Bathe in Bath’s beauty
Georgian architecture at its best and one of the finest hotels ever visited, Joseph Connolly cannot speak highly enough of Bath- Just don’t mention the bus situation.
The beauty of Bath – it so incenses me! And particularly on a perfect winter’s day such as just last month, when I went there – cold, and the sun simply sparkling. But why should this be so? Well I’ll tell you: because this beauty, as is ever the way, draws attention to its ugly sister – makes one shiver at the pockets of quite appalling hideousness that the city sages, down the decades, have decreed to be both wise and fitting: the demolitions they have sanctioned, the dross that has been thrown up in their wake.
There is relatively little of this, it’s true, when weighed against the unrolling vista of harmony, the sweeping grandeur and sometimes even majesty of terraces, squares, crescents and circuses … but this makes the impact no less shocking.
So let’s get the beastly bit out of the way at the outset: when you decide to take a winter weekend away in Bath, as you really should – or even a day trip, which is perfectly manageable on the train – here is what you simply must avoid: Firstly, when leaving Bath Spa station, remember to stare dead ahead of you, as if tightly blinkered. Do not let your eyes stray to the left for even an instant, or else you will be brought low by the Bus Station. This coarse and sprawling flat-topped slum is a horribly fine example of 1960s town improvement, clad in stained and yellow ‘Bath stone’ in common with so many of the more jarring excrescences of similar vintage, as if this cheap and slipshod nod to ‘heritage’ makes it all okay. Like the vast, brutal and angular hotel they built over the Avon, just a smidgen away from Pulteney Bridge, the Adam masterpiece that is one of the city’s finest showpieces. Or Bath College: don’t look at that.
Just about everything else, though (apart from the shopping precinct, just about adequately remote) is so utter a joy to behold. Just walking about in Bath – an easy and leisurely business, the motorist being given a very hard time of it – is actually spiritually uplifting, rather as it is in Paris. Wherever you glance is some new wonder, or a small architectural detail to cherish, and marvel at. But it is not just the grand set pieces (The Circus, Francis Square, Great Pulteney Street, among many more) but the humbler components that link them – the terraces, arches, corridors, turreted corners, street furniture and even the very paving stones: all is there to gladden the eye.
As in a diadem, though, it is undeniably the priceless gems within the setting that serve to make the whole thing dazzle – and I was staying overnight in the very finest of them: the Royal Crescent, at the very centre of which is the best hotel in the city by quite a way. The welcome is formal, though friendly – a liveried porter magicks away your luggage as you stand in the entrance hall of a fine small country house that happens to be situated in very probably the greatest crescent of any city in the world. There is nothing so crude or corporate as a reception desk – a smiling woman brings you all the info and room key as you sit with a coffee in a perfect drawing room, warmed by a log fire and looking out on to the apron of green that skirts the crescent.
The same night-time view from my suite directly above was even more special: the sweep of the crescent’s wings in either direction – and far beyond, the twinkle of a million pinpoint lights, appearing less like a city vista and rather more akin to a solar system: I was Kirk, aboard my eighteenth century honey stone Starship Enterprise.
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I visit Bath as often as I can, but the best thing about coming here in winter is that although all the shops, restaurants and attractions are up and running, the seething hordes are elsewhere (largely Tokyo and Milwaukee). Because in common with many of England’s loveliest spots, in summer Bath is buried by the very people seeking out its beauty, thereby profoundly buggering it in the process. Also, there’s no queueing and concomitant scrummage at the must-see sites – of which the much touted Fashion Museum, by the way, isn’t one. Unless you’re one of these very strange people who will sit mesmerised by a bundle of old frocks that were actually worn by Princess Di …!! God in heaven. Otherwise there’s just a clutch of ludicrous mannequins as last seen in the window of a Soviet department store c.1957 wearing this or that vaguely familiar oddment. And so far as I could tell, there’s nothing at all from the twenties, thirties and forties … not great for a fashion museum: you’d do a whole lot better at the V&A.
