Bath is quite simply an architectural joy. Hugged in the curving arm of the River Avon, its magnificent Georgian squares and crescents rise in stately tiers around the steep slopes of the city centre, drawing the eye upwards to the tree-lined backdrop of the surrounding Somerset hills. But as well as looking like a hand coloured plate in a Palladian picture book, Bath has the further enticement of being the/italics/ original health spa. Imagine the Romans delight 2000 years ago when, trudging through the wet, miserable, cold British Isles, they came across the miracle of instant hot water gushing from the earth – no wonder they thought it divine and settled here. The Romans called the city Aquae Sulis, after the Celtic Goddess already worshiped at the spring, and spent several centuries wallowing in the curative powers of the waters and the heaven of Celtic central heating. The impressive remains of the Roman baths with the slightly less than enticing steamy, olive green waters of the plunge pool, is one of the tick-the-box tourist experiences enjoyed of all visitors. With the opening of The Thermae Bath Spa1 this year, Bath continues its great tradition of indulgence as the home of Britain’s only natural thermal spa where you can swim in an open-air rooftop thermal pool.
However, Bath also soothes aesthetically as well as physically. When not immersing yourself in warm fizzy water, you can also immerse yourself in culture. As you explore Bath’s winding alleys and cobbled streets, lined with wealth of perfectly preserved Georgian terraces, it’s impossible not to feel like you’ve stepped back in time into a Regency theme park. It should almost be against the law to wear fleece and anoraks when you walk up Milsom Street, a popular shopping centre even in the late 1700s when Jane Austin visited the town as a teenager and subsequently made it the setting for her novel, Northanger Abbey. You should be promenading with a short-necked Hugh-Grant lookalike in a Frock Coat, wearing your breasts strapped up to your chin and a corset tight enough to stop breath, like a proper heroine, not trailing a reluctant husband after you like a badly trained dog. But one can always dream…
In fact, Bath is an ideal place for fantasy shopping as well as imaginary costume dramas. Don’t we all want a Nash Town House with an Adam fireplace and original features? And Sir, I do, I do want a Victorian walnut dining table big enough to sit twenty six of my closest friends, I told Mr M, yearningly, pressing his aristocratic nose against the windows of one of the antique shops on Broad Street. Though since our house more closely resembles one of the dolls houses in the House of Miniatures opposite, perhaps not. Happily, you can satisfy your hunger for consumables by searching out more affordable pleasures of the flesh, under which Bath is, literally, groaning. Bath also boasts enough speciality food shops, top class restaurants and luxurious hotels to make an impoverished Austin heroine clutch at her breast, kiss the 16 inch waist goodbye and long for a sizeable lunch.
This, after all, is the home of the forgettable Bath biscuit and the pillow-sized Bath Bun, brought to Bath 300 years ago by a French refugee Sally Lunn2 and still on offer at the eponymous tea rooms near the Abbey. Whatever your fancy, you can stuff yourself fuller than a horsehair sofa in any number of tea and coffee shops. Sally Lunn’s will do tourists and traditionalists proud, alternatively you might try the Pump Room3 where you can follow in the Regency Buck’s thigh-slapping steps and try the healthy properties of Bath’s mineral water served by a chap in a wig and a presumably authentically laundered Persil-free once-white shirt. ‘Delicious.’ said Mr M, ‘it’s like hot metallic water from the central heating pipes’ – a taste which I hadn’t realised he had acquired. Makes you wonder how reliable his praise is for my cooking.
You can have Georgian elevenses here (bath bun, vanilla butter, spa water and hot chocolate £5.50) amongst women with Margaret Thatcher perms and non-removable hats who treat their handbags like weapons and look like they’ve been preserved in a pre war diorama. Musicians tinkle away in the background, and hordes of tourists troupe through from the Roman Baths experience. So if it’s a relaxing, if less historical, cup of tea you seek, head up Walcot Street to Bath’s ‘Artisan section’. Settle yourself at Doolally’s -4 a quirky, simple little café with plump home made sponge cakes frilled with jam and cream, or stop further up the road at the café stocking cakes made with Valhronna chocolate and all sorts of goodies from Carluccio’s, attached to the beautifully odiferous Fine Cheese Company5. Bath has two good cheese shops – this is one of them. It stocks a wide selection of local and Mediterranean artisan cheeses whose names roll off cheeselover’s tongues like silk stockings down a courtesans thigh – St Nectaire, Vignottes, Brebis de tourmalet, and chanteraine. Oh be still my beating heart. A neon sign flashes ‘pong’ at the back of the shop, taking just a whiff of the romance away. A few steps up the road there’s Harvest6 – a small co-op with deli selling whole foods, organic produce, bread from the Bath Bakery and dairy produce from local farms.
Paxton & Whitfield Cheese7mongers is on the other side of town, and is even more impressive visually. A fat mimolette stands out in a sea of pale creamy cheeses, its thick cantaloupe rind and bright orange interior looking more like a pumpkin worthy of Cinderella’s fairy godmother than a round of cheese. Both shops do mail order but you’d be denied the cute men in white aprons feeding you morsels of cheese. Next door is The Firehouse Rotisserie8 selling good brick fired organic pizzas loaded with things like gorgonzola, sage, smoked bacon and parmesan, great steaks (according to my husband who had one – if he has any credibility left) and sausages from the Bath’s excellent Sausage Shop8 in nearby Green Street. This sells almost 40 different varieties of sausages, all made on the premises. I tried free range pork and chipotle adobo sausages in the restaurant, which provided a peppery South American kick, though probably not as spicy as the Sausage Shop salesman’s own favourite – Mongolian fire pot. Bathites prefer the more tame Toulouse, - the shops best seller.
