At the beginning of 2019, I took an online quiz called “What should your travel resolution for 2019 be?” The quiz told me to keep a travel journal. It’s not secret on this blog that I think new year’s resolutions are stupid, but I did it anyway. And in fact, I did it so well that I didn’t write a travel-related blog post all year.
I was looking forward to keeping my journal up in 2020 – so you can imagine my dismay when I sat on the train to Bath on a Friday evening in February, ready to document the start of my journey, only to realise I had three pages left in my tiny journal.
For weeks after my return I told myself to retroactively write about my experience, but other life plans got in the way. Now, as a global pandemic cancels my social life and any other opportunities to travel, it seems fitting to share my travel stories again here instead.
In January, my least favourite month of the year, I was feeling particularly miserable and needed some cheering up. My solution was to book a solo weekend trip to Bath, a spa town in Somerset, where I could get out of the city and perhaps treat myself with some spa pampering. I compromised a bit, booking a bed in a reasonably priced hostel instead of an all-inclusive package at a fancy hotel, but the trip still gave me the rejuvenation I was looking for.
I woke up on Saturday morning in a hostel on the top of a big hill outside of Bath’s centre. The sun was shining, birds were singing, and there was a positive energy in the air. Even the people in my dorm room were early risers like me. By 9 o’clock I was heading into town for breakfast, the DSLR camera I received for Christmas slung around my neck like a proper tourist. The only thing slowing me down was the nasty symptoms signalling the start of a cold, which meant a trip to the pharmacy was tops on my to-do list. But I was on vacation after all, and visiting the high-street pharmacy chain is just not the kind of thing you want to do on vacation. So I went to an old pharmacy at the end of Pulteney Bridge, where the windows were still filled with old jars and the interiors were reminiscent of apothecaries of old.
I took a quick walk through Bath’s markets and some of its side streets on the way to my breakfast destination, Sally Lunn’s. Completely by accident a few weeks before my trip, I came across a bucket list food article that mentioned Bath bunns. Sally Lunn’s claims to be the inventor of these famous bunns, which are cut in half and can be served sweet or savoury (but always with a pot of tea).
The bunn was divine. I sat in the cafe staring out the window and savouring every second of the delicious toasted breakfast in front of me, dripping in lemon curd and smeared with clotted cream.
After breakfast, I popped round the corner to the Bath Abbey.
Like many old churches in Europe, the architecture in this ancient cathedral is exquisite.
From the Abbey I started climbing Bath’s steep slopes, keen to enjoy the first real sunny day of the year. Bath is famous for its Georgian architecture, including many rounded rows of townhouses. At the Circus there were packed guided walking tours. I was busy thinking about the people who lived in these houses and how annoying it must be to have your home constantly photographed.
A short walk away is the remarkable Royal Crescent: 30 terraced houses curved around a swath of green space with a lovely view over the city below. From eavesdropping on one of the guided tours I learned that the park in front of the crescent is teeming with students after their exams and it’s not hard to see why. Even on a brisk February day it felt lovely to bask in the sun while taking in my surroundings.
I continued on to Royal Victoria Park and its botanic gardens. Despite not much being in bloom, plenty of families were out and children ran gleefully across the grass and chased seagulls around the ponds. It was a bit like being in a fairytale.
By the time I left the botanic gardens, I had done about two thirds of the things listed on the “48 Hours in Bath” blog post I found, and it was only 1 pm on my first day in the city. The ticket I pre-booked to visit the Roman Baths wasn’t valid for entry until 3. So I decided to head to the train station and follow the canals to the north of the city.
The canals are connected by a series of locks leading up the hills, and are nowadays mainly used by narrow boats. I had just walked up the deepest of these locks, the Bath Deep Lock (a very clever name), when a boat entered to use it. I watched the boat’s owners skilfully jump from one side of the lock to the other, dog in tow, as the boat rose nearly 6 metres to the next waterway. There were residents and tourists alike watching with fascination; a dad and his young daughter helped open the gates.
The scenic walk led me to Sydney Gardens. These pleasure gardens enjoyed their heyday in the 18th century and were even frequented by Jane Austen when she lived in Bath. The gardens have sadly fallen into somewhat of a state of disrepair since, but are in the process of being restored.
Finally it was time to enter the Roman Baths, the city’s most notable attraction. While you cannot actually swim in them as the Romans did thousands of years ago, you can experience water from the same source at the Thermae Bath Spa nearby. And you do get a cup of the magical healing spa water at the end of the museum tour.
At first I was overwhelmed at the sheer amount of people in the museum and annoyed at the staff for allowing so many groups in at once. But eventually the crowds thinned and I took my time with the audio guide. I was also pleased to discover that author Bill Bryson does his own narration of the museum; it was no “Jeremy Irons does the audio guide for Westminster Abbey”, but still a treat to listen to.
At the end of the tour I apprehensively took a drink of the mineral water, fingers crossed that it would bring me some magical powers. (It did seem to alleviate my cold symptoms for the rest of the weekend, but maybe I was just imagining it.)
I spent three hours in the museum and didn’t even manage to listen to every bit of audio. By the time I left I was starving, having only eaten a Bath bunn and an apple all day. All I wanted was some greasy pub food after a day of walking everywhere. Unfortunately, Bath is not a pub city, and any place I found was completely packed as the England-Scotland Six Nations rugby match was finishing up. I finally found a seat at The Bath Stable, a restaurant that specializes in pizza and cider. The combination seemed unique enough to warrant a visit.
Still battling my runny nose and not yet wanting to head back to the hostel at 8 pm, I contemplated on what to do for the rest of the evening. Eventually I headed back to the Little Theatre I had photographed earlier in the day and bought a ticket to see Parasite.
Damn, what a film. I walked out of the theatre and said to myself, “That’s going to win Best Picture.” (And the next night, it did. I’m just saying.) Of course, it also had the negative side effect of making my walk along unlit canals and up a big hill in the dark and wind much scarier than it needed to be.
That night, Storm Ciara arrived. Wind pounded the hostel on top of the hill all night and the next morning was cloudy and drizzly. I left my camera in my bag at the reception before heading back down for a proper English breakfast at Retro Café (also coincidentally the only restaurant to open before 10 am on a Sunday).
From there I wandered to the Fudge Kitchen to watch fudge be made and chat with the lads working there about how the weather was “a bit windy”. One of them thought my accent was Welsh.
My train wasn’t until 4 pm, but I had essentially seen all of Bath’s sights in a day. The only thing I hadn’t done was go to the spa. I opted for the Thermae Bath Spa’s cheap 90-minute session in the neighbouring Cross Bath, an open-air geo-thermal pool for max 12 people.
I have been to a few baths in my life and I never really know what to do in them other than bob around and occasionally expose myself to the cold air. So I contented myself with naming all the capitals of the world in my head whilst I embraced the warmth.
Finally, it was time to head back to London, but not without a bit of chaos. Storm Ciara caused all sorts of train disruptions. But the extended journey gave me the opportunity to reminisce on a nice weekend in a city I’ll definitely have to go back to – because those Bath bunns are calling me.