By Simon Woodhouse
What’s in a name? In the case of the city of Bath, quite a lot. As with lots of other historical cities, it’s very difficult to know exactly when Bath first came into being. Myths and legends veil the place in an intriguing mystique. But despite this, it’s easy to see where the name comes from. Bath is centred around the only thermal hot spring in the whole of the United Kingdom. One of the oldest legends regarding its origin talks about Prince Bladud, who around 893 BC was unfortunate enough to contract leprosy, and so be banished from his father’s court. Living as a swineherd, the prince eked out a meagre living in marshes not far from the royal palace. Things went from bad to worse, when one day one of his pigs also caught leprosy. However, every cloud has a silver lining, and much to Bladud’s surprise, the pig got better after wallowing in mud near the hot springs at the centre of the marsh. Prince Bladud followed the pigs example, and he too was cured. Later when he became king, he built a palace around the hot spring and called the place Aquae Sulis (Waters of the Sun). So that’s one take on how Bath came into being.
Bath stayed as a Celtic shrine until the Romans arrived in 43 AD. A rather hygienic lot, and clever architects too, the Romans built an elaborate bathing complex around the hot springs. They also fortified the town, but then left again in the fourth century as the outer edges of the Roman Empire started to crumble. For much of the medieval period, Bath became rather neglected. In the later half of the sixteenth century however, interest in the city and its thermal springs brought in aristocratic types who wanted to partake of the waters. But things really took off in Georgian times (roughly 1714 to 1830), when Bath became very fashionable, and thus expanded with a glut of well laid out, well built Georgian townhouses.
Much of the Georgian architecture still dominates the city today, and also gives it a lot of character. The railways came to Bath in 1840, and made reaching the city from Bristol and London that much easier. The city is also served by the River Avon, and the Kennet and Avon Canal.
Getting into modern day Bath is probably easiest by train, and regular high-speed services link the city to London. As with older cities, cars don’t have much of a place in central Bath, with both driving and parking a bit of a problem. But seeing as all the main attractions are within walking distance of the railway station, a car isn’t really necessary.
There really is so much to see in Bath, it’s difficult to know where to start. The Roman Baths are probably a must-see, after all, without them there wouldn’t be a city in the first place. Bath Abbey is another popular visit. Not far from both of these is Pulteney Bridge, one of only three examples worldwide of a bridge with shops on it, the other two being the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, and the Ponte di Rialto in Venice. If you’re in to Georgian architecture then The Circle and The Royal Crescent are definitely worth a look. Even if old buildings aren’t your thing, you can’t fail to be impressed by both of these. Tall townhouses form a complete circle in the first, and a crescent shape in the second, with one supposedly meant to represent the Sun and the other the Moon. The Pump Room is an excellent place to take traditional afternoon tea (a very British thing to do). You can also try a glass of the warm spa water here, but I wouldn’t recommend it, as the stuff is foul. Bath has a total of twenty museums, though some of them are little more than very big gift shops, but the one connected to the baths is certainly worth a look.
As you walk around Bath you’ll be following in the footsteps of Jane Austene (though she didn’t like the city very much). Despite her aversion to the place, she did set two of her novels there – Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. William Herschel discovered the planet Uranus from his back garden in Bath in 1781. And part of Charles Dickens’ novel The Pickwick Papers was also set in the city.
Though there’s plenty to see and do in Bath, for me it’s the atmosphere of the city that makes it such a nice place to visit. Tiny back alleys, all full of interesting little shops and welcoming eateries, make Bath the sort of place that’s more interesting to discover without the aid of a guide book. There are also numerous parks to wander through, areas of open greenness and well-kept flowerbeds that are such a real pleasure to be in on a warm summer’s afternoon.
Bath isn’t one of those cities that has tried to combine old with new. Instead it has kept its character by preserving the old, and thus making it a place to get a real glimpse of England’s past.