Bath, England: The Romans Loved it, and so did Jane Austen
A thin veil of mist rises from the rooftop pool, as bathers blissfully soak in the warm, natural thermal spring waters. After a relaxing immersion, the bathers indulge in a spa experience where hot stone massages, soothing aromas and heavenly water lily flotation treatments start the day at the beautiful Thermae Bath Spa in England.
Bath, England, located just outside of Bristol in the country's southwest region, possesses the only mineral-rich hot springs in the UK. In 43 AD, the Romans began the development of Bath as a religious shrine and bathing complex. Since the Roman period, the area's natural thermal hot springs have been the center of Bath's attraction. In the Georgian and Regency era, the city became the height of upper society chic with splendid architecture, elegant shopping, opulent bathing rooms and grand assembly rooms (think Jane Austen).
Today, the city encompasses the magnificence of its past with modern comforts, cuisine, sites, activities, shopping and of course, the thermal waters.
The Baths of BathThe Thermae Bath Spa, located in the city center, is a fabulous consortium of five restored historic buildings and one new building with outstanding architecture, the New Royal Bath. The spa opened in 2006 with an emphasis on well-being and providing guests the benefits of four natural thermal baths and the absolute top spa treatments and services available. Moreover, the Thermae Spa's seamless mélange of architecture elicits an atmosphere of tranquility, beauty and balance.
The largest pool in the spa is the indoor Minerva Bath with splendid white columns, curving designs and mineral rich, perfect temperature spring water. A languorous soak in this pool will strip any tension from your body. If guests prefer outdoor bathing, the open-air rooftop pool is equally appealing and overlooks cityscapes and the lovely hillsides of Bath.
After a relaxing soak, pamper yourself with an extraordinary spa experience with a Watsu Thermal Treatment, Hot Stone Spa Therapy, Body Wrap, Vichy Rainforest Shower, facial, massage or Dry Flotation Therapy. Dry Flotation is a unique treatment that starts with a German designed table that looks similar to a massage table. It gently lowers you into a warm, supported lining with pulsating water jets on the other side, so you stay dry. This heavenly cocoon is amazing and while you drift off to relaxation, a massage therapist massages your feet with special scented oils for a sublime experience.
The Romans created the Roman Baths over natural hot springs almost 2000 years ago as a religious temple and bathing-leisure complex (Aquae Sulis). The shrine was devoted to Sulis, the goddess of water and the baths were used for well-being, as well as many religious activities. The baths are no longer used for bathing but are a designated UNESCO world heritage site, museum and learning center.Visitors are able to walk through the complex and see artifacts from the Roman era; view models of what the original design and buildings looked like and watch computer animations and film projections of how the baths were used by actors in period clothing. The Roman Baths are truly fascinating with statues and busts of the Goddess Minerva and Sulis on display and captivating stone architecture and steps that lead to various pools and rooms. Natural hot springs still fill the main baths and actors dressed in Roman attire interact with visitors and provide a glimpse of a world far removed from what Bath is today. Plan on at least a few hours to view the baths and bring your camera.
The Pump Room is located adjacent to the Roman Baths and originally opened in 1706 to serve the natural spring water for drinking. It was fashionable at the time to take the waters for health and medicinal purposes. Today, the waters still flow from a lovely urn fountain and contain 43 minerals; visitors can still purchase a glass.
The Pump Room is of a lovely neoclassical design and has been considered the social heart of bath for over two centuries. Morning coffee and high tea are served daily and the fare is excellent. Sit and enjoy luscious scones and locally made clotted cream with tea and finger sandwiches while listening to classical music by the Pump Room Trio.
Jane AustenIf you're a Jane Austen fan, you will be thrilled to visit the Jane Austen Centre, located on Gay Street. Arrive at the centre and you'll be greeted by a gentlemen in late Georgian apparel with a top hat and charming manners to make you blush. Martin Salter is the elegantly clad fellow and he is touted as the "most photographed gentleman in Britain." Salter will usher you in with style and from here, visitors enter Jane Austen's world.
Guests are led upstairs to watch a short film and then a lecture about her history, where and when she lived in bath, as well as her career and many fascinating tidbits about her life (Jane was not wealthy and she and her family drank Twinings tea). Downstairs in the centre, guests are afforded a self-guided tour that provides interesting information on social customs of the regency era and Austen's history with displays, artifacts, fashions and life in 18th century Bath.
