In the circumstances a comfortable home win was anticipated. But Bath - who put 76 points on their near-neighbours here nine years ago - no longer swagger like a team capable of delivering a pasting. And they had to make do with a middling margin of victory thanks to two tries and Olly Barkley's 15 points from the boot.
Barkley, who started at fly-half rather than centre for the first time in 11 months, opened up with a slashing, jinking break to within a whisker of a try at the posts. But it was a mirage of incisive action and the Bath pack settled for too long to a frustrating impression of a map-reader in possession of an atlas of cul-de-sacs.
There is a competition for 2nd XVs - it's called the Guinness A League and it takes place on Monday nights - and it ought not to be transposed with a Saturday afternoon at The Rec. But Bristol were mindful of injuries and an unforgiving fixture list.
"We do have a number of senior citizens who need to be looked after," said their coach, Richard Hill. So while the likes of Gareth Llewellyn and Darren Crompton applied for their winter warmer rebate, Bristol were captained by Joe El Abd - like Hill, a former man of Bath. As Bristol repeatedly went offside to repel the Bath forwards, El Abd was warned over the accumulation of penalties against his men. After 35 minutes he was sent to the sin-bin for dallying on the wrong side of a ruck.
The loss of a man was bound to be costly, with Bristol's rush defence creaking at the seams, and in the fourth minute of added time a series of Bath thrusts led to their hooker Pieter Dixon nipping over from David Bory's pass at the right-hand corner. Barkley's first kick at goal had been an horrendous hook wide from short range in the eighth minute, and he was unable to convert.
But Barkley found the target four times between the 47th and 62nd minutes to reward a palpable turning of the screw. The impetus probably came from Bristol's solitary try in the opening 90 seconds of the second half: a loose ball was hacked up the right by Marco Stanojevic and Greg Nicholls applied a finishing touch after Gareth Delve conceded a penalty in Bath's scramble to cover.
Danny Gray converted but Barkley's peppering of the posts - two kicks from prodigious distance near the halfway line, two from inside the 22 - gave Bath a 20-10 lead. They also stole two Bristol line-outs as the going got inevitably tougher for the visitors, most of whom were more used to life in National League One. At loosehead prop Matt Stevens made a couple of the charges for Bath which must have earned the admiration of England's coach Andy Robinson.
Bath and Bristol played each other in the final of the old RFU Knockout Cup in 1984. It was so long ago that it was sponsored by a cigarette company, but not many spectators would have been knocked out by this new-age cup tie. It needed a Bristol mistake to dispel a gathering sleepiness about the closing stages. Gray hesitated over a pass and it was snatched away by Chris Malone, a substitute for Barkley, whose counter-attack was finished by the centre Tom Cheeseman.
Bath: N Abendanon; A Higgins, T Cheeseman, R Davis, D Bory (S Finau, 58); O Barkley (C Malone, 75), M Wood (A Williams, 75); M Stevens (D Barnes, 61), P Dixon (L Mears, 61), D Bell (Stevens, 79), S Borthwick (capt; J Hudson, 79), D Grewcock, A Beattie, G Delve (C Goodman, 68), J Scaysbrook.
Bristol: S Marsden; M Stanojevic, S Cox, M Denney, D Lemi; D Gray (J Pritchard, 80), G Nicholls (J Rauluni, 62); M Irish, N Clark, W Thompson (D Howick, 73), O Kohn (D Attwood, 73), O Hodge, R Winters, D Ward-Smith (R Pennycook, 69), J El Ebd (capt).
Referee: R Debney (Leicestershire).