Travel review: The beauty of Bath
PUBLISHED: 10:18 07 September 2017 | UPDATED: 10:18 07 September 2017
I'm always on a mission to explore new cities but that doesn't mean I'm easily impressed. I was disappointed with Venice - an uncomfortably busy, tourist city which appeared to have none of the usual city functions.
And I’ve been shouted down for saying I didn’t love Rome.
On our first visit to a Roman city closer to home, I was immediately impressed by the grand beauty of Bath.
It’s one of those cities which I’d always meant to visit but had been overlooked by the lure of a cheap flight to somewhere seemingly more exotic.
This weekend was a chance to explore Bath’s beauty on a family weekend break. We hoped to rest our work weary minds while keeping the children entertained. Bath delivered on both counts with ease.
The city is flanked by a green valley and welcomes visitors with its golden-coloured stone Georgian buildings on boulevards and crescents across the city.
It’s been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The only entire city in the UK to achieve the status. It has a wonderful feel about it.
The city centre while compact packs a punch with its concentration of attractions.
The pretty Parade Gardens houses colourful flower displays and plenty of seats to stop and enjoy the 360 degree views of Bath Abbey, the River Avon and Pulteney Bridge.
We saw two brides enjoying the blooming backdrop although I suspect only one actual wedding. One arrived with her groom to a cheering reception of guests and confetti. The other posed endlessly with her groom for pictures taken by their accompanying photographers.
The Japanese couple told another park visitor it wasn’t their actual wedding day - they were having photographs taken in their wedding outfits at sites around the world. An instagramoon?
The Roman Baths were a highlight. While most historical sites are educational for children, not all are fun and interesting. The Roman Baths really engages with its little visitors. We were all given a hand-held audio phone for information relayed at points around the tour – the children had their own, easy to understand version. Adults could choose from the standard guide or narration by Bill Bryson – not the most obvious choice for a British heritage site but hugely entertaining. There is also a room to stop and make Roman arts and crafts before seeing the main baths. It was fascinating hearing how the locals used the Baths as a place to wash, socialise and relax.
Actors and virtual images help visitors imagine how the natural hot springs in the city became popular as a spa and social centre during the 18th century. The actors cracked timely jokes and captured the concentration of the children.
Adjacent to the Roman Baths is Bath Abbey - the stunning cathedral was founded in 1499 on the site of an 18th century church. It’s an impressive building towering over the Roman Baths and the shopping district of the city.
The mix of shops in Bath is impressive. The usual chains are diluted with thriving independent shops selling everything from cheese to furniture, books, clothes and homewares. Bath is often bubbling over with visitors so a diverse range of independents can thrive.
We were interested in Bath’s culinary offer and I spotted four cheese shops and several tea shops. I love T2 tea and have fond memories of visiting the original store in Melbourne and carrying home boxes of dried fruit varieties. In Bath we were encouraged to taste three new varieties.
The Bertinet Bakery had the best-looking pastries in town although I’m told I missed out on a Bath experience by not indulging in a Sally Lunn Bunn. If it’s a ‘city must do’ on a par with a Bellini at Harry’s Bar in Venice, I’ll not dwell too much on my oversight.
Prior to our visit, the prominent picture I had in my mind of Bath was the Royal Crescent. Built by John Wood the Younger from 1767 to 1775 the 30 houses are now mostly divided up into apartments – one owned by John Cleese.
To imagine living in such a residence, you can visit No1 Royal Crescent, furnished in period style and laid out across living and service quarters. The grand Royal Crescent buildings tower over green parkland which rolls down towards the Royal Victoria Park.
It’s the city’s biggest and most fun for children. Alongside the golf course and botanic gardens is a wonderful adventure playground with equipment for all ages, sandpits, a zip wire and tunnel slide.
Bath is perfect for a family adventure. It’s very easy to navigate on foot and most attractions are in the city centre with less than a 15-minute walk between them with interest along the way.
