Splash out on a trip to the Roman past
From ancient spas to Georgian splendour, the sights of Bath offer up a unique living history, says Paul Bloomfield
Thursday 01 May 2014
Bath: it does what it says on the tin. Well, kind of: health-seekers have been soaking here for nearly three millennia, happy as a pig in muck. And historically, pigs have been particularly happy in these parts – or so legend would have it.
In 863BC King Bladud (father of Shakespeare’s Lear) was living in exile as a lowly swineherd, having succumbed to a nasty bout of leprosy. Noticing his porkers emerging blemish-free after a roll in the steaming mud, Bladud dunked himself – and was cured. The thankful king founded the city of Caer Badum – or Bath, as we know it today.
As the centuries came and went, so did the spa-goers. First the Romans, attracted by the hot springs, established the town of Aquae Sulis. Elizabethans followed; three centuries ago, so did the Georgians, whose largesse bestowed the glorious Palladian architecture for which the city earned its Unesco World Heritage status. Today, visitors flock for a dip in the rooftop pool at Thermae Bath Spa.
So Bath packs a powerful historical punch, but it’s also compact, effervescent and jammed with enough museums, parks and theatres to keep families entertained for days, while sneaking in a healthy dose of hands-on learning. Introducing our ancestors’ antics is part of the fun: children get a buzz from meeting Roman slave-girls, dressing up at the Fashion Museum and playing pioneer at the American Museum.
Bath is perched on the southern slopes of the Cotswolds and – like Rome – ringed by seven hills, with the River Avon and the Kennet and Avon Canal sluicing through the city; no surprise, then, that there’s plenty of outdoor action. Fuelling your family’s adventures are a pantheon of cafes, Michelinstarred restaurants and the artisanal offerings of the weekly Green Park farmers’ market. And with a wealth of accommodation to suit all ages and budgets, from campsites to grand country houses via chic guesthouses, charming B&Bs and Georgian hotels, it’s easy to find the perfect base for a spring break.
Bath’s history is far from stuffy or remote – rather, it’s woven into the city’s DNA, along with charm and verve. Like Bladud’s fateful pigs, your offspring are sure to give it their squeal of approval.
In Roman times, cleanliness was next to godliness – literally: as the city’s centrepiece Roman Baths reveals, the temple of the goddess Sulis Minerva was built around AD 70 just a curse-inscribed tablet’s throw from the Great Bath. But how did those ancient bathers scrub up? Through an audio guide read by former Children’s Laureate Michael Rosen and an array of interactive exhibits and activities, young visitors discover what a strigil was used for (scraping off dead skin!) and how a shared reusable toilet sponge kept bottoms clean.
Such titillating morsels combine with reconstructions and regular hands-on events in the compelling, labyrinthine museum to paint a glorious Technicolor picture of life in Roman Britain – handily touching on important topics in key stage 2 of the national curriculum. Revelations from the Beau Street Hoard – a trove of more than 17,000 Roman coins discovered in 2007 – are presented in various events: make a date for Glorious Rome (26-30 May).
Roman Baths (01225 477785; romanbaths.co.uk; £13.50, child £8.80 or £17, child £10.25 including Fashion Museum; open daily)
Some 1,500 years after the Romans pulled the plug on their settlement, Bath had once more become the most vogueish spot in England, sparking the construction of honey-hued crescents, parades and circuses. But who were the Georgians, and how did they work, rest and – especially – play? Find some of the answers at Bath’s most fashionable address, No 1 Royal Crescent, where 18th-century life above and below stairs is vividly recreated.
One of England’s best dressing-up boxes awaits at the Fashion Museum. Housed in the Assembly Rooms, where high society came to dance, see and be seen, this fabulous collection of costumes from the past four centuries is a treat for fashionistas of all ages. The flagship exhibition for the Georgians’ 300th anniversary year showcases Georgian garb, and youngsters – and the young at heart – can try on corsets, crinolines and sporting costumes from various eras gone by.
No 1 Royal Crescent (01225 428126; no1royal crescent.org.uk; £8.50, child £3.50; open 10.30am-5.30pm Tue-Sun, 12noon-5.30pm Mon)
Fashion Museum (01225 477789; fashionmuseum.co.uk; £8, child £6, or £17, child £10.25 including Roman Baths, £13, child £7.50 including No 1 Royal Crescent; open daily)
Given the preponderance of very English grandeur, it’s perhaps a surprise to find the American Museum in Britain here. And a pleasant surprise it is – not least because its verdant lawns overlook the Avon Valley. The museum itself, which tracks the history of settlers, culture and folk art in America through the centuries, is a delight for youngsters. It also provides context for key stage 3 students learning about the American War of Independence. American Museum in Britain (01225 460503; americanmuseum.org; £9, child £5; open Tue-Sun, late Mar-early Nov)
Parks and recreation
You don’t have to walk far in Bath to find green space. The crown jewel is Royal Victoria Park, a swathe of hillside below the Royal Crescent that hosts regular concerts and fairs, and boasts a terrific children’s play area.
Rain? Undercover options abound: catch a show at The Egg, the innovative children’s theatre attached to the Theatre Royal, or join an Art Camp at the Holburne Museum.
The Egg, Theatre Royal (01225 823409; theatreroyal.org.uk/the-egg)
The Holburne Museum (01225 388569; holburne.org; general entry free – charges for some events; open daily)
Trains serve Bath from London Paddington (90 minutes), Cardiff (65 minutes) and Bristol (15 minutes), Southampton (90 minutes) for connections to the rest of the country. The M4 is 15 minutes away.
Jane Austen’s Home (07960 392068; bathboutiquestays.co.uk) provides one of the city’s more notable selfcatering options – a beautiful Georgian townhouse in which Austen lived in the early 19 century. Two-night rental from £1,190; weekly £2,000, selfcatering. Sleeps 18. Villa Magdala (01225 466329; villamagdala.co.uk) is a Victorian townhouse B&B offering stylish boutique rooms and free off-road parking. Doubles from £135, inc. breakfast. Woolley Grange (01225 864705; woolleygrangehotel.co.uk) is a manor on the outskirts of Bradford on Avon, a short train ride from Bath. Doubles start at £120.
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