For millennia the great and good of the British Isles have headed to Bath in Somerset to recuperate in the hot thermal waters that burst to the surface in three places. There are many other springs in the UK, of course. A few of them are thermal. But none outside of Bath are warm enough that you’d jump in on a winters day. That’s what drew the Romans here nearly two thousand years ago, Admiral Nelson two hundred years ago (when he had time off from sinking French and Spanish galleons) and vast assortments of kings, queens, princes, princesses and other nobles. The healing power of the waters were legendary. Bath was the social, and medical, centre of the country. Until George III decided Brighton was a more convenient location for a busy king, and the sea waters of the English Channel just as good, and took his court and followers with him. He was, most certifiably, quite mad.
Bath has long been making a comeback though. Thanks to the advent of the train, it’s not just the great and the good who head to Bath. Even commoners like me can stop by. These days, visitors come for the architecture, history, shopping and museums rather than to bathe in the waters. Although, should you wish to do so, you can spend a few hours in a modern spa – needless to say the historic Roman Baths are situated in a museum, not a spa, and are not open for public tomfoolery.
Be prepared for hordes of tourists. It’s not just Brits you’ll find in Bath, holidaying at home on the cheap in the face of the recession. When foreign visitors book their airline tickets to the UK, most of them have at least a few day trips outside of London in mind. Bath has most definitely joined the elite UK tourism locations. In fact, only four other destinations outside of London attract more visitors. Three of those are in Glasgow and Edinburgh The other is, perhaps a little bizarrely, Chester Zoo. I didn’t even know Chester had a zoo. Turns out it has, and a pretty impressive one at that.
I learned a few things in Bath. I discovered that there are a ton of River Avons in the UK. Why so many rivers all with the same name? The Romans would ask the rowdy locals the names of rivers. The reply was always Avon. Avon was Anglo Saxon for ‘river’. By the time the Romans realised that the natives weren’t the brightest sparks, and were telling them what the flowing water was, rather than its name, it was too late. I also discovered that it costs as much as £15,000 to clean the exterior of an average town house in Bath. Limestone was used throughout the city, and being a porous stone, it has to be cleaned painstakingly to prevent the buildings from being damaged.
Limestone is an attractive stone to build with, but I have an issue with it. When cleaned it looks like new. Which isn’t how you expect an old building to look. A bit of muck, a few cracks and a stain or two add character. In Paris, I was a bit bemused by Notre Dame. Again, because it didn’t look like an 800 year old Cathedral. It looked like a fabulous piece of mock architecture. A little bit ‘Las Vegas’. There are parts of Bath which also look like new old buildings. I’m going to name this issue the Poundbury Problem. Poundbury is a very modern development, built to look like a traditional English town. It’s the epitome of new old. Poundbury is great, in my opinion. It’s not great, however, for a genuinely old town to look like Poundbury.