After your tour is complete, consider a cup of tea and cakes in the award-wining Regency Tea Room, located on the centre's second floor. And, stroll into the centre's wonderful gift shop where all of Austen's books, out of print and rare editions, biographies, various memorabilia, CDs and DVDs are offered. Walking tours of Jane Austen's Bath are also available.
Georgian ArchitectureBath's exquisite Georgian architecture is another reason to love the city; just take a walk about town on Great Pulteney Street, The Circus and Royal Crescent. These famous streets are the key reason why Bath was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The homes built by John Wood Elder and his son John Wood are perfect examples of 18th century structural design and the connected housing that appears as one elaborate building. On Royal Crescent Street, visitors are able to tour one of the Georgian homes, the Crescent Museum, built in 1775. One of the most unusual aspects of the lovely home is the kitchen that displays a Dog Wheel. A Turnspit Dog that was bred with short legs used to run on the wheel and keep it turning until the meat was slowly roasted.
Where would Jane Austen and her contemporaries meet for dancing, cards and tea? The Assembly Rooms, located just off Bennett Street were host to 18th century society. The rooms were part of a large building that now houses the Assembly Rooms and the Fashion Museum on the lower floors. These elegant rooms with their high ceilings, sparkling chandeliers and spacious ballroom parquet floors were where society mingled and danced. The Octagon Room was used for serving tea in the evening; walking around the enormous room, you can almost hear the clink of china and the animated conversations of long ago...
After visiting the Assembly Rooms, go downstairs and wander about the Fashion Museum. It would seem an unlikely place to display Helmut Lang, but as you progress through the rooms, the fashions will captivate you with memories of your own past attire, and those grand designs of several hundred years ago. The gloves are especially interesting and the wide ball gowns make you wonder how women ever navigated through any room without knocking everything on the floor.
Shopping and Tea: A perfect combinationTo shop in Bath is to bring another empty suitcase with you. Visitors will find all the designer stores they seek and unique boutique shops as well. Two impressive shops to peruse are Alexandra May and the Antiques In Bath. Alexandra May offers gorgeous jewelry and alluring curios. While the Antiques In Bath, located on Bartlett Street, hosts multiple galleries of everything from those coveted silver Regency era teapots to tiny clocks. This shop is a gem and a bit hidden.
Once you have walked about Bath and explored the multitudes of fantastic shops and sites, you may wish to sit and sip a cup of tea or take some home with you. For the absolute best tea in Bath and our high recommendation, visit the Tea House Emporium, located on New Bond Street. The teahouse sells top quality tea and accessories on the first floor, such as Earl Grey with Jasmine, Russian Caravan or green tea and an array of tempting teapots. Wander downstairs and you will enter into a small and cozy enclave to sit in comfy chairs for tea, coffee and the only place in England you'll likely find the prized Czech Honey Cake.
Additional sites to explore: Bath Abbey, beautiful and historical Church; Sally Lunn's Buns, award winning and delicious; Bath Preservation Trust Museum - multiple museums that detail life, culture, society, science and art of Bath.
Accommodations are abundant in Bath; however, the Macdonald Bath Spa Hotel, located on Sydney Road is our sumptuous recommendation. This fine 5-star hotel offers canopied beds, large marble bathrooms and an atmosphere that is serene and picturesque. The gardens are phenomenal, surrounding the hotel with views from most rooms and their spa facilities are excellent.
The best way to arrive in Bath is to take BritRail into the city from any of the major UK airports. It is literally five minutes from the station to the city center and the train is a comfortable and relaxing way to start your sojourn.
Patrice Raplee is an experienced travel photojournalist and editor of Travel Excursion and Seattle Spotlight for Positively Entertainment magazine. In addition, she writes a monthly travel column for the award-wining site Offbeat Travel. She is a member of North American Travel Journalists Association (NATJA), International Travel Writers Alliance (ITWA) and the Recording Academy. Her photographs and articles have appeared in numerous international publications, as well as NW newspapers such as the Seattle Times, the Stranger, Seattle Weekly and the Oregonian. As a freelance photojournalist, she has also worked with acclaimed musical entertainers, such as Santana, Billy Joel and Steven Tyler. Patrice travels the globe to cover destinations that feature fascinating culture, art, culinary, history and soft adventure.
All photos by Patrice Raplee