For fishetarians there are two ports of call. Fish Works9 a fish shop with restaurant attached where you can have any of the wet fish cooked for you. They also offer dishes like roast monkfish with lime and sage as well as daily changing specials such as razor clams, or a whole John Dory for 6 people coming in at a whacking £80. ‘People like to share a big fish,’ said Fred, the fishmonger. I would have trouble getting six friends assembled at one time, let alone get them to agree to eat the same fish. Up the road is Loch Fyne* where you can feast on oysters, a huge bowl of mussels, or Langoustine, gravadlax, smoked salmon and even kippers, all from the Loch Fine Fisheries in Scotland.
The lucky few, like myself can then stagger upstairs and prostrate themselves in one of the very sophisticated bedrooms in the recently opened Milsom Hotel. Well I say stagger, but wheeze would be a better way of putting it. The hotel – really just well appointed rooms above the restaurant - has no one in reception in the evening, no lift, no strapping lad to carry the luggage, and the stairs are dizzyingly steep. You almost expect oxygen masks to drop out of the ceiling as your get to the upper floors, or to hear a voice ordering you to adopt the crash position as you keel over onto the floor. By the time I reached my room lugging cases, husband, laptop, sixteen paperbacks, the contents of Jolly’s cosmetics department and a batch of fudge samples from a shop I passed on the way, I was gasping for the perfumed depths of the Victorian claw-foot bath. You see, comfort all comes back to hot water and bubbles in the end.
Bath has two restaurants, each with one Michelin star, and a number of commendable top to middle range places to eat. The plushest has to be the dining room in the Bath Priory Hotel serving up young chef Robert Clayton’s fine, fancy food in country house style and comfort. The other Michelin starred restaurant is The Moody Goose, a moody sort of restaurant in a set of small interconnecting basement rooms and offering upmarket food in slightly downhill surroundings where all the attention is focussed on the plate and not on the decor. We had the seemingly very prudent set lunch at £13 per head – though the many supplements on the menu for, sometimes, under whelming ingredients, does hike the bill up. A bowl of consommé with single diminutive lobster ravioli cost an extra £4, and together the rib eye and monkfish dishes whacked on another £11. The high spot had to be lemon parfait wrapped in a wafer with a scoop balanced atop which looked like an ornamental pillar, or something you might buy mail order from Myla - if you were adventurous. And reader, I ate it.. Slapping Mr M off with a swipe of my fork. Jane Austin be damned.
In summer the Moon and Sixpence has a charming terrace with wide Indian benches, food is basic but popular, while A Pinch of Salt situated in a pretty arcade of shops, is a new modern restaurant with zinc table and bistro style fare. Otherwise the The Olive tree in the charming Queensbury Hotel, just around the corner from The Circus is posh, expensive and serving simple but elegant Modern British and Mediterranean food like Organic Somerset chicken breast with bubble and squeak, confit of suckling pork, with spring vegetables and roast garlic, or fillet of Cornish cod, warm new potato salad, salsa verde.
For retail food therapy you can’t do better than a leisurely perambulatory lunch eaten as you stroll round the Saturday farmers market, where bigger markets are held on alternate weeks. Here you will find even more sausages, cheeses, seasonal fruit, vegetables, as well as olives, breads and organic meat – all from local producers and grown within a forty mile radius of Bath. I fell in love with The Chocolate Workshop and carried two of their beautiful chocolate cakes home to London on the train, as tenderly as if they had come complete the with equally edible French accent of the vendor that you could easily have spread on your Bath bun and licked off. Other things to look out for include, this being Somerset where the cider apples grow, apple juice, cider and vinegar, as well as interesting jams – like Rosemary and Lavender - DD mushrooms, named for their large, matronly cup size, and absolutely delicious just/italics/ wonky enough home-made cakes and biscuits from Jane Frere at Southside Farm to pass off as your own. A brisk walk uphill for Morning coffee at the Royal Crescent Hotel, eating cakes from paper bags as you walk, rounds things off nicely. And speaking of round – I am beginning to see the attraction those Georgians had for corsetry, though there is more of the whale than the whale bone about my figure it could all do with a bit of belt tightening. Severe measures on the pudding front will have to be taken soon. But not till I’ve finished the fudge.
Thermae Bath Spa
The Hetling Pump Room
Hot Bath Street
tel 01225 780308
Bath Farmers Market
Green Park Station
Green Park Road
4 North Parade Passage
The Pump Room
Tel 01225 444477
51 Walcot Street
The Fine Cheese Company
29-31 Walcot Street
Tel/Fax: 01225 448 748
37 Walcot Street
Paxton & Whitfield Cheesemongers
1 John Street
The Real Meat Company
6-7 Hayes Place
The Sausage Shop
7 Green Street
Al prices approximate for 3 course a la carte dinner with half a bottle of wine
2 John Street
Dinner from £30 a head