Spend some time wandering the streets of Bath and it will be impossible to miss the tell-tale signs of the city’s long and rich history.
From the Roman Baths in the centre of the city, to the Royal Crescent overlooking its streets, glimpses of Bath’s history can be found at every corner. Whether you prefer Ancient Rome or Austen, Bath’s extensive history offers something for everyone, making it easy to understand how it became the UK’s only city to be designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The ancient Roman baths – which lend the city its name – were built in Bath in 60 AD and mark one of the best preserved Roman sites in the world. Visitors can explore the Temple of Sulis Minerva, explore the collection of Roman artefacts and even taste the water from the natural springs, believed by many to have healing properties.
The Baths are popular during the day, but throughout the summer guests can experience the spas by torchlight until 10pm each evening. And, if the ancient spas have inspired you to relax, you can head over to the Thermae Bath Spa for a dip in the waters that led the Romans to the city. The Spas Ancient & Modern Package allows you to visit both, and even includes a meal at the Pump Room.
A roof with a view
Bath Abbey, as we see it today, has been a feature of the city since the late 1800s, but there has been a place of Christian worship on the site for more than 1,200 years and the Abbey has evolved with the city. Built, naturally, in Bath Stone, the Abbey is perhaps most known for its unique sculpture depicting Angels climbing a ladder to heaven, inspired by a dream of Oliver King’s, then Bishop of Bath.
Inside the Abbey, guests can marvel at the spectacular stone fan vaulting over the nave, carefully created by Sir George Gilbert Scott to replace the ancient wooden ceiling. Visitors willing to climb the 212 steps to the top of the Abbey will be rewarded with the most spectacular view of Bath’s cityscape and the surrounding countryside.
A literary haven
Although Bath has many historical literary connections, having been visited by Charles Dickens and being the birthplace of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, it’s impossible to talk about the history of Bath without mentioning Jane Austen, whose masterful storytelling almost turned the city into a character itself. Bath is full of places that featured both in Austen’s novels and in her own life. VisitBath have created a free audioguide to follow around Jane Austen’s Bath, but these are the stops we think are an absolute must.
Start your tour at one of Jane Austen’s former homes, 4 Sydney Place, her family residence from 1801-1804 and thought to be the place she penned Northanger Abbey. From her bedroom window, Austen could spot the fashionable people of Bath meeting in Sydney Gardens, which should be your next stop. As you head into the centre of the city, stop by Parade Gardens to view their commemorative flowerbed, crafted in Austen’s honour.
We’ve already mentioned the Pump Room, but any Austen-ite should be sure to pause here for afternoon tea, just as Austen herself did 200 years ago. Then head up to the Bath Assembly Rooms, where Austen attended several balls, leading her to feature the location in Persuasion. Today the rooms are also home to The Fashion Museum, where visitors can dress the part in Austen-inspired clothing.
From the Assembly Rooms, cross the Circus and take in the breath-taking view of the Royal Crescent. Guests may recognise its signature sweeping style from the 2007 TV adaptation of Persuasion, where it provided the backdrop to many scenes. Finally, walk back down to the Jane Austen Centre, a permanent exhibition dedicated to the author’s life and works.
A hotel with history
Of course, here at the hotel we have played our own part in Bath’s history. Built in Greek revival style, the house was originally completed in 1836 by General Augustus Andrews. Following the deaths of General and Mrs Andrews, the house was sold to the Rector of Bath Abbey, Reverend Charles Kemble before then passing to the newly formed Bath College in 1878 to provide the city with a fine boys school.
Financial problems forced the school to close in 1909, and so three years later The Spa Hotel opened its doors to the public. The hotel entertained many exclusive clientele, including Haile Selassie, the exiled Emperor of Ethiopia, in 1936.
Then, in 1939, the Admiralty requisitioned the hotel with just 48 hours' notice for planning and administration purposes throughout the Second World War. High-level discussions were held at the hotel, requiring Prime Minister Winston Churchill to visit. It wasn’t until 1948 that the hotel was relinquished and reopened for a time as a hotel before being sold again in 1950, when it became the Spa Nurses Home for the staff of the two local hospitals. All of the fixtures and fittings of the former hotel were included in the sale, so the nurses lived in considerable luxury!
After the high running costs and poor condition of the building forced the Health Authority to sell up, it became a hotel again, reopening after significant renovations in 1990 as The Bath Spa Hotel.
We’ve covered only the briefest highlights of Bath’s extensive history here and we believe that the only way to experience all of the city’s past is to pay it a visit. Words alone cannot describe the delight of indulging in one of Sally Lunn’s buns, still made to the original and oldest teacake recipe in the world, more than 300 years later. The city is a living reminder of its own past and its secrets will only be revealed in full to those who grace its streets.