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At Roman Baths Museum, the original hot spring is still gushing water through this ancient pipe, on exhibit inside the museum, along with many artifacts and displays, including a model of the original Roman town.

Bathed in beauty

Bath’s roots literally spring
from the Roman conquerors
who built this treat of architecture

Bath, England's second most popular visitor destination after London, is an artistic creation, constructed mostly during the 18th century with beautiful cream-colored limestone. The Georgian buildings share a design that has shaped Bath into a living sculpture.

The town was quickly built up, then abruptly abandoned, remaining untouched for the next two centuries, and leaving us a time capsule from the past. Add to this urban beauty with quiet lanes containing hundreds of small shops and you have an awesome combination that will keep you happy for days.

Bath sits on a layer cake of history, starting with the founding Celts, then Romans attracted by the natural hot springs. Romans were followed by Saxons, Normans, 18th century Georgian high society and finally, tourists.

Designated a World Heritage Site by the United Nations, Bath is one of the few cities protected in its entirety. There are 4,500 listed historic buildings in the city, so there is architectural beauty and significance nearly everywhere you look.

You could attempt to cover Bath as a day-trip from London, for it only takes 70 minutes by train from Paddington Station, but there are so many sights that you could spend a lovely three days here and in the nearby countryside.

Five major sights define Bath's character: The Abbey, Roman Baths, Pump Room, the Circus and Royal Crescent. However, walking through the beautiful streets is just as interesting as visiting those historic sights. The town center has a human scale, with low-rise buildings housing shops and galleries, covering an area only 500 yards wide and 1,000 yards long.


Day 1: Abbey, Roman Baths, Royal Crescent, walking tour

Day 2: Bus tour, spa treatment, shopping and more explorations

Day 3: Excursion out of town to Stonehenge and Cotswolds

Day 1

Town center

Typical of many old European towns, there is an ancient church in Bath's center, the Bath Abbey. Abbey Church Yard, in front of the church, is a delightful place to get started, with lovely views of the church façade, the Roman Bath Museum and the Pump Rooms all around. Comfortable benches provide a good vantage to watch the passing parade of people, and the street performers who keep the crowds entertained.

This is also where you will find the Tourist Information Office, a handy place to pick up free maps, brochures and event information. Through tour-operator booklets or discussions with the staff, you can start planning your third day's excursion out of town; and if you don't have a hotel yet, or are not satisfied with what you've got, they can fix you up.

Free two-hour walking tours of town leave this site at 10:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. Mondays to Fridays, conducted by the Mayors Honorary Guides.

>> Bath Abbey: The Abbey stands high above surrounding buildings. It is the third church built on this site. The first was a small, stone church built by the Saxons -- very important in British history because it is where Edgar, the first king of England, was crowned in 973. A Norman abbey was constructed around 1100 and was replaced by the current church.

Parts of the original Saxon and Norman churches have recently been uncovered inside the Abbey during a continuing restoration program. Bath Abbey is the last major pre-Reformation Tudor church built in England, started in 1499 by Bishop Oliver King who dreamed of angels going up and down a ladder while hearing a voice telling him to build a church. Notice the stone carving of angels on Jacob's Ladders and scenes from the Bible, fully realizing the bishop's vision.

The Abbey is sometimes called "The Lantern of the West" because 60 percent of the walls are stained glass. Dramatic flying buttresses on the outside appear quite old but were added in Victorian times to stabilize the building.

When Queen Elizabeth I visited the Abbey it had no roof because her father, Henry VIII, had plundered all the churches and stripped them of valuables, including the lead roofs and windows. Elizabeth led a movement to restore the building and raised funds throughout the land to put another roof on the church. She also issued a municipal charter in 1590 that reinvigorated the town. The 78-foot-high ceiling became one of the finest parts of the church, further enhanced by the elaborate fan vaulting added in the 19th century. Only a few other English churches show such detailed stone tracery, the final manifestation of the late gothic perpendicular style, built high and narrow, guiding eyes up toward heaven.

One of the stained glass windows at the Bath Abbey, the main church at the center of town.

