I prepared for our two days in Bath UK by reading more Jane Austen. Northanger Abbey was set mostly among Bath’s glitterati circa 1799, while the mature heroine of Persuasion declined to live with her family in Bath (around 1813) and distanced herself from their social climbing.
Jane Austen lived in Bath for only 5 years, after her father’s retirement. But her fans pay pilgrimage to all 5 of the places she lived: Steventon, Bath, Southampton, Chawton and Winchester.
Upon arriving in Bath, the first thing we did was find the Herschel Museum of Astronomy, at which I told the ticket office staff, “I’m here to pay my respects to the real First Lady of Bath!” They were surprised and, I think, pleased. I became enamoured with Caroline Herschel after reading a popular science book, The Age of Wonder, by Richard Holmes – highly recommended!
The museum is the house where William (discoverer of the planet Uranus) and Caroline (discoverer of many comets), brother and sister, lived while they perfected their methods. Caroline acted as an assistant, doing a lot of drudge work while William honed new telescope lenses. She completed systematic sweeps of the sky, recorded all objects with unfailing accuracy, noted new objects, and published a substantial correction of John Flamsteed’s star catalogue.
The house was a lovely genteel home, not large or lavish, with beautiful wallpapers and a workshop opening out on to the garden – which was barely larger than a shipping container. The Herschels earned incomes from music careers before earning anything from science, so the house was filled with both musical instruments and scientific instruments! It was exciting being on the same site as a woman who made history as one of the first two female members of the Royal Astronomical Society, and the first who received payment for her astronomy work.
After I got that out of my system, we moved on to the Jane Austen Centre. This is another museum-in-a-house, on the same street and in the same style as a home in which the Austens briefly resided. Each room has talks by costumed guides, films or exhibits. They’re not set up like rooms in a house. I liked hearing the info about all the Austen family members, and I liked the artifacts from everyday life in the Regency era (such as making tea and letter writing). There was a dress-up area, too! There is a waxwork figure of Jane, but in it, she appears so different from her other portraits that it beggars belief. We had “tea for lunch” upstairs in their tea room, with sandwiches, scones and cakes. Over all, the Centre was a little bit precious, a little bit irreverent, and a lot of fun.
While I was in the UK, I enjoyed spending the new Jane Austen ten-pound notes. But I was equally happy to be given a Tom Kitten 50p coin!
Everywhere in Bath, you see preserved Georgian architecture: homes, shops and civic buildings made of Bath stone, a kind of yellow-hued limestone. I wish I had learned more about the mining of the stone. There are also newer, fake Georgian shopping areas that blend in!
After lunch on the first day, we crossed Pulteney Bridge, one of very few European bridges with shops on both sides, all still in use. A highlight was an old chemist shop (drugstore), A H Hale – it was stuffed from top to bottom with a mix of old and new grooming items like shaving brushes, sea sponges, bars of soap, and combs. We walked around the Abbey (not-quite-a-cathedral) inside and out, and listened to several buskers performing Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah at various locations – it definitely stopped us tourists in our tracks, no matter how many times we heard it!
After more shopping, which included buying my favourite rhubarb custard “boiled sweets” (hard candy), we relaxed over a fancy vegetarian meal at Acorn, then took the train back to our hotel room in Bristol – a short 15 minute journey.
For Day 2 in Bath, we spent a good deal of time at the Roman Baths for which the city was named. They are structures engineered by the Romans to turn a 40ºC hot spring into a bathing house and a temple to Minerva. Their use of technology was remarkable. The site has a full museum on Roman history in this part of Britain. I’d recommend it for history and engineering buffs but perhaps not for all – another option would be to go to the nearby Thermae Spa and actually have a soak! The Pump Room, much-mentioned in Jane Austen’s novels, is next door. We took a peek – it is now used as a large tea room with live music. We did get to taste the spring water – it was warm and slightly metallic!
We had a lunch at Sally Lunn’s, which is known for its meals based around Sally Lunn buns, unusually large bread rolls. In fact, half a Lunn bun makes a base for a pizza!
In the city, we walked through Queen’s Park, past the Royal Crescent, and through the Botanical Gardens at Royal Victoria Park.
We stopped by the Bath Postal Museum for a look. It is tiny and it focuses on local mail history – Bath was a transportation hub when the Penny Black stamp was introduced in 1840, allowing mail to be prepaid at a flat rate! A series of routes was organized so that all mail no longer had to travel to London and then be re-delivered out to the countryside. It was a niche spot – but who among us doesn’t like paper and envelopes, stamps and quills and ink and sealing wax?
There is so much we didn’t see in Bath: the Fashion Museum and the Assembly Rooms, the museum at No. 1 Royal Crescent, and all the other museums and galleries. But I felt we saw some highlights and made the most of our time and budget.
Staying in Bristol reduced our hotels costs by about half, and the daily train rides were quick and inexpensive. In Bath, admission costs for attractions added up fast, but everything is in walking distance of everything else, the city is visually beautiful, and it’s worth spending time there just for the public parks and green spaces among the stone buildings.
Despite being quite a way inland, it was misty at the start of each day, but it reliably cleared up by mid-morning.
Bath was not to be outdone by the Wallace and Gromit trail in Bristol, so it had more than 80 owl sculptures, in homage to the Roman goddess Minerva. This is just a small sample!
If you are a Jane Austen fan, which of her novels is your favourite?
Do you like to explore science, history and architecture when you travel?