What is a must-see, though, is the Roman Baths, hard by the Abbey. If you have never been – or not for a good while – this is something of an eye-opener. They have pulled off something very clever indeed here, making both the open air and underground sections of this excavation extremely atmospheric (and sometimes a little unsettling – you wouldn’t want to be here on your own, in the dark), while the modern technology employed is neither intrusive, patronising nor silly, as is often the way with any such innovation. To sit on the base of a Roman column and idle one’s fingers in the naturally blood-hot sulphurous water (which you’re forbidden to do) is a rather fine experience. One rather yearns to wade out into the sunken bath, if only to exhort the surrounding gawpers to “Come on in – the water’s lovely!”. And next door in the Pump Room, you can drink it. ‘Taking the water’, they call it – and I know of no quicker way of making you sick.
And sick you really don’t want to be – not if dinner at the Royal Crescent is looming. There are a few very decent restaurants in the city, though this is far and away the best. Though I did have a jolly and simple lunch at an Italian place called Rustica in Margaret’s Buildings, just around the corner. Rustica is as Rustica does: authentic in both proprietorship and cooking, as small as a very small room indeed, rough stone walls and furnished with junk. Red tablecloths, but of course. The food was really good – perfect scallops, fine bresaola and parmesan, properly meaty penne bolognese and fresh and excellent tortelli stuffed with pumpkin. The home made tiramisu was sorely tempting, but I was conscious of dinner to come …
Ah yes – that dinner … well here was truly something special: fine dining, and worthy of the name: not just a primped-up and fussy display, but first rate cooking, beautifully and professionally presented in a large comfortable room by staff who really know their business: outside of London, this is a rare thing (and even inside of London, come to that). Every part of every course was just about as perfect as it gets – from the freebie artichoke veloute with spinach and bacon and on through foie gras and fig carpaccio, quail and black truffle terrine, herb rolled loin of Wiltshire Downlands lamb in a honey and lavender reduction … and just perfect Eversleigh Farm venison (done in a water bath, so melting and yielding) with red cabbage and caramelised potato. A genuinely enthusuastic and knowledgeable Czech sommelier steered me towards a (wildly expensive) Rhone called Cornas – and I was grateful, because it was wonderful (although I nearly ordered a bottle called ‘La Ponce’, because it was there). Puddings were as light and fine as you’d hope for, and elegantly adrift amid a palette of confident gloops and swirls. A fine dinner, then, in one of the best English hotels I have stayed in. Breakfast, too, is not to be missed: an extraordinary selection of berries – and then maybe porridge or scrambled egg, both of which were truly creamy and hot: so rare.
The reason we love places such as Bath is not because we’re impossibly fossilised nostalgics besotted with Themepark England who respond only to the call of the old. Bath was adored when it was new: immediately the height of fashion, and extremely popular, as were the novel furnishings of the time (only much later revered as antique) and the chic couture (which now we hail as period).
What we have in common with the Georgians is that we love beautiful things which function well – and things in human scale: it’s what we want. But since the War, architects, town planners, councils, designers, fashion houses and all the rest of these misguided dictators openly laugh in the face of what we want, and continue to get away with foisting upon us horror after horror whether we like it or not, while sweeping away more and more of the good stuff while they’re about it. No one any longer wishes to be the anonymous creator of a street, a terrace, a crescent. We are stuck with vainglorious headline-seekers who love to mug our cities with another bloody great ugly stump which preferably looks like anything but a building (gherkins, cheese graters, shards … you know all the guilty parties).
Oh dear. And that, you see, is why the beauty of Bath so incenses me. But at least we have it still, thank God. So go there: enjoy it while you can.
DISCLAIMER: Jane Austen was not harmed nor even so much as mentioned during the making of this article.
o Trains from Paddington regularly depart for Bath Spa. Royal Crescent Hotel, 16 Royal Crescent, Bath BA1 2LS. Tel 01225 823333. www.royalcrescent.co.uk.