Bath, England: town of unspoiled beauty. Its Roman ruins and 18th-century flavor are just an hour from London

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

To many travelers, one of the delights of a country like England is its manageable size. You can journey from London to almost any corner of the kingdom in less than a day. Trains are excellent, and there are even some superspeedy ones that hurl you through the landscape at 125 m.p.h. This service is called the ``1-2-5,'' and it will get you to Edinburgh or Glasgow in just a few hours. Or, if your stay in England is very short, and you feel you can only manage a day-trip out of London, one of the loveliest -- and easiest -- places to visit is Bath.

If Bath conjures up images of 18th-century dandies, women in sedan chairs arriving at the Pump Room, or lovingly excavated Roman ruins, you won't be disappointed. But if you imagine, as I did, that by now Bath has become just another modern city with a few historic points of interest, you will be in for a delightful surprise. This little city seems so unspoiled that you feel Jane Austen herself could stroll down Milsom Street today, or climb the hill to Lansdown Crescent, and feel perfectly at home.

If you catch the 1-2-5 at Paddington Station, London, at about 10 in the morning, as we did, you can enjoy a delicious English breakfast on a thick white linen tablecloth, served by a liveried waiter, as the rich and varied greens of the English landscape glide swiftly by out the window. In an hour and five minutes, you're in Bath; it almost seems too soon.

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Even before you arrive, though, you are aware of one of the special qualities of this western part of the country. The villages are built of a warm, golden-colored stone, which glows against the deep greens of fields and trees. And as you pull into Bath Spa station, you find the whole city comfortably spread over a hill before you. This is your first indication that Bath has not been spoiled by the 20th century: the whole town seems to be built of that wonderful, honey-colored ``Bath stone.''

To plant yourself firmly in history, a few steps from the station will take you through the Roman thermae of Aquae Solis (the Latin name for Bath, after the goddess Sul Minerva, patroness of wisdom, arts, science, and war). Here the hot sulfur springs, for which the city is named, still bubble up at the rate of six gallons a second, as they have for centuries. The Romans were only among the first of a long line of aristocrats who flocked to Bath through the ages, to drink and bathe in these waters.

The entrance to the Roman Museum is in the delightful little square facing the cathedral, Bath Abbey. And you can walk right out of the enclosure of the huge Roman bathing pool -- which is still fed from the hot springs through a 2,000-year-old lead pipe -- into the elegant 18th-century Pump Room.

Dickens in ``The Pickwick Papers'' makes you expect something much larger, as it is clear that in his day everybody who was anybody congregated there every morning to see and be seen, and generally to outdo each other in their displays of finery. They also took a drink from the pump, which looked a bit like a large baptismal font to me. Sam Weller, Pickwick's stand-up comic of a servant, remarked that the water tasted like ``warm flat-irons.'' A great deal went on in this room in English social history, as in English literature. Could it be that even the flat, slip-on shoes worn by those well-dressed crowds around the turn of the 19th century took their name from the Pump Room, coming down to us as pumps?

You emerge from the Pump Room into Abbey Yard, with baskets of flowers hanging around you from a graceful open arcade. The scale is small -- designed for strolling, gossip, people-watching. Jane Austen fits in perfectly.

There had been an Abbey on the present site, built right into the Roman ruins, since at least the 10th century. The present version of it was begun in the 15th century. Known as the Lantern of the West because of its many windows, it is a delicate and ethereal late Gothic building. To me, its most charming feature was the double relief of Jacob's Ladder, with angels ascending and descending (in very human, rather clumsy and endearing postures) up and down the twin bell towers of the faade.

Through the portico opposite, you find yourself in a street with no cars -- only attractive, venerable little shops, leisurely strollers, and hanging flower baskets at every turn. As you start up the hill, this becomes Milsom Street, and you can easily imagine the military heroes of Jane Austen's ``Persuasion'' escorting their women up and down this elegant little thoroughfare.

Almost all the buildings you see in Bath are from the 18th century, in an understated, delicate English version of the Greek-inspired Palladian style, perfected by John Wood, Thomas Baldwin of the Adam school, John Palmer, and others.

The ultimate examples of the Bath style are found in the various residential circuses, squares, and crescents, where graceful, unbroken sweeps of uniform townhouses preserve the stately elegance of the period.

The Circus, where Gainsborough and Wordsworth both lived, is a generous, continuous circle of these fashionable homes, with a round green lawn and a thick clump of trees in the middle.

Royal Crescent is even more impressive. In one of the corner houses is the Bath Historical Society, whose rooms have been completely restored in 18th-century style: wallpaper, rugs, table-settings, prints, paintings, and all.

The Assembly Rooms, a building designed by John Wood in 1770, contains a number of elegant rooms for concerts and social gatherings. These have been authentically decorated in the colors and with some furnishings of the period. You can have a light lunch of sandwiches and tea in one of these rooms, followed, perhaps, by a shiny sweet roll with sugar and currants on top: what the English call a ``Bath bun.''

You can really get a feel for the look and atmosphere of Bath in just a day of strolling up its sloping streets. And a worthwhile objective of your climb could be famous Lansdown Crescent, which rests on the brow of the city like a tiara, offering a magnificent view of the rolling emerald countryside below.

Designed in the 1790s by John Palmer, Lansdown Crescent seems to distill the essence of Bath's restrained and elegant style. The gentle curve of the houses is set well back from the road and they can be approached only across a generously wide sidewalk. Many of the houses have their original wrought-iron lampholders arching before their doorways.

Bath seems rather quiet these days. You feel that lovers of art, culture, and history must live there, faithful to the memory of Sul Minerva. The residents obviously take pride in the unique, unspoiled beauties of their town. Maybe they commute to London on the 1-2-5. It's easy enough: We got back that evening in time for dinner and the theater.

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