>> Roman Baths Museum: Bath was built over the original Roman baths, on the site of a hot spring, a geological feature that has been bubbling for millennia. A museum has been built on the site, incorporating many of the original Roman structures and artifacts that reveal how civilized Bath's citizens were 2,000 years ago.

Upon entering the museum, head for the outdoor terrace overlooking the King's Bath and walk all the way around for views looking into the pool, across the rooftops of the city center and at the adjacent Bath Abbey tower. Statues and columns around the terrace look ancient Roman but are Victorian additions. However, the pool and paving around it are original Roman, as are most of the museum artifacts.

At King's Bath, the pool is part of the original Roman bath built 2,000 years ago. The structure around it was built later, during the Norman period. This is part of the Roman Bath Museum.

Roman conquerors arrived in the Bath area in 43 A.D. and remained until 410 A.D. The Romans were clever occupiers who allowed the local people to continue their traditional customs and religion, even adopting some of the local gods, as they did with Sul, a Celtic sun god, who was combined with the Roman god Minerva to form a new deity that all could worship. A bronze head of Sulis Minerva was discovered in excavations here and is on display in the museum.

Although the Romans controlled all of England, Bath was the only place with a natural hot spring, so it was extremely valuable to them. The Romans constructed baths in all their main settlements, taking pains to build furnaces to heat the air and water, but here, the heating from the Earth's core was natural. Steaming,117-degree water still gushes out of the ground at the rate of one-half million gallons per day. Another unusual aspect of this bath was its size -- big enough to swim in, unlike other smaller baths meant for soaking -- and it is perfectly preserved today as the centerpiece of the museum.

During the 18th century the hot springs were further expanded using the same foundation and many of the original Roman stones, and the town became the equivalent of a trendy spa, a place to bathe as a cure for aches and pains. Excavations in the 19th century uncovered more of the ancient Roman pools, along with many artifacts that had been well preserved in the area's mud and muck.

A thorough visit of the bath and museum will take nearly two hours if you want to read all the information posted and listen to the audioguide included with admission.

>> Walking tour: Bath's center is only six blocks wide and eight blocks long, but there is a dense network of shopping lanes to cover, so don't try and do everything in one day. The plan for your first day is a reconnaissance walk through some of the main shopping streets, focusing more on history, architecture and museums.

Walk from the Abbey Church Yard through the columned arcade onto Stall Street. You may be irresistibly drawn into Bath Street straight in front of you, lured by the colonnades on both sides and tempting shops. Bath Street is only a block long, ending at a small, curved intersection called Cross Bath, lined with more columns. Take a look through the archway to the tranquil courtyard of St. John's Hospital.

From Cross Bath, turn into St. Michael's Place, another pedestrian lane with more alleys on both sides, leading to Westgate Street; then turn right toward where you started on Stall Street, coming full circle. That was just a warm-up because now the real walk begins, heading straight up Union Street, which leads into Old Bond Street, both lined with shops and reserved for pedestrians. Save the appealing side alleys and New Bond Street for tomorrow.

The Podium is the only significant modern mall in the heart of town, but it is fairly small and its exterior is designed to look like the older buildings.

>> Milsom Street and beyond: You now arrive at Milsom Street, the city's main shopping showcase. Take your time enjoying its tempting shops and picking one of the cafes for a snack break. There is an excellent photography museum on the right in a venerable building called The Octagon at No. 46, featuring early cameras and the photos they took, along with contemporary exhibits. Shires Yard is a two-level indoor mall to note for tomorrow afternoon's shopping spree. Jolly's has been at 7 Milsom St. since 1831, the nation's first department store.

At the end of Milsom, turn right on George Street, with unique raised paving that elevated patrons above the mud and horse-splatter of past centuries. Make a quick left into Bartlett Street, a prime location for antique shops, with 50 dealers and 160 showcases in the Antique Center. It leads to Saville Row and the Assembly Rooms on Bennett Street.

The Rooms were the 18th century society's prime social center and are open today as an exhibit area for paintings, original chandeliers and furnishings of that era. In the lower level you will find the Museum of Costume, the largest of its type in the world, displaying 400 years worth of clothing design, including 200 dressed figures and 30,000 items illustrating changing styles from the 16th century through today.

