that afterwards they can go for tea in the adjoining Pump Room where they can listen to an elegant string quartet and taste the utterly disgusting but health-giving warm mineral water that has made Bath famous. Over the portico is an inscription in Greek from the poet Pindar: "Water is best."
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