Lizzie PopeSee other travel guides written by Lizzie Pope
For many, Bath just means one thing – The Roman Baths. Yes, they are of major importance – they are the very foundations of the city and its reason for being – and a significant factor in the city centre being designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But if you're enjoying caravan holidays in Somerset we are happy to say that there is far, far more to see when you visit Bath than 'The Romans'.
When you visit the Roman Baths, with its very fine, but not 'Roman', statues (they're actually 19th century tourist attractions) that adorn the poolside are, perhaps, at the heart of Bath's 'old town', an area of narrow alleyways and market squares, of small shop fronts and low-ceiling houses – it provides an insight into Bath prior to its 18th century reincarnation as a top health resort. Order snacks or afternoon tea in The Pump Room Restaurant for an elegant dining experience or enjoy meals from breakfast to dinner at the beautiful Roman Baths Kitchen.
In the vicinity is also the enormous and rather special Bath Abbey, a jewel of a building with immense craftsmanship. And here, too, is Sally Lunn's Historic Eating House and Museum, another Bath institution. Sally Lunn was a refugee from France during the latter part of the 17th century; she found work with a baker and introduced him to French brioche – so became the 'Sally Lunn Bun', popular with the 'new' Georgian tourists.
Just to the north of the Abbey is the prestigious Guildhall, a domed building with ornamental gates, in which is held the Guildhall Market, something that has been running here for over 800 years and is well worth a trip on your caravan holidays in Bath. You'll find a good old-fashioned mix of butcher, baker and candlestick-seller, and the opportunity to buy Bath Buns.
Next door to the Guildhall is the Victoria Art Gallery, a free-to-enter museum with a fine collection of British paintings including those of Gainsborough, Constable and Sickert. Gainsborough realised he could make a penny or two by painting the portraits of wealthy tourists while on their spa break, so moved to Bath to do just that. Some of these portraits hang on the gallery walls.
Also close by is the Thermae Bath Spa, today's modern equivalent of the Roman's bathing quarters. Bath is still pumping out naturally hot water – you can hear it gushing beneath the roads and the manhole covers are often warm – which still retains therapeutic qualities that relax the mind and soul.
Bath, having prospered in Roman and then medieval times, was completely remodelled in the 18th century, largely by four men. They were John Wood the Elder and Younger, who both drew up and created some of the world's most prestigious town plans, Ralph Allen who supplied the Bath Stone from his quarries to build the streets of stunning town houses, and Richard 'Beau' Nash, who became the master of ceremonies and was at the centre of society life, filling the houses and civic buildings with parties, concerts and social entertainments that brought the world to Bath.
The world, indeed, still comes to Bath to see what these four men, between them, created, and some of the best places to appreciate their achievements are in the area north of the Roman Baths and the Abbey. One of the top tourist attractions in Bath is The Royal Crescent, arguably their most famous masterpiece, though much of Bath is the handiwork of the Woods, including The Circus, Queen Square, north of the River Avon, and Great Pulteney Street, south of the river. Number 1 Royal Crescent is open to the public; it is the first property to have been built in the street and provides an idea of Georgian interior design and authentic (though not original) furnishings.
Also of note, to gauge an historical flavour of the city, are two museums – the Building of Bath Collection and the Museum of Bath at Work. Here, visitors can discover many local treasures that became famous – the 'Bath Chair', the Bath Oliver biscuit, and Plasticine, invented in the city.
Close to the Royal Crescent, in Gay Street, is the Jane Austen Centre, offering a glimpse of the author's life and her associations with Bath, including how the city fits into several of her novels. Also of interest to Jane Austen fans are the Assembly Rooms, once the hub of Georgian and Regency social life where dances took place, gamblers lost fortunes and new husbands were found.
Beneath the Assembly Rooms is the Fashion Museum, one of Bath's major exhibits, where a vast collection of contemporary and historical dress from the past 400 years is showcased. Naturally, there's a large hoard of clothes from the Georgian period.