The children enjoyed the street entertainers who encouraged them to play instruments, hula hoop and take part in magic tricks. We marvelled at the beautiful buildings and picturesque squares and browsed in unusual shops and galleries.
A lot of visitors book a session at the Thermae Bath Spa allowing them to wallow in natural, thermal waters in an open-air rooftop pool. The complex also houses steam rooms, sauna and an ice chamber.
We didn’t visit the Thermae Bath Spa as we’d found our own jewel in the crown of Bath. The Gainsborough Hotel. The first five-star hotel to open in Bath for three decades is just steps away from The Roman Baths and the Thermae Bath Spa. It is the only hotel in Britain to have access to natural thermal waters.
Its Spa Village comprises three thermal pools, sauna, steam room and 11 treatment rooms offering an extensive and unusual range of therapies.
Guests are encouraged to follow the ‘Bath House Circuit’, similar to the sequence we’d seen in The Roman Baths earlier. Pools of varying temperatures, an ice room, saunas and showers.
The main pool is magnificent with invigorating waterfalls to pummel away any tension you arrive with. The children were disappointed to discover the hotel pool was for adults only. The warm waters are not suitable for children. The peaceful calm is a joy for adults.
Sticking with tradition, the Spa Village offers guests a shot of hot chocolate blended with chilli and spices favoured by the Romans to give their digestive systems a boost. It was so tasty I had a shot each time the circuit took me past the offering.
The Spa Village is authentic and enjoyable. I’ve recently been to gimmicky spas with endless boasts of what’s on offer only to leave feeling underwhelmed. Too many new spas aim high and deliver low.
Not at The Gainsborough. My Ginger Renewal treatment included a light exfoliating massage with minerals followed by a pampering full body massage.
Too many spas rush clients in and out with conveyor belt precision. This 90-minute treatment was indulgent and special. The therapist Kabir was excellent.
The hotel is named after the artist Thomas Gainsborough who lived in Bath. It has been restored from its previous home as a hospital and then a college with a stunning makeover which offers luxurious surroundings while enhancing the history within its walls. A display of Roman Coins found during the excavation is housed in reception. The wonderfully welcoming manager told the children the story of how and when they were found.
The Gainsborough Hotel boasts a central location, stunning reception rooms, beautiful bedrooms and an excellent spa and one of Bath’s finest restaurants but it is the staff which sets it apart.
Within seconds of arriving we received a friendly welcome into the hotel and an offer of knowledge and information about Bath. We were given maps and directions to the sites and the children were given their own maps. I was sure we wouldn’t get lost or encounter difficultly during our summer stroll In Bath but had we done so, I had the reception number to hand and the manager’s mobile number scrawled on my map.
The hotel offered the most extensive Things To Do list I’ve ever seen at a hotel. It’s actually a range of lists curated for different ages and tastes. Attention to detail is a Gainsborough speciality.
Each guest who walked in and out of The Gainsborough was greeted and offered assistance without that instructive formality which hinders rather than helps.
We ate at Dan Moon at The Gainsborough Restaurant. The Georgian architecture, original artwork and wine wall wowed guests but not more than the food. The chef uses locally sourced produce to create beautiful dishes popular with local diners and visitors to Bath. It can problematic dining out with a son with an allergy. Here he was offered an extensive choice of tasty dishes.
Nothing can surpass the in-room treats. Dairy free artisan chocolate was well received. After dinner we returned to our room to find a children’s teepee tent has been erected complete with age appropriate books for a bedtime story. Child heaven! I found the manager’s mobile and texted our gratitude. Brian Benson is one of the best, welcoming, friendly and informative managers we have ever met. I worry one of those so called best cities in the world will lure his excellence away from Bath.
It was time to leave and reflect on a city which delivered on then surpassed our expectations. Just like The Gainsborough staff. As we drove away we discovered they had stocked our car with bottles of water and sweets for the drive home.
www.thegainsboroughbathspa.co.uk - Nightly rates at The Gainsborough start from £285.