36 Hours in Bath

During Catriona Aitken's short stay in Bath, she discovers a plethora of historical information on Roman baths, the Austen family, and gin.

Photo: Catriona Aitken

Beautiful Bath: a city so full of history and culture, and picturesque to boot. I have long wanted to visit this city, and finally got my chance at the end of this semester as exams finished and my friend and I decided to skip the off-season package holiday and take a ‘staycation’ instead.

We arrived on a Saturday in the early evening. It was a lovely sunny day, and as we walked through the town centre to our centrally located hotel, the streets were still buzzing with life. From small boutique stores to high street chains, masked by ornate exteriors and interspersed by on-street market stalls selling everything from homemade lemonade to handcrafted jewellery, the city centre was largely pedestrianised.

Our first priority was scouting out some dinner, and there was no shortage of choice. Within walking distance from our hotel, we could take our pick from a variety of the usual places, as well as a number of more upmarket, independent restaurants.

Feeling full, we decided to take a leisurely stroll around the town, and happened across a small courtyard that housed the entrance to the Roman Baths as well as the grand Bath Abbey. There was a poster advertising free walking tours of the town, and so we made note of the times, keen to make the most of our brief stay in town.

We then decided that, since we were on a holiday, it was time for a drink! We found a great little gin bar called The Canary Gin Bar which also housed The Bath Gin Company distillery. Offering over 40 different gins, this place is a gin-lover’s heaven, and we were lucky to grab a table as the small room soon became very busy. The staff were extremely friendly, and passionate about their local gins, but we decided to start by sampling the original Bath Gin. It was delicious.

The Gin Bar also offered a ‘Cocktails of Gin Austen’ menu in tribute to the well-loved literary queen who lived in the city for a short while. Although we would learn more about Jane Austen’s time spent in Bath later in our trip, we were happy for the time being with a lovely ‘Big Apple’ cocktail.

The beautiful weather continued into the next day, as we made our way back to the centre of town for a morning walking tour. The tour guides, all volunteers with a local heritage group, charged nothing and didn’t even accept tips, and yet we received a wonderfully detailed two-hour walking tour that took us to all of the cities most cherished attractions including the famous Circus and Crescent, the Abbey, Royal Victoria Park, opened by Queen Victoria, the Assembly Rooms, and the previous residences of many famous visitors and inhabitants of the city, including one which I found particularly interesting, Mary Shelley.

Our guide was also extremely knowledgeable about the vast architectural history of the town, and painted a wonderful picture of the once important role of Bath as a gathering place for the social elite, who would bathe in the baths (renowned for their healing qualities), and take it in turns to host lavish parties with fine food and drink. Making it known that you were in town and available to attend such parties was crucial to maintaining your status and, for many, a chance to find a suitable husband or wife.

Following our tour, we grabbed some lunch before returning to the Roman Baths. We felt that no visit to Bath would be complete without entering and seeing the interior for ourselves, and we weren’t wrong! Included in our ticket was an audio handset and, as we wandered through the various sections of the building, we could key in numbers to hear detailed information about the uses of each room, or the history behind each structural feature.

Photo: Catriona Aitken

The baths were built on the site of a spring, which produced more than enough water each day to be used across the entire city. While the water itself did not look particularly inviting (and can no longer be entered by visitors, due to the lead used in the construction of the baths), the overall appearance of the once bustling building is spectacular.

The water was believed to have healing capabilities, and so people would travel from far and wide to immerse themselves in it, hoping to be cured of their ailments. Today, it is possible to taste the spring water. We did so, and were exceptionally unimpressed! Not only is it warm, which for some reason surprised me, but it left an unappealing aftertaste! I wouldn’t recommend it, but if I am to be free of serious illness for the foreseeable future, then I suppose it was worthwhile. Any truth behind that tale remains to be seen!

By this time, our legs were a little tired and our heads were spinning with the facts and figures of Bath’s immense history, so we decided to head back to our hotel for a quick siesta. However, en route, we were met with the weird and wonderful street performances of some type of festival. Performers of various varieties sang, danced, played instruments and more along the main street. One group of women were dressed as suffragettes, while another group of young people stood perfectly still and were dolled up with dramatic stage makeup. I asked a steward what was going on, and her answer implied that this type of entertainment was a reasonably regular occurrence in Bath during the summer!

Our rest was brief, as we had planned to attend a comedy walk, Bizarre Bath, that evening. This took the form of a very different tour around town than the one we had attended previously in the day, but equally entertaining! There was no history, no facts, just a rather funny guy with a silly comedy routine that wasn’t specific to the city as such, but made use of its many street and other attractions to carry out his collection of jokes, magic tricks and generally humorous commentary.

Sad to have but a few hours left in such a beautiful city, my friend and I concluded the trip as we paid a Monday morning visit to the Jane Austen Centre, where we were greeted by Austen experts, dressed in period costume and equipped with many interesting facts and stories about the classic author’s connection to their city.

The museum was quite small, but gave plenty of background into the various parts of Baths the Austen family resided in. Her parents were married in Bath, and wished to retire there but, although Jane had previously enjoyed spending periods of time with relative in Bath in a social capacity, she was not thrilled to inhabit the city permanently. However, it is known now that much of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were inspired by her time there, despite not being written until many years later and not being published until after her death.

There was also a short film, and the opportunity to try on some clothes of the time, or attempt to write using quill and ink (something I had done before and am actually quite skilled at, not that it’s ever been useful to me).

I couldn’t resist a stop off at the gift shop, where I managed to pick up a copy of the first ‘book’ Jane Austen ever wrote (‘The History of England by a partial, prejudiced and ignorant Historian’), her complete novels summarised into one pocket-sized volume, and a keyring with the rather fitting quote from Pride and Prejudice: “Obstinate, headstrong girl”.

Having sufficiently exercised my geekiness, we took one last look at some of Bath’s multitude of shops, and then headed for our train. Throughout our trip, we had come across many very talented buskers. From a fabulous pianist outside the Abbey, to the singer-songwriter who had on the high-street, these musicians weren’t just there to make a living, but to perform to onlookers and kick-start potentially prosperous careers.

Our whirlwind trip had informed, impressed, and inspired. I very much hope to return soon to the city forever marked in my mind by Bath stone and creativity.


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