Historical Bath

Somehow, in a year of living only a couple hours away, I never made it to Bath, England. This is doubly surprising because I’m pretty fond of Jane Austen, who lived in Bath for many years and set several of her books there. So when some Facebook-friends-turned-real-life-friends suggested a meet-up in Bath on a weekend when I would already be in England, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to see this charming city.

Bath is named after its oldest and most famous attraction, the Roman Baths. Lots of Roman cities had baths, but these were special because of the naturally warm mineral spring water. Bath had the largest public bath in the Roman empire despite the small size of the town because the water didn’t need to be heated! The water also supposedly had healing powers—a belief that continued into the Regency era. There was probably some truth to this: in a time before vitamins, drinking and sitting in water with extraordinarily high mineral content could cure some infirmities. The place to “take the waters” nowadays is the Pump Room next to the baths, where an ornate fountain lets visitors taste the spring water. Most make faces at the sulfuric smell and gritty taste. I banished that taste with afternoon tea (with all the traditional accompaniments), which I ate as I listened to the delightful Pump Room Trio.

My historical adventure continued at the Fashion Museum and Assembly Rooms. The Museum was simply paradise for anyone who loves historical clothes. I’ve included photographs of a few of my favorite pieces from the collection (conveniently labelled by year) in the gallery below. I just wish a larger portion of the collection had been on display! The same building houses the old Assembly Rooms, a meeting-place for Georgian society. Concerts, balls, card games, teas—they all happened here under the careful planning and watchful eye of the Master of Ceremonies (the most famous being Beau Nash, who was “King of Bath” between 1704 and 1761).

That covered clothing and society, but what about life at home? To observe the Georgian version of that, I had to visit Number One Royal Crescent, a town house in a posh location that is furnished in period style and open to the public as a museum. I drooled over the bookcase and writing desk and thanked goodness that we no longer keep chamber pots in the dining room (behind a screen, for use during long meals). There was also a special exhibition of old, furnished dollhouses. These were not children’s toys, but rather expensive and painstakingly maintained collector’s items. (Unfortunately, no photos of the dollhouses were allowed.)

Bath’s most famous resident deserves particular attention, so I also paid a visit to the Jane Austen Centre. It’s a disappointingly small museum, but it had some pretty Regency dresses and interesting information about Austen’s life and books. The story of Austen’s own short-lived engagement is especially intriguing, if not quite as romantic as most of her heroines’ stories. There was also a chance to try on a Regency outfit and to write with a quill—but of course I’ve done both of those things plenty of times before!

As I waited to meet my friends on Sunday afternoon, I ducked into the Abbey at the heart of town. It has wonderful details, including intricate Victorian metal light fixtures in bright red. The Bath Abbey diptychs are also worth the visit. Each includes an illuminated calligraphy page and a quilted rectangle representing one passage or story from the Bible. The workmanship in both media (by Sue Symon) is breathtaking.

As you can probably tell, I had a pretty full weekend in Bath. Between all those museums, my long lunch with friends, wandering to see the many gardens, and the “Bizarre Bath” comedy walk (which was as bizarre as promised, and more stage magic than comedy), I didn’t get to the baths that actually still operate (the spa). It’s a shame, because that’s probably just what I needed after May Week. Still, I don’t regret taking the time to see the city instead. I don’t know when, but I feel certain I’ll return to Bath. I’m sure the spa will be waiting for me.