Travel UK: First-class history lesson (and the tea's not bad either)

When you're tired of looking at Roman remains, dip into Bath's quirky museums. Emma Haughton and young critics put their stamp on the city
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THERE'S PLENTY more to Bath than hot springs and Empire-line dresses - particularly when you've got children in tow. Just a short stroll around the city reveals its diverse cultural heritage, much of it nothing to do with the Romans or Georgians. And it was a number of quirky museums which had particular appeal on the day we visited. Accompanying me were the most challenging of critics: an artist, Marie Postles, and her three young boys - Hector (nine), Louis (seven) and Oscar (five).

The biggest hit was Bath's Postal Museum, built in 1840 on the site of the first known posting of a Penny Black, still the world's most celebrated postage stamp.

Here you can trace the history of postal systems from the Egyptians to the present day and ogle rather prosaic-looking Penny Blacks, which can nevertheless fetch up to pounds 55,000 a piece. The museum also offers a full- scale Victorian post office, an airmail display, stamp collections, a film room and a playroom, where kids can amuse themselves with various activities from weighing parcels to typing letters.

As for the critics, Hector was only marginally impressed by the famous stamp itself, and more taken by the "really good model of Bath's old post office with all the little details like a coal bunker and stairs inside it".

Louis liked the hands-on activities: "Weighing the big letter with something heavy in it, I really wanted to open it and look inside," he confessed. "I tried the computer game where you had to break the letter code, but I couldn't do it," he added mournfully. Oscar did a puzzle, weighed letters and generally had a good time. But his mother was less enthusiastic: "The museum could have more visual interest," she said. "However, I really liked the kids' room, which kept the boys occupied for ages."

In contrast to the rather European bent of Bath, the Museum of East Asian Art is a refreshing blast from the Orient. Its collection of more than 1,000 treasures includes many priceless objects from 5000BC to the 20th century, all donated by Hong Kong lawyer Brian McElney. There are Chinese, Japanese, and Korean ceramics, jade and amber carvings and sculptures, Japanese prints and netsuke, even brass Buddhas. Some are stunningly ornate, others satisfyingly simple. The ceramic gallery has plenty of traditional blue and white pottery, but you can also see less expected pieces in lovely jewel yellows, turquoise and greens.

Marie was impressed. Less so the children. We asked Louis what he thought of the place. "I saw lots of pots, some of them were really pretty, and they had some good stones - and a great shop with lovely lights on the ceiling." The museum is not, perhaps, the most obvious place to take kids, but it takes great efforts to make the exhibits accessible to the young, with quizzes, games and displays which have explanations and questions to sustain their interest - the dragon quiz was a particular hit.

We rounded off the day with history and high tea at Sally Lunn's, home of Bath's most renowned bun. The cafe and restaurant, based in Bath's oldest house, also offers a diminutive museum in its cellar displaying its Roman and medieval foundations and the original bun kitchen, complete with a faggot oven and a Georgian range.

Sally Lunn, a Huguenot refugee, arrived from France in the 1680s and quickly established her brioche-like bun as the favoured alternative to traditional hard-crust loaves. Today it forms the basis of many of the restaurant's teas and light meals.

For the kids, this was the highlight of the day. "I liked the different levels in Sally Lunn's," Hector commented proudly. "You were standing on the Tudor level, then there was a Roman level below it. It was interesting to hear how the bun came in, too - in most shops you don't know these things." Oscar's reaction was rather more prosaic: "The old kitchen was good because it had a big oven and it used to make bread. Mummy bought us a nice bun to try."

The Postal Museum (01225 460333) is at 8 Broad Street: open 11am-5pm Mon-Sat throughout the year, Sundays 2-5pm; adults pounds 2.50, children pounds 1.75, family of four pounds 6. The Museum of East Asian Art (01225 464640), 12 Bennett Street, is open 10am-5pm Mon-Sat and 12noon-5pm Sundays, adults pounds 3.50, children pounds 2.50, family of four pounds 8. Sally Lunn's (01225 461634) is at 4 North Parade; admission to the museum is 30p per adult, free if taking refreshments in the restaurant