BathWords Kate Guest
Photography Matt Munro
A place the colour of milky tea and biscuits is always going to be a contender for the title of England’s most English city. Throw in Jane Austen, posh people, buns and one of Prince Charles’s Highgrove shops, and it’s virtually case closed.
At least, Bath’s international visitors seem to think so. Even in the depths of winter, crowds of tourists wander its majestic streets, eyes wide and cameras raised, ticking off their lists of must-see Englishness and marvelling at the arches of Pulteney Bridge, the perfect curves of the Circus and the neoclassical beauty of crescents Royal and Lansdown. For the best views though, and to understand why the city is a World Heritage site, take to the six-mile Bath Skyline walk – frequently the National Trust’s most downloaded podcast. From here there’s not a hint of the haphazard urban sprawl that blights most cities; it’s just a Georgian triumph of regimented streets, sweeping crescents and grand buildings rendered in warm Bath stone that turns the colour of honey at sunset.
You’d never guess the place was once a swamp – until the Celts discovered the swamp was fed by a 46C thermal spring and built a town around it. When the Romans arrived in 50 AD they built a complex of saunas, cold plunges and swimming pools, and renamed the town Aquae Sulis. The baths were at the centre of Roman life, important not just for their supposed health benefits, but as a place to socialise, gossip and pray. Perch yourself on the worn steps that lead into the complex’s Great Bath today and it’s easy to hear Roman voices echoing around the walls; even more so at the plunge pool next door, where toga-ed Romans are actually projected on the walls. Around 1.3 million litres of mineral water a day continue to bubble up at the Roman Baths, and although you can dip a sly finger in when no one’s looking, swimming is no longer allowed. For that, visit the nearby Thermae Bath Spa, a sparkling complex of pools and steam rooms whose crowning glory is the open-air rooftop swimming pool. On a cold day in late January the pool is packed. Steam rises off the water’s surface as the swimmers, mostly loved-up couples, splash about against the backdrop of chimney pots. The spire of Bath Abbey looms pleasantly, and beyond it the soft hills that feed the water they’re paddling about in. It’s magic.
Not quite as magical, however, as quacks and serious doctors alike once thought. In the 18th century it was claimed that the water cured everything from leprosy to colic, gout and rheumatism, and in 1739 a Royal Mineral Water Hospital was opened. Among the staff was Dr William Oliver, whose legacy would turn out not to be any kind of cure, but something far more delicious – the bath bun. In fact, it’s likely Oliver’s buns with a lump of sugar in the centre contributed to several of the above conditions. The buns were a huge hit, but when Oliver realised how fat they were making his patients, he invented another of Bath’s famous foods, the bath oliver. This was a savoury biscuit, to be eaten with cheese, and Oliver hoped they would tempt his patients back to good health. Today it may well be a Frenchman, baker Richard Bertinet, who makes the loveliest bath buns in Bath.
Bath is also famous for another bun, the Sally Lunn, which is named after a French refugee who arrived in the city in 1680. These bap-sized buns have an unusually light, spongy texture that can take sweet or savoury toppings, and are still served at Sally Lunn’s tea room in Bath’s oldest building, not far from Bath Abbey.
For a slightly more contemporary take on the Bath baking scene, visit the Thoughtful Bread Company, a green-blooded bakery that has the ‘local, seasonal’ mantra at its core. It has quickly grown to be one of Bath’s biggest food success stories, despite the fact that founder Duncan Glendinning started the business without any professional baking experience. So why choose bread? “Regardless of your religion or what’s in fashion, there’s a bread out there for everyone – it’s rare to come across someone who doesn’t like it,” he says. “You can’t say that of any other food. It dates back to the Bible, it’s the product the Roman Empire marched on… there’s just something about bread.”
There’s certainly something about Thoughtful Bread. As well as sourdough loaves, the bakers love coming up with more unusual offerings, such as beetroot or nettle bread, and their wild garlic loaf is an award winner. “Usually we can get six weeks out of it,” says Duncan. “We could purée the garlic up [and use it year-round] but that’s not what’s great about what we do.” To further underline their ethos, bartering is welcome. “Customers bring in their rosemary plants for our rosemary and potato bread, and we pay them in bread,” says Duncan.
No city could claim to be truly English if it didn’t do a fine line in afternoon tea. Like any tourist town, Bath has its share of fusty cafes and tea rooms that stay in business because they don’t rely on return trade, but there are plenty of other places, such as Jika Jika, Wild Café, Bertinet Bakery and Same Same but Different, that do deserve your tourist pound. For a slightly posher take on the tradition, head to the Pump Room at the Roman Baths, where afternoon tea is served beneath a twinkling chandelier, to the accompaniment of a tinkling piano. You can even try a glass of the famous water (warm, metallic). It’s here that Jane Austen, a Bath resident for five years, observed the upwardly mobile classes she wrote about (rather caustically).
In Jane’s time tea was taken at breakfast, and then again in the evening. As one of Britain’s few imports, it was an expensive luxury. At the nearby Assembly Rooms, where society balls were held, they were rumoured to use their tea leaves three times: they were sold to guests first, then dried and sold to staff, and finally dried again and sold to the public.
Like Austen’s characters, Bath itself is a paragon of upward mobility. From swampy beginnings it grew into a humble market town before being transformed, with Queen Anne’s 1702 visit, into a fashionable spa resort. And it hasn’t been out of fashion among the middle and upper classes since. For evidence, just look around: rugby is the sport of choice, there are puffa gilets galore, and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, has been known to switch on the Christmas lights. Final proof, if any were needed, that Bath has Englishness, of a very particular and charming kind, all wrapped up.
