18 December 2017

A Winter's Day in Bath

As I mentioned in my recent Bath coffee guide, I've been wanting to return to the city for several years, but the expensive train fares (often over £75, even off-peak) from London — no matter how far in advance I tried to book — have always discouraged me. Finally, though, I secured a £29 day trip ticket and headed off on the Friday before last for a wintry day in the city.

The train takes just 90 minutes from London Paddington, making Bath a great day-trip destination. This is lucky because accommodation can be quite expensive, particularly if you are travelling alone. I took a 9:00 am train from Paddington, which got into Bath just after 10:30 am. My return journey was supposed to leave Bath at 8:45 pm and arrive back in London at about 10:15 pm, but delays on the line meant we got back closer to 11 pm. Nonetheless, I had a full day in the city and managed to make the best of it.

Things to do
The Roman Baths
As I've visited The Roman Baths, on Abbey Churchyard, at least twice before, I decided to give them a miss this time, but the historic site and museum is a must-do if it's your first time in the city, particularly if you are a history buff. Adult tickets are currently £15.50 (going up to £16.50 in January), but there's a lot to see and the museum is interesting and well-run.

Thermae Bath Spa
I wanted to do something to make the most of the natural thermal spring while I was in Bath, and my recent visits to the Polynesian Spa in Rotorua, New Zealand, and the Blue Lagoon in Iceland convinced me that the Thermae Bath Spa was the way to go. Located in Hot Bath Street (of course!), the Thermae Spa consists of a rooftop pool overlooking the city and an indoor 'Minerva' pool, both fed by naturally warm, mineral-rich thermal waters, and a wellness suite including various sauna and steam rooms. Access for two hours costs £35 (£36 from 2018), and you can also book various treatments.

I arrived just after 4:00 pm and had to wait about 30 minutes to get in, as the spa was already full. It's right next to the Christmas market and so was very busy just two weeks before Christmas. As part of the entrance fee, you get a robe, towel and flip flips; once you have these and a wristband you can use to control your locker and pay for any refreshments or upgrades, you can proceed to the changing area. It was busy inside although not so much that it detracted from my enjoyment. I was hoping that the pools might be a little warmer — they were warm but not hot, and this was particularly true in the rooftop pool where I was trying to hover near a hot jet. That said, that view over the city from the rooftop pool was lovely and it even started snowing while I was in there, which made it feel wonderfully festive. Unlike in Rotorua and the Blue Lagoon, cameras and phones are banned, which was nice, although a lot of people were having quite loud, raucous conversations, which meant it didn't feel especially peaceful or relaxing.

The Royal Crescent and the Circus
Bath's city centre is quite small and easy to explore on foot. The Royal Crescent, a pleasingly curving row of 30 terraced houses dating to the 18th century is about 20 minutes' walk north of Bath Spa train station, but there are plenty of excellent coffee shops on the way if you would like to stop off for a drink and/or a warm. You can go inside No. 1 Royal Crescent (£10) to learn more, or just stroll the length of the crescent and enjoy the view. Capturing the whole crescent in a photo without panorama mode on is a bit tricky — you'll probably need to head down to the park below.

The Circus, another of Bath's iconic sights, is just three minutes' walk to the east of the Royal Crescent. Also dating to the late 18th century, it is an impressive sight and worth the short detour from the Royal Crescent.

Bath Abbey
Bath's impressive abbey dates to the 7th century, although it has been rebuilt a number of times since then. I popped inside only briefly, admiring the gothic architecture, but also enjoyed it from the outside, both by day and by night.

Bath Christmas Market
I hadn't appreciated before I came quite how big a deal Bath's Christmas market is. Running for just over a fortnight from late November to mid-December (this year's market has, sadly, already finished), it takes over a large area of the historic city centre. You could easily spend a couple of hours exploring all of the stalls — many local shops, cafés and bars run stalls — and enjoying the many food and drinks on offer. It had a lovely, festive vibe and because it was quite spread out, it didn't feel oppressively crowded, even though there were a lot of people there. Do note that Bath is even busier than usual while the market is running, so try to book trains and accommodation in advance, and be prepared to queue at some attractions.

As I only had one day in the city and as I was spending a large portion of it visiting coffee shops, I didn't have time to visit any of Bath's other museums, but you can find more inspiration from art and Austen, to the Masons and medicine, on the Visit Bath website.

Food and drink
I've already written about the best speciality coffee shops in Bath (if you just have time for one, I consider Colonna & Small's to be one of the best coffee shops I've ever visited in the UK). Here are some of the other food and drink recommendations.

The Green Birda cosy café on Margaret's Buildings that makes a great lunch spot. I had a very avocado toast but there are lots of sandwiches and salads on the menu.

Sally Lunn's — a café so historic it has its own bakery museum, which paying customers can visit for free. Sally Lunn's is famous for its 'Bunn' — a sort of cross between a very light, large teacake and a brioche. You can choose from a variety of sweet and savoury toppings and I chose the coffee and walnut butter — half a toasted Bunn cost the very precise £4.58, which seemed a little steep. It did taste very good, though, and I really liked the coffee and walnut butter.

The Scallop Shellwell, I did visit on a Friday, so fish and chips was traditional. I had a great and reasonably priced meal at this attractive, well-run restaurant on Monmouth Place. I started with the scallops (when in Rome...or near Roman Baths) and then had the haddock and chips. The food was tasty and the service very good.

Three places I didn't go to but would like to:
Acorn — this vegetarian restaurant was recommended by the staff at the Green Bird. The set menu looked delicious even to me — despite being vegetarian for a decade and eating little meat at home, I tend to eat meat when I eat out — but by the time I got out of the Thermae Spa, there wasn't a spot left for me. Try to book in advance if you'd like to go here — Bath seems to cater less well than London for walk-ins.

Henry's — a small, welcoming modern restaurant on Saville Row, Henry's has some fantastic-looking set menus. If I'd been visiting with someone else or wanted to celebrate a special occasion, I would definitely have booked in here. I think the vegetarian set menu would have won me over!

The Canary Gin BarI really wanted to indulge in a drink at the Bath Gin Company's bar before catching my train home but it was really busy and I was feeling quite under the weather. Instead, I bought a bottle of their gin, proudly displaying a winking Jane Austen, to take home. I've been enjoying it with Fever Tree tonic and a slice of lime.

Bath has some excellent independent shops, many of which are located on and around Walcot Street and the Paragon, to the north of the city centre. Here are a few that stood out to me.

Article — beautiful homewares, gifts, cards and flowers, located on Bartlett Street.

Bath Old Books — antiquarian and old books store (surprise!), located on Margaret's Buildings.

The Fig Store — plants and homewares store, located on Walcot Street.

Found — very well-curated selection of homewares, clothing and lifestyle goods, located on Argyle Street, next to Pulteney Bridge.

Homefront — small shop with interiors, art and gifts, located on Margaret's Buildings.

Magalleria — excellent stockist of independent and specialist magazines, located on Broad Street.

Meticulous Ink — beautiful letterpress stationery shop, located on Walcot Street. Great for cards, gifts and custom orders.

Resident — minimalist, Scandinavian-inspired homewares and gifts, located on Walcot Street. Resident dog is particularly friendly!

Topping & Company Booksellers — superb independent book store, located on The Paragon. The shop is attractive and well-stocked and the staff are very welcoming and helpful.

My haul included coffee from Colonna & Small's, gin from the Bath Gin Company, cards from Meticulous Ink, and some chocolate, lip balm (not pictured) and a mini Baggu (not pictured) from Found.

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