14 December 2020

A Staycation Spa Break in Bath

After a year of cancelled trips, and most of my pre-booked annual leave falling during lockdowns, I was grateful to be able to take a four-night trip to Bath last week. Bath, like London, is currently in tier 2 COVID-19 restrictions, and is an easy 1h20 train journey from London. Bath had only just come out of lockdown when I arrived, and the city was much quieter than usual for December, especially as the annual Christmas market had gone virtual. It was grey and chilly for most of my stay, but the rain mostly held off, and Bath's honeyed stone architecture looks lovely whatever the weather, especially with the festive wreaths on the colourful doors of the Georgian townhouses, and the street lamps casting a cosy glow.

I've highlighted below some of the places I visited, and restaurants, coffee bars and shops I particularly enjoyed. For further ideas of things to do in Bath, do also check out my write-up of my city break from last winter, and my Bath speciality coffee guide.


Queensberry Hotel. I originally thought about booking a spa hotel but spa facilities push the price up a lot and during COVID-19 times where you have to book any pool/spa use well in advance, I decided to organise a separate spa day instead. The Queensberry is located on a quiet street close to the Circus, a few minutes' walk north of the city centre. I was upgraded to a superior room on the second floor of the Georgian townhouse. The room was comfortable and well-appointed with pretty, quirky d├ęcor and lots of space. If you're a very light sleeper it may be worth asking for an interior room as the period windows are not double-glazed, but I enjoyed the honey-hued Georgian views. There's also a lounge and a bar on the ground floor (and, of course, Olive Tree in the basement, of which more to follow). The staff were all very welcoming, and I really enjoyed my stay. 

Last time, I stayed at No. 15 Great Pulteney, which does have a small spa (although it's currently closed for refurbishment), but is a bit further from the city centre. I enjoyed my stay there too, and would recommend both the Queensberry and No. 15 for boutique hotel mini-breaks.

Food and drink

Olive Tree. Bath's only Michelin-starred restaurant is based in the hotel where I was staying. As they'd only just reopened after lockdown, I was able to book a table a week before my visit, but it is usually necessary to book well in advance. Chris Cleghorn's modern British tasting menu comes in nine-course (£110) and six-course (£85) versions; I went the whole nine yards. From raw orkney scallops with pink grapefruit, to tagliatelle with aged parmesan and white truffle, roast duck with beetroot, and Tulakalum chocolate with olive oil and yoghurt sorbet, the food surprised and delighted, with creative combinations and beautiful presentation. The service was wonderful too.

Menu Gordon Jones. Another good option if you fancy a tasting menu. It came highly recommended, and although I wasn't promoted from the waitlist, it's very much on my list for next time.

Clayton's Kitchen. I went for an early Sunday supper ahead of a very disappointing football match — with hindsight, I wish I'd stayed for pudding instead. I started with an Old Fashioned, and then crispy duck croquetas, followed by a beautifully cooked medium-rare beef fillet with duck-fat fries. Although pretty quiet when I arrived, there was a lovely atmosphere later on, with a number of regulars.

OAK. Last time I was in Bath, I ate at the acclaimed vegan restaurant Acorn, which has now evolved into OAK. The food is similar although with smaller and more affordable dishes, a brunch menu, and groceries for sale. I stopped by for lunch, sitting in the window seat on North Parade Passage, which was great for people-watching. I went for the pine nut arancini and chilli sauce; roasted cauliflower steak with curried lentils; and hazelnut roast with potato galette. This was more than enough food for me, and it all tasted great. The menu is vegetarian, with all dishes also 'veganisable'.

The Scallop Shell. I enjoyed the seafood at The Scallop Shell so much last time I was there, that I was keen to return. You don't have to have the scallops but you probably should because they are delicious. They were out of haddock, so I had cod and chips too; the batter was beautifully crisp.

Cafes and coffee shops

Landrace Bakery. My hotel was close to this bakery so I headed down the hill for breakfast one morning, timing my visit perfectly for the hot cinnamon buns that had just emerged from the oven. The bun was beautifully sticky, and I also enjoyed a piccolo, perched on the bench outside (they are currently takeaway-only). If you like the baked goods, you can buy some of Landrace's stone-milled flour, on sale with a host of other grocery items in the store. 

Thoughtful Bakery. I had the best pork and sage sausage roll from here, encased in beautifully flaky pastry. There are sweet treats too, and breakfast dishes and sandwiches available to take away or to eat in. They also serve coffee from Round Hill, a special Bath blend (which you can buy — the Bath-themed packaging is super cute).

Colonna & Small's. Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood's venerated Bath speciality coffee shop needs no introduction, but it remains one of my favourite coffee shops in the country. It's currently open for takeaway customers, and they will also seat a limited number of customers on the benches at the back, behind the coffee bar (there's a little barrier in place near the entrance to help staff control numbers). What hasn't changed is the excellent service — the knowledgeable staff help both coffee geeks and those who just want something warm, caffeinated and delicious choose the best possible drink — and the excellent coffee. 

