Strolling Through Bath

Visitors will delight in the architecture and history of Britain's famous town

In April 1942, Adolf Hitler decided to take revenge on England. "You bomb our pretty towns, so we'll bomb yours," he reportedly commented before reaching for the illustrated Baedeker Guide to England, which showed the town of Bath in all its 18th-century glory.

The "Baedeker Raids," as they were eventually dubbed, lasted two days, and many of Bath's glorious buildings were destroyed. The ornate private homes exquisitely perched on the countryside overlooking the town were gone, but many of the central buildings that helped make Bath such a fashionable resort in its Georgian heyday were left intact.

Today, thanks in part to rebuilding between 1950 and 1975 that helped restore much of its original glory, Bath is still one of the prettiest towns in England.

Set in majestic countryside less than two hours from London, it is the perfect place for a week or a weekend, quiet enough to be a safe retreat from city life, yet interesting enough to save even the most active visitor from boredom.

A word of caution: Don't try to travel around Bath by car. The city's cobblestoned streets were laid out out for sedan chairs, not motor vehicles. We decided to take advantage of this unusual setup by embarking on a walking tour, beginning at the Roman Baths that gave the town its name.

Baths forgotten until 1700s

Founded AD 75, the baths are one of the most celebrated Roman sites in Britain, constructed for pilgrims visiting the temple of Sulis Minerva, which was built around a sacred hot spring. Unfortunately, the baths are closed for bathing - although the hot water still flows - but are nonetheless interesting. They were forgotten and buried in rubble until the 18th century, when workmen uncovered a bust of Minerva, which led to their discovery.

The baths, which disintegrated during medieval times into bawdy locales full of jeering spectators, were transformed in 18th-century Georgian times. It was then that the celebrated socialite Beau Nash got together with entrepreneur Ralph Allen and architect John Wood. The contributions of these three men give Bath today its unique feel, transforming the town into an elegant resort.

This is evident all over Bath, from its turreted shops with their old-style storefronts (with modern restaurants and shops discreetly housed within), to the statues of bygone heroes peering down from the rooftops.

We walked to Bath Street, home of the Cross Bath. A small pool set within the recesses of a lush garden, it was named in honor of a cross erected here (it has since been removed) after Queen Mary, the wife of James II. Fighting infertility, she bathed in its waters and later became pregnant.

Looming above the pool is a statue of Bladud, the legendary 8th-century founder of Bath. Banished from the court because of leprosy, he became a swineherd. His pigs also contracted the disease but were cured after bathing in mud on this site, which Bladud himself decided to imitate. A cured man, he returned to the court and became king, and the Cross Bath became the one most favored by nobility.

Not far away we came to Kingsmead Square, formerly a meadow outside the city walls that was notorious for dueling. It was here that the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan fought a duel for the hand of Elizabeth Linley, inspiring the play "The Rivals." Down the street is Beau Nash's home and not far away the Theatre Royal, once the home of his mistress, Juliana Popjoy.

Some of the more interesting sites, however, were homes not of famous people, but of simple artisans and workers. Some of the windows in a row of artisan's houses in Beauford Square, for example, have been completely bricked in. This was done to avoid paying a tax levied in 1697 on houses with more than six windows.

Architecture preserved

Other houses still retain the original fire insurance seals above the front doors, while others boast original "link snuffers." Boys carrying lighted torches known as links were hired to accompany the elite home from fashionable evenings; the links were then snuffed in the metal cones.

The most original buildings have to be the Circus and the Royal Crescent.

Built by John Wood the Elder, the Circus was inspired by the Roman Colosseum and consists of 33 houses divided into groups of 11 with streets entering at three points. Each house, once populated by the leading artists, displays three types of architecture: Doric (first floor), Ionic (second floor), and Corinthian (third floor). Friezes with 513 different motifs adorn the Doric columns, and a series of acorns runs along the top, perhaps symbolizing those Bladud used to tempt his pigs from the mud.

The Royal Crescent, thought to be the most impressive building of its type in Europe, consists of 30 houses with 114 Ionic columns overlooking an enormous lawn. Again, Wood made the plans, but his son executed them. A tiny wall known as a "ha-ha" has been built into the lawn to keep cattle from straying too near the building, but was constructed in such a way that it cannot be seen from the top of the Crescent. For those wanting to fully savor this era, the Royal Crescent Hotel (see sidebar) is open to visitors.

We ended our tour back where we began - at the Roman Baths. The Pump Room, once a mecca for the fashionable, was built directly above the courtyard of the baths and is today open to the public for meals and afternoon teas.

The more adventurous can even sample the hot spa water, which always emerges at 46.5 degrees C (116 degrees F.). A trio played chamber music to accompany our tea, and it was the end to a perfect day.

Tips for Travelers

Accommodation is plentiful in Bath, but prices rise sharply during the busy summer season. Be sure to book in advance if planning to visit during the tourist season. Here are some suggestions:

* Paradise House, 88 Holloway, Bath, tel. 011-44-1225-317723. About $40 per double room off-season, $100 peak. Elegantly restored house built around 1720, home-cooked meals, private baths, lavish garden.

* Old Boat House, Forrester Road, Bath, tel. 011-44-1225-466407. About $35 per double room off season, up to $90 peak. Unspoiled Victoria boating station, comfortable rooms, in-season free open-topped launch takes guests to center of Bath. Book early to avoid disappointment.

* Bradford Old Windmill, Bradford-on-Avon, tel. 011-44-1225-866842. Located outside Bath and therefore a bit cheaper: $25 for double room off-season, up to $75 peak. Originally owned by baker who went broke in 1807, this mill offers four imaginative rooms, eclectic cooking.

* Royal Crescent, 16 Royal Crescent, Bath tel. 011-44-1225-739955. About $200 per double room or more, depending on season. Elegant Georgian hotel with 46 luxurious rooms, swimming pool, restaurant, curved terrace, and elaborately manicured gardens. A treat for those who can afford it.

Weekly Rentals: For cheaper lodgings of a week or more, call Weekly Holiday Rentals for a brochure, tel. 011-44-1225-332221.

Season: Bath is the second most popular English tourist site after London, so it's best to avoid the crowded summer season. May and early June are preferable, as the weather is more likely to be pleasant, and the hordes have not yet descended.

Getting There: Bath can be reached by bus or train from London. The journey by either mode of transportation takes about two hours and tickets begin at $12 round-trip. Some tour operators offer one-day trips from London. Guided tours are optional.

Tours: Several agencies offer walking and bus tours in Bath. Boat cruises and hot-air ballon trips are also available. Here are some suggestions:

Crescent Guides. Tel./fax: 011-44-1225-312910

Sulis Guides. Tel. 011-44-1225-429681

Badgerline. Tel. 011-44-1225-464446.

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