Make a detour two blocks east if you wish to visit the Building of Bath Museum, which tells the story of the creation of Georgian Bath, using models, reconstructions, tools, dioramas, illustrations and computers to inform you about the town's evolution. The displays also cover design, technology, economics and the social dynamics of the 18th century, including an account of the connection between Bath and Asia. Extensive trade with China brought many Oriental furnishings here, which became the rage in home decor.

Architectural walking tours can also be arranged with the museum's experts. The building museum is housed in one of the few Neogothic structures in town, a beautiful chapel from the 18th century, commissioned by the Countess of Huntingdon in 1765.

You are now approaching the superstars of the city, the amazing curves of the Circus and the Crescent, two of the most famous housing complexes in the world.

>> Circus: This circle of 33 townhouses is an ideal example of town planning, with beautifully designed buildings that efficiently use the land yet also provide green space for residents with private yards in the back. The homes are arranged in three graceful crescent sections that wrap around a small circular park with a central grove of trees.

Admire the frieze running the length of the facades, with 528 low-relief carvings representing the arts and sciences, taken from a 17th century book on fortune telling. Notice the three orders of classical columns, with Doric, Ionic and Corinthian accenting each level in turn, just like the Colosseum in Rome, which, along with Stonehenge, provided inspiration for this circle. The Druids are also represented by stone acorns above the parapet.

The Circus was designed in 1750 by John Wood the Elder and completed by his son, John Wood the Younger, who created most of Bath's superb 18th century architecture. Altogether, this adds up to one of the most harmonious apartment complexes ever built. No wonder some of England's most illustrious citizens have lived here, including William Pitt and Thomas Gainsborough.

As wonderful as the Circus may be, it is eclipsed by the Royal Crescent curved housing complex, designed in 1767 by the younger Wood. Together, they are said to symbolize the sun and moon in the Wood cosmology. It is only two blocks from the Circus to the Crescent walking along Brock Street, but do make a detour into a pedestrian lane called Margaret's Building for a delightful scene of little cafes and shops -- with a collection of Antiquarian bookstores, arts galleries, jewelers, antique shops and designer boutiques. You might even continue into the quiet residential neighborhood around Catherine Place and Circus Mews.

>> Royal Crescent: The Royal Crescent is the city's crowning achievement and has become the symbol of Bath, with 30 homes connected in a graceful arch. This outstanding Georgian-style landmark was the first housing crescent built in Europe, inspired by another masterpiece in Rome -- Bernini's curving colonnade in front of St. Peter's.

Servants lived in the top floor, with kitchens in the basement, and they would haul in water from an outdoor pump in the park in front. Wealthy owners maintained living rooms on the ground floor and bedrooms upstairs. To get a feeling for the elegant abodes you could spend the night at the five-star deluxe Crescent Hotel in the center of the curve, or have a meal in their pricey restaurant, Pimpernel's.

>> Georgian House: It is worth visiting the museum at No. 1 Royal Crescent, the Georgian House operated by the Bath Preservation Trust. This was the first house built in the complex and has many of the original furnishings and authentic decoration typical of an 18th century Bath townhouse. Friendly guides inside will give you a tour and answer questions. Typically, your guide will be an older woman who has lived in Bath all her life and volunteers to share information and have a chat with visitors.

>> Return to the center: For a pleasant return route toward the town center, enter the leafy Gravel Walk across from the Georgian House and stroll through Royal Victoria Park, which becomes the Georgian Garden, lushly landscaped with flowerbeds and trees.

In the broad open field on your right, notice the ha-ha wall, a sunken terrace named for the surprised reaction of those coming upon it. This clever wall keeps grazing animals away from the mansions without spoiling the view. Revealing glimpses on the left into private yards and back sides of the elegant townhouses show a ramshackle patchwork, for the buildings's strict design code only applies to the facades.