On my first visit, I tried a natural Mandela Cafe Granja coffee from Colombia, which had beautifully juicy passionfruit notes brewed through the Aeropress. When I returned, I had a really special El Zacatin anaerobic natural Gesha, also from Colombia, as both an espresso and a piccolo, which had gorgeous mango, strawberry and rose flavours. Both times, there were three single-origin coffees available on espresso and three as filter coffees (each with a carefully selected brewing method), and the only problem is which coffee to choose!

Forum Coffee House. Located inside the Forum, a music venue and theatre, Forum Coffee House serves speciality coffee from local roasters, and a small food menu. I had a lovely floral Ethiopian coffee from Colonna brewed through the Aeropress, and a ham and cheese toastie. The food menu is usually more extensive, the barista told me, but they'd been busier than expected on their first weekend after lockdown. Inside, the cafe is spacious and airy, a great place to warm up from the winter chill.

Society Cafe. I've been to the Kingsmead Square location of Society Cafe a couple of times before, but took the opportunity to visit their other Bath coffee shop, on the corner of The Corridor arcade and the High Street. The small coffee bar has a few seats inside and several more outside, and is currently allowing limited numbers of sit-in customers. I had a very well made piccolo, brewed using a natural coffee from La Pedro farm in the La Paz region of Honduras — the Dr Pepper tasting notes (in milk) were accurate! It made a good accompaniment to the salted caramel peanut brownie I ordered.

Good Day Cafe. I discovered the cheerful, pink-hued Good Day Cafe last time I was in Bath, and was glad to be able to return for an Unorthodox Roasters piccolo, and brunch. As they can only take two groups inside at the moment in order to maintain social distancing, there are also a few tables outside on Upper Borough Wells. Luckily, the rain held off during my visit, and I very much enjoyed the coffee and the avocado toast.

Taylor's. Located on London Street, Taylor's serves coffee — currently from Redemption Roasters — and bagels. The tiny coffee bar, which has just one table outside, also sells coffee from Redemption and Round Hill, and coffee kit.

Wolf Saloon. I had hoped to visit this new bar (featuring craft beer and natural wine) and speciality coffee shop — a spin off from Wolf Wine shop — but at the moment, it's only open Wednesday to Sunday evenings for pizza, beer and wine. I'm looking forward to visiting next time I'm in town.

Things to do

Thermae Bath Spa. Well, when in Rome...or Roman Britain, in any case. The spa with its naturally warm waters is currently open for access to the indoor pool and the rooftop pool, although the sauna and steam rooms remain closed and they've had to limit the number of visitors. Do check their website for the latest information. I timed my visit to the rooftop pool well as the featureless grey sky morphed into the most beautiful Turnerian sunset, with coral, yellow and mauve hues lighting up the sky. As you can't take phones or cameras up there, it meant I could just enjoy the show rather than worrying about trying to take the perfect photo, for once. All in all, it was a very relaxing afternoon.

Bath Abbey. With the Mayor of Bath's guided walking tours currently suspended, I soaked up the history inside Bath Abbey instead. Originally founded in the 7th century, it's been rebuilt and restored a number of times since then. Unfortunately, the tours of the tower are currently suspended, but there's still a lot to see, including the stunning fan vaulted ceiling. It also looks very pretty when it's illuminated at night too, especially with the Christmas tree in Abbey Churchyard.

Parks and views. I made my first visit to Alexandra Park, climbing up the steep hill just south of the city centre, over the River Avon. The stunning views are worth the climb, especially if you visit on a sunny day. 

Slightly to the north-west of the city centre, Royal Victoria Park makes a great place for a stroll or a morning run. As I was staying close to the Royal Crescent, I walked along it many times, catching an unexpectedly beautiful sunset — which belied the greyness of the day — on my first afternoon.

Shopping. Bath has two fantastic book shops, Topping & CoMr B's Emporium, and a number of other great independent shops like lifestyle store Found, magazine shop Magalleria, and department store Rossiters.

I also explored the Larkhall neighbourhood north-east of the centre, which also boasts some lovely shops like the Beaufort Bookshop, Leak Gifts and Goodies Deli.

Day trip to Wells and Shepton Mallet. I took a bus trip to the history city of Wells, England's smallest city. It took about 1h20 on the bus (a day pass is £7), and I spent a few hours visiting the beautiful cathedral, the Bishop's Palace and the market, and spotting Hot Fuzz filming locations. I also had a good coffee (espresso from Nottingham-based Outpost Coffee Roasters) and cake at LOAF

On the way back to Bath, I got off the bus in Shepton Mallet to do a bit of (window) shopping at Mulberry and the other Kilver Court shops. If you're there longer than I was, Shepton Mallet prison does interactive tours, which sound interesting.

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