For open space, the Royal Victoria Park spans out in front of the Royal Crescent and beyond. Despite its name, it too was created during the Regency period. With 57 acres to roam among specimen trees and formal flower borders, it's a great place for a picnic. Though not to be missed (but often are) are The Botanical Gardens in the north west corner of the park. There are lots of gardens within gardens to give colour throughout the year.
Another great place for a picnic is the Parade Gardens on the west bank of the River Avon, from where you can all but watch a match at the Bath rugby ground, on the opposite side. The river flows through the city and the 23-mile River Avon Trail is a great opportunity to escape the centre on foot or bike as it leads out of Bath into rural Somerset.
It's also possible to pick up a river cruise, departing from Pulteney Bridge (one of the few bridges in Europe with buildings on, inspired by the Ponte Vecchio in Florence), or you can hire a wooden rowing skiff – handmade in Bath – at the Bath Boating Station.
The River Avon is not the only place from which to take a waterside walk as the Kennet and Avon Canal passes through Bath, east of the Avon. The views of the city from the towpath are magical and a mile-long stretch north of the Widcombe Lock Flight includes 19 listed structures.
Behind is Bathwick Hill, a Georgian suburb with elegant town houses leading to Claverton Down. Here, is Prior Park Landscape Garden. Owned by the National Trust, it once belonged to Ralph Allen, the owner of the Bath Stone quarries. The vast house (built for him by John Wood the Elder as a grand statement of wealth) is not open to the public, but the 28-acre gardens are. The gardens provide some of the best views of the city.
So it is clear there are lots of things to do when you visit Bath and it's well served by campsites. Indeed, there are two caravan parks on the outskirts of the city, both with good public transport connections to the centre, so there's no doubt that Bath provides a great place to combine a city break with a caravan holiday.
There is so much to do in Bath that narrowing it down to just five of the best really is difficult. So Practical Caravan's Bath travel guide is, therefore, merely a selection of some of the best things to do in Bath.
Top five things to do in Bath
Visit The Roman Baths to really be in the heart of Bath and gain an insight as to why the city exists at all. Before you reach the baths, you'll be self-guided through a powerful exhibition that brings the Roman history to life, and see the thermal springs that run beneath the streets.
If the Roman baths look tempting, more so is the Thermae Bath Spa where you can actually bathe – great for chilling out on your caravan holidays. The futuristic glass building houses numerous pools and spas with naturally heated water, plus various treatments to soothe and relax. An absolute must is the rooftop spa pool, from where there are glorious views of the nearby Abbey and the surrounding hills.
A real gem is the American Museum in Britain. Housed in a large manor house on Claverton Down, south of the city centre, the museum provides a fascinating insight into American colonial history, with period rooms and furnishings brought from houses in the States. It also has one of the finest textiles collections in the world.
Take off from the Royal Victoria Gardens on an early morning or evening ride in a hot air balloon. Run by Bath Balloons, the rides offer spectacular birds-eye views of the city and surrounding countryside.
Enjoy afternoon tea in Bath. Potentially the most elegant venue is the Pump Room, where you can be serenaded by the Pump Room Trio as you eat beneath a chandelier taller than most people's houses. There, you can also 'down' a glass of spa water, if you can stomach the salty taste, and eat a Bath Bun, created to counteract the taste of the 'good-for-you' water.
Or try the more down-to-earth, cosier Sally Lunn's, one of the oldest tea rooms in the city and the only place in the world to buy a Sally Lunn Bun. Alternatively, take tea at the Jane Austen Centre, where the first-floor tea rooms are decorated in Regency powder-blue and you can enjoy 'Afternoon Tea with Mr Darcy' or 'Lady Catherine's Proper Cream Tea'. Elbows off the table, now!
When to visit Bath
There are always lots of events in Bath, with exhibitions at the various art galleries and museums, concerts, talks, children's activities. sporting fixtures, and shows at the Theatre Royal, so whenever you take your caravan holidays, there will be something to enjoy.
Major annual events, however, include the Bath Literature Festival in February/March, the opportunity to see the Roman Baths by Torchlight during July and August, and