Continue a few blocks downhill to Queen's Parade, where a left will take you in a minute to Gay Street, another John Wood accomplishment. Here you will find the new Jane Austen Centre, a small permanent exhibition about the famous author's life in Bath, where she resided from 1801 to 1806. Two of her novels, "Northanger Abbey" and "Persuasion," are largely set here and several of her other books reference life in Bath. The museum is between Queen Square and the Circus on Gay Street, on the block where Austen lived briefly in 1805. Her main residence was on Queen Square, where she wrote "Northanger Abbey." Walking tours of Austen's Bath are given daily at 1:30 p.m. from the museum in July and August and on weekends the rest of the year.

Continue to Queen Square, a green park occupying a block in the heart of town, surrounded by homes and a fine hotel, the Francis, in an elegant building that replaced townhouses bombed in World War II. The park and obelisk in the center date to the early 18th century, as do surrounding buildings.

Day 2

Bus tour, spa treatment
and more exploring by foot

>> Bus tour: As in most tourist towns, there is a bus tour that covers the main sights, but I have intentionally placed this in the second day because first impressions of a small town are best gained on foot. Of course you won't fall into the trap of the lazy tourist and let the bus substitute for the walks described here.

Bath is not very big, so you don't really need a bus tour, but a bus tour is a nice supplement, delivering Bath in a nutshell. You can catch the bus at any stop along its route, but the main terminus is behind the Abbey at Orange Grove, next to the Parade Gardens. Hopefully the weather is nice so you can sit in the open-top bus for an unobstructed view.

Modern Bath is a small city of just under 90,000 residents, relying primarily on tourism, but the city is also home to a major university and some thriving, high-tech computer industries and publishing houses.

The bus is a hop on-hop off tour service, but you don't need to get off, so you are likely continuing from Orange Grove where the tour began. The tour ends by mid-morning.

>> Ancient center: From the bus drop-off point you can enjoy the Parade Garden, a pretty park along the Avon River, set about 18 feet below the street's main level. This shows the original level of the town, which has been built up over the centuries as land was filled in and buildings constructed on top of earlier rubble, which also helped lift the city above the flood zone.

Continue to York Street and then Abbey Green, a picturesque cobbled courtyard with a few shops and pubs around a large tree and green open space. Just around the corner are Evans, a traditional fish-and-chip bar, a tea shop, and Sally Lunn's House, the oldest house in town (1482) that is now home to a kitchen museum, on North Parade Passage. Browns, another fine mid-price restaurant located on the Green, is a reliable English chain that has renovated the old Bath Police Station and has cells available for viewing. The Abbey is just a block away, so hop over to the Church Yard and Stall Street to view an assortment of busker entertainment.

For royal treatment, consider a visit to the new spa on Bath Street for mid-day renewal. The last time anyone could bathe in the natural thermal waters was 1978, when the old Beau Street Baths closed down, but people can once again soak in this healing water and enjoy a full range of spa services.

At Avon River and Pulteney Bridge, the river flows through town with pretty parks along the banks with a walking trail that goes for many miles. The bridge is one of only three in Europe that are covered in shops.

>> High Street: Most of the afternoon could be spent shopping and exploring alleys. It's an easy walk around Cheap Street to High Street, which extends from the side of the Abbey for a block, then changes name to Broad Street and continues through the heart of town as a lively shopping road. This has always been a place of hustle and bustle, where the coaches came through and goods were bought and sold. The Guildhall is here, built in 1776 as a courthouse, now open for public visits to the Banqueting Room, one of the finest interiors in town, boasting crystal chandeliers insured for $5 million dollars.

Adjacent to the Guildhall is the Guildhall Market, an old covered arcade with 25 small shops and food stalls, open 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays. Across High Street there are several pedestrian alleys with more shops worth looking for, including Northumberland Place, Union Passage and the Corridor.

At the point where High Street becomes Northgate, you will come across the town's only modern shopping complex, The Podium, a small multi-level indoor mall tastefully clad on the outside with typical cream-colored Bath stone, but featuring sleek escalators and contemporary décor inside. For one of the best meal deals in town, try the Oriental Pearl Chinese buffet on the first floor, where $8 will buy all you can eat, including dessert. The cost is slightly more at dinner time. There are many other medium-priced restaurants to pick from in The Podium.

