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Ancient Bath and the Cotswolds

Ancient Bath and the Cotswolds

People have been lured to Bath for its curative hot springs since the first century when the Romans built a grand spa and temple for pagan worship. Today's visitors can experience the ancient ruins where the natural thermal waters have bubbled for over 2000 years. A new, state-of-the-art spa opened a few years ago, and visitors can once again bathe in the therapeutic waters.

Bath (pronounced Bahth) and the Cotswolds is one of the most beautiful sites to visit in England. Just a 90-minute train ride from London, the city takes you through the intriguing history of three distinct eras, beginning with the Romans, moving on to the classical elegance and stunning architecture of the 18th century, and into present day Bath with its bustling markets, lovely parks, museums, galleries, boutiques, gourmet restaurants and cozy tea rooms. The city is an architectural beauty built in the Georgian era with Bath Stone, a cream-colored limestone that glistens in the sun.

Dan and I arrived on a Thursday afternoon in late January and settled into The Francis, an early 18th century hotel located in the heart of the city. Our first memory is a misty twilight glimpse of the town square, home to the Roman Baths and dominated by the magnificent Abbey founded in 1499. The elaborate carvings of angels ascending and descending on Jacob's ladder are breathtaking. In 973, England's first King, Edgar, was crowned in an earlier Abbey at the site.

The legendary Lunn Bun

Nearby, a warm candle glow in the window drew us to Sally Lunn's (at right), the oldest house in Bath (ca.1492) where the legendary Lunn Buns have been made with Sally's secret recipe for more than 300 years. The historic atmosphere, along with Ave Maria playing in the background, set the mood for a memorable dinner. Our meals were served "trencher style" on a huge Lunn Bun smothered in meat and gravy.

The Roman Baths

Friday, our first full day, began at the Roman Baths where today's murky green water actually fell 10,000 years ago as rain. It remained trapped beneath the earth's surface until it was released by a fault. The famous baths were built after the Romans conquered a Celtic tribe that had settled there. Believing the three bubbling springs were sacred and had healing powers, the Celts dedicated them to their goddess Sulis. In a peaceful agreement, the Romans devoted the sacred water to Sulis and also to their own goddess, Minerva. They named the city Aquae Sulis. Around 70 AD, the springs were enclosed in a large reservoir and the baths and temple were built. Roman soldiers and emperors gathered her to worship, bath and socialize.

Tourists were sparse during our visit, so we took our time exloring the network of baths, a masterpiece of hydraulic engineering, and the underground passages into the temple. Five feet of the original structure have been unearthed along with numerous artifacts, including tombstones, mosaics and coins. One of the most dramatic displays was the life-size gilded bronze head of Minerva (below), which was discovered in 1727 as workmen dug a sewer. Dan and I were also fascinated with the curses scratched on lead by revenge seekers who then threw them into the sacred springs with the hope of a divine intervention.

After the fall of the Roman Empire in the 4th century, barbarians raided the city and the population dwindled. The baths became derelict, but the warm springs continued to flow through the ruins. The Saxons established a monastery near the springs in the late 600s and renamed the city Bath. Over time, news of the curative waters spread. In Medieval times, the sick continued to flock to the site for a cure.

It wasn't until Queen Anne's visit in 1702 that Bath was transformed into a fashionable city. The baths were rebuilt with the terrace, columns and statues seen today, and the city became a healing, spa-resort for the rich and royal. By the turn of the 19th century, the city had seen its heyday and the baths fell into ruin again.

The Pump Room

After an overwhelming history lesson, we emerged from the temple and found ourselves in the 18th century Pump Room, which was built onto the baths to accommodate the city's growing popularity. After bathing, the well-heeled gathered at the social center for cream tea and sweets. They also drank the mineral-laden spa water, which is still available from the same fountain (below) for 50 pence a glass. The splendid high ceiling, chandeliers and a gallery put us in the atmosphere of utmost elegance. It was in this room that novelist Jane Austen, who lived in Bath from 1801-1805, captured the follies and whims of many of her characters in Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.

Dan thought it was all a bit "girly," but the good chap surrendered himself to a cup of tea as we listened to classical music by the Pump Room Trio. I ordered a highly acclaimed "Bath Bun" (not to be confused with the Lunn Bun), which was crowned with chunky bits of sugar, filled with currants and drenched in vanilla butter. Although we didn't drink the curative water, a trip to Bath wouldn't be complete without the Pump Room experience -- of course that's my opinion, not Dan's!

Touring the city

We immersed ourselves in a self-guided tour of the city, beginning at the Abbey where glorious stained glass windows depict the life of Christ. A south side door led us to the underground Heritage Vaults which trace the Abbey's history. From there, we walked to the city's architectural landmarks, including: the Royal Crescent, a curved terrace of 30 ornate homes; The Circus, a circular street inspired by Stonehenge and matching its diameter; and the magnificent Pulteney Bridge which is lined on both sides with tiny shops and restaurants. River cruises depart from the bridge steps throughout the day.

One of our greatest pleasures was wandering through cobbled passages and stumbling upon quaint shops and comfy pubs and peering into shop windows filled with cheeses, Cornish pasties, honey-covered buns, and old-fashioned sweets. The aroma of fresh-baked bread greeted us at every turn. We had dinner at The Circus Restaurant, an intimate, out-of-the-way place we discovered during our walk.

On Saturday, the city center was teeming with locals and tourists sporting umbrellas in the country's typical misty rain. The streets came to life with musicinas, jugglers and other entertainers. We spent the morning strolling through old-fashioned stalls at the grand Guildhall, a covered market where local produce, arts and crafts have been sold since 1284. Then we walked to a nearby flea market -- a real treat with tables spilling over with old coins, glassware, military buttons and other bits and bobs.

By noon, we were chilled to the bone and retreated to the Hole in the Wall, one of the city's most historic restaurants. We drew up chairs to a toasty hearth and ordered lunch -- very deserving of the praise it gets. By the time we left, the rain had stopped -- perfect timing for a tour on an open-top, double-decker bus. We chose Bath's Classic City Tour because of the live commentator. He shared historical bits that we missed on our walk, and pointed out cultural sites that had been damanged during World War II when the Germans did their best to demoralize the country.

We still had a few hours before a planned dinner at Martini Ristorante, so Dan went back to the hotel and I headed to the Jane Austen Center, which highlights the author's life and times. Like Catherine Moreland says in Northanger Abbey, "Oh! Who can ever be tired of Bath?"


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