Britain: A mystical magical tour

It's Bath as you've never seen it - with a mix of street theatre, escapology stunts and audience participation. Muthena Paul Alkazraji joins a comedy walk
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The Independent Online
On a stretch of uneven stone paving flags near Bath's Bog Island 60 people mill around in the dusk waiting for the start of the Bizarre Bath comedy walking tour. Through the crowd breezes a six foot man wearing a bright purple blazer and carrying two purple party balloons. He then stands up on a milk crate and introduces himself as JJ. "So, where have you all come from?" he enquires. After a few cautious replies from a number of US and Australian tourists, someone boldly pipes up: "I'm from Bristol with a party". "Well I wouldn't boast about it," gulps JJ. The irreverent tone of the evening is set. We move off en masse.

Along a narrow alley opposite the city's famous Sally Lunn's tea shop we reassemble for our first address. "There is a rumour that we on Bizarre Bath don't know any history. That's not true," he says. "That's Sally Lunn's ... and she has nice buns." He then dons a blindfold and announces his intention of seeking an intersection of two of the city's ley lines, and he heads off waving his arms around like wild antennae.

Beneath the south transept of an illuminated Bath Abbey, our guide draws the crowd around him and assures us that an ancient Celtic marking on the stone courtyard indicates such an intersection of ley lines. The marking is a dried spot of seagull mess. At this point an American woman lets slip a raucous peal of laughter. He informs us that further proof, should we need it, can be demonstrated by the site's capacity to suffuse imperviousness to physical pain. He then produces a lit cigarette, and with consummate sleight of hand-magic presses it into his clenched fist. We applaud convinced.

Bizarre Bath was conceived and written by a former Young Magician of the Year and street performer Noel Britten, who leads the walk on some weekday evenings. He and our guide JJ originally met at conventions of magic, the art of which, along with stand-up comedy and a thread or two of local history, is cleverly woven into the comedy walk. "Noel had the idea of doing a street show at night, and doing it in a walk around the town to avoid the locals complaining about the noise," says JJ. "This is now our sixth season." The city's newspaper has called it "an enormously entertaining piece of street theatre".

The walk continues through Bath's streets using comic ad-libs and crowd participation, including an escapology stunt in the river Avon. Nearing the Abbey once more, JJ informs us that if we do not want to be seen for the obvious tourists we are, we could comply with a local bylaw which all Bathonians respect: the requirement of hopping across Cheap Street. The sight of 60 grown men and women bounding on one leg across a dark side street clearly bewilders three loitering youths.

Outside the Roman Baths we are given a brief account of the healing pilgrimages once made to the city's hot springs. "Unfortunately, the most prevalent disease of the day was leprosy. After a while, the situation became terribly unpleasant with the accumulation of body parts floating around in the water," says JJ. Placating the water goddess, Sulis Minerva, involved wrapping personal valuables in holy Roman papyrus before throwing them into the waters. Our guide borrows a ring, wraps it in papyrus, and, to prevent it sinking in the water, attaches it to his purple helium balloon. At this point he trips over his milk crate, and the ring floats away over the rooftops into the black night sky. Its owner is clearly unnerved. Sworn as I am to secrecy, I can, nevertheless, reveal that the denouement is pure magic.

The Bizarre Bath Comedy walk leaves from outside the Huntsman Inn every evening at 8 pm. No pre-booking is required. For further information call 01225 335124.