Fred Mawer pays a visit to the stunning Somerset city, which has earned its Unesco World Heritage Site status for a number of reasons.
It’s an underpublicised fact that – unusually – Bath’s Unesco World Heritage Site status actually covers
the whole city, which puts it on a par with Venice.
This city-wide inscription applies for a number of diverse reasons. For the presence of natural hot springs, and the Roman remains of the town of Aquae Sulis that grew up around them. For the honey-stone Georgian architecture, along with the groundbreaking town planning during the 1700s when Bath was turned into a fashionable winter resort and the remarkable Royal Crescent and Circus appeared. And, something that is often overlooked, for the city’s wonderful setting, in a bowl surrounded by seven green hills.
Throw into the mix a host of museums covering everything from astronomy to fashion and philately to Asian art, plus glorious Bath Abbey – currently undergoing a massive renovation programme to stabilise the floor – and it’s fair to say Bath delivers heritage in spades.
But the city is not some fuddy duddy place set in aspic; with a large student population, far from it. Many visitors, notably hen groups, come to party for the weekend. Along with time-stood-still old boozers, Bath has an ever-growing number of fashionable cocktail bars such as The Dark Horse and the Canary Gin Bar, whose own gin has a winking version of one-time Bath resident Jane Austen on the bottle. Bath even had a trendy Caribbean-themed beach bar venue last summer in the park below The Royal Crescent, and it’s returning this year.
Dining options are excellent, too, with a plethora of cosy cafés and gastropubs. Among notable recent openings is Koffman & Mr White’s, an affordable brasserie from legendary chefs Pierre Koffman and Marco Pierre White.
Shopping is also a big enticement, not just with the Christmas market (one of the country’s biggest and most picturesque), but year-round, thanks to the high quota of independent, one-off boutiques and gift stores. Every Saturday morning, delicious local produce (think Somerset ciders and cheeses) can be sampled and bought in the long-established farmers’ market at Green Park, a former railway station.
Entertainment-wise, the big annual event is the Bath Festival, an important celebration of music and literature in May. The historic Theatre Royal has a first-rate repertoire year-round, including many West End transfers, and you could have a flutter at the city’s new casino, just across from the theatre’s entrance.
Do also find time to take in the lovely countryside that fringes the city. Hike a section, or all, of the National Trust’s circular six-mile Bath Skyline walk (fabulous views guaranteed), or rent a bike and tackle the 13-mile Bath Two Tunnels Circuit, which includes a scenic section of the Kennet & Avon canal.
After all that exercise, you’ll have earned a rest. Head to the open-air rooftop and indoor pools at the Thermae Bath Spa complex and follow the habits of the Romans and Georgians by soaking in the naturally warm and soothing waters.
Which takes us back to Bath’s heritage. It’s recently been announced that the city is to be nominated for a second Unesco World Heritage Site listing, as a leading European spa town. If the application succeeds, Bath would be double-listed, uniquely so in Britain.