EAT & DRINK
Bertinet Bakery and Bertinet Kitchen 6 New Bond Street Place, BA1 1BH and 12 St Andrew’s Terrace, BA1 2QR; 01225 445 531. Bath’s star baker, Richard Bertinet, teaches acclaimed breadmaking courses and has just opened a bijou bakery in the city centre. Don’t miss the bath buns.
Jika Jika 4a Princes Buildings, George Street, BA1 2ED; 01225 429 903. Impeccable coffee, a daily changing bar of salads, tarts and treats purchasable by weight, and a breakfast burrito for which it’s worth tackling the ex-rugby star owners.
Pump Room Roman Baths, Stall Street, BA1 1LZ; 01225 444 477. Try a glass of the famous mineral water then take a seat under the chandelier for afternoon tea, to the merry tinkling of a live pianist.
Sally Lunn’s 4 North Parade Passage, BA1 1NX; 01225 461 634. No visit to Bath is complete until you’ve tried the famous Sally Lunn bun, and this is the only place to do it. Don’t miss a peek at the original cellar kitchen.
Jamie’s Italian 10 Milsom Place, BA1 1BZJ; 01225 432340. Jamie’s popular casual and cheerful restaurant, housed in a Georgian building, serves the freshest pasta, made on site, and food bursting with Italian flavours.
Same Same but Different 7a Prince’s Buildings, Bartlett Street, BA1 2ED; 01225 466 856. Typical café food done atypically, such as mac ‘n’ cheese with mushrooms and hazelnut pesto. The chef won best up and comer at Bath’s food awards.
Wild Café 10a Queen Street, BA1 1HE; 01225 448 673. The wild rabbit pie, and the smoked haddock kedgeree topped with a soft-poached egg are our picks at this casual, boho cafe.
Aió 7 Edgar Buildings, George Street, BA1 2EE; 01225 443 900. This Mediterranean grill is proud of its range of Sardinian specialities, from delicious, paper-thin flatbread to roasted fregola (like giant cous cous).
Yak Yeti Yak 12 Pierrepont Street, BA1 1LA; 01225 442 299. Forget the slightly naff name and focus on the authentic Nepalese food. It’s seriously good, and seriously good value too, with mains averaging less than £8.
Tea House Emporium New Bond Street, BA1 1BA; 01225 334 402. Take a break from the tourist mayhem with a cuppa in these tranquil 18th-century cellars. Choose from a dazzling array of world teas.
Jacob’s Coffee House 6 Abbey Churchyard, BA1 1LY; 01225 758 132. Right by the Baths, in case you need an espresso to handle the crowds.
The Raven of Bath Pub 6–7 Queen Street, 01225 425 045. This tiny CAMRA favourite, on a cobbled side street in the city centre, fills quickly after a rugby match thanks to its real ales and hearty pies with mash.
Best of British Deli 12 Broad Street, BA1 5LJ; 01225 448055. Organic deli and a cosy space to sit with a coffee and watch the world go by.
Paxton & Whitfield 1 John Street, BA1 2JL; 01225 466403. Selling quality cheese since 1797, P&W can count Winston Churchill as just one of its fans. The Bath branch is a delight.
The Sausage Shop 7 Green Street, BA1 2JY; 01225 318 300. This Bath institution sells both traditional and unconventional sausages, such as Somerset scrumpy with apple, or black pudding varieties.
The Olive Tree 7 Russel Street, BA1 2QF; 01225 447928. Situated in the basement of the boutique Queensberry Hotel, this refined restaurant prides itself on supporting local producers.
Grappa Wine Bar 3 Belvedere, Lansdown Road, BA1 5ED; 01225 448 890. A cosy neighbourhood bar with popular thin-crust pizzas and mean cocktails.
The Salamander 3 John Street, BA1 2JL; 01225 428 889. Stylish pub in the heart of Bath, serving Bath Ales and a good food menu.
Fine Cheese Company 29 & 31 Walcot Street, BA1 5BN; 01225 483 407. Caseophiles will sniff out this artisan-only cheese shop and café from miles away.
Thermae Bath Spa Hot Bath Street, BA1 1SJ; 0844 888 0844. Take a swim in Bath’s hot springs and test their reputed rejuvenating properties for yourself. The open-air rooftop pool is magic.
Roman Baths Abbey Church Yard, BA1 1LZ; 01225 477 785. Toga-ed Romans projected on the walls, hundreds of artefacts to marvel at, and, best of all, steaming, bubbling springs to see, and sip.
No. 1 Royal Crescent 1 Royal Crescent, BA1 2LR; 01225 428 126. This restored Georgian town house gives a taste of 18th-century life.
Jane Austen Centre 40 Gay Street, Queen Square, BA1 2NT; 01225 443 000. Austen lived in Bath (though not in this house) for five years. Passionate guides in Regency fashions offer fascinating insights into her life.
Bath Abbey Abbey Church Yard, BA1 1LZ; 01225 422 462. King Edgar, an early king of England, was crowned here in 973. The fan-vaulted ceiling and stained-glass windows are spectacular.
The Queensberry Hotel Russel Street, BA1 2QF; 01225 447 928. Stylish hotel with luxurious rooms, charming staff and a location that’s close, but not too close, to the city-centre sights.