>> River Avon and Pulteney Bridge: On Bridge Street, you cross the River Avon on Pulteney Bridge, but you would never realize it because the bridge is completely lined with shops that block any river view. This is one of only three bridges -- Ponte Vecchio in Florence and the Rialto in Venice are the other two -- in Europe that are covered in shops. Here you will find a cornucopia of jewelers, souvenirs, clothing boutiques, antiques, cameras and more.

If you're up to it, you might walk a few blocks along Great Pulteney Street, the widest, straightest road in town, laid out later in the 1780s in the Regency architectural style with classical lines. It is primarily a long row of townhouses built with the traditional pattern of servants upstairs and the wealthy owners living downstairs. However, there are no shops or restaurants along this uniform stretch, so a mere glimpse should suffice.

>> Herschel Museum: For those wishing to see a scientific exhibit, walk over to the Herschel Museum on New King Street for a taste of astronomy and music. William Herschel discovered the planet Uranus here in 1781, doubling the known size of our solar system. Herschel was the first astronomer to figure out the general shape of our galaxy, and many of his original instruments are on display in his former home.

Musical instruments complement the display, for Herschel was also an avid composer and conductor. Aside from the exhibits, it's a pleasure to explore the five floors of this Georgian townhouse, which has changed little in two centuries. Original furnishings add to the home's authentic character. The back yard features a delightful garden with formal flower beds, Cypress trees and an herb garden characteristic of Herschel's era.

Day 3


>> Stonehenge and Cotswolds: By now you have seen Bath's main sights and can now do some exploring in the nearby countryside, picking from a variety of convenient package tours that generally start at 9 a.m. and return you to Bath by 5 p.m. The most famous landmark in the vicinity is Stonehenge, the mysterious ring of huge stones built thousands of years ago by Druids or some other stone-age culture. It has a magnetic attraction and is well worth seeing, as is the similar ring of stones at Avebury, which is 16 times larger in area than Stonehenge and 1,000 years older.

A typical day trip might also include a drive into the scenic Cotswold district and a visit to a couple of classic, quaint villages. Lacock village is a small village with homes dating from the 13th to 18th centuries and has been designated a National Trust site. Another village is Castle Combe, at the southern tip of the Cotswolds. It was once voted the prettiest village in England and was used for the filming of "Dr. Dolittle."

You could also rent a car and take a drive into the Cotswolds on your own, which is an efficient and enjoyable way to reach these scattered little villages. Traffic is not bad unless it's a summer weekend, but remember: They drive on the other side of the road, so pay attention.


If you go...

Here are a few places to stay and see while in Bath. When calling from the United States, use the prefix 011-44.


>> Pratts, South Parade; call 01225-460441; fax 01225-448807
>> Francis Hotel, Queen Square; call 0870 4008223; fax 01225-319715


>> Binks, Abbey Church Yard; call 01225-466563
>> Boathouse, Newbridge Road; call 01225-482584
>> Browns, Orange Grove; call 01225-461199
>> Demuths Vegetarian Restaurant, 2 North Parade Passage; call 01225-446059
>> Evans Fish Restaurant, Abbey Gate; call 01225-463981
>> La Flamenca, 12a North Parade; call 01225-463626, with flamenco dancing


>> Bath Postal Museum, 8 Broad St.: Open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays, and 2 to 5 p.m. Sundays.
>> Building of Bath Museum, The Vineyards on The Paragon. Open 10:30 a.m. to p.m. Tuesdays to Sundays. Admission $6. Call 1225-333895.
>> Herschel Museum, 19 New King St.: Open 2 to 5 p.m. daily Admission $4.
>> Jane Austin Centre, 40 Gay St.: Open 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily. Admission $6.
>> Museum of Costume, Bennett Street: Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Admission $9. Includes audioguide. Call 1225-477785.
>> Roman Bath Museum: Open 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily in the summer; otherwise 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission $13; includes audioguide for self-guided tour.

Day-trip tour operators

>> Stonehenge Tours: Call 01225-429381.
>> Scarper Tours: Visit or call 7739-644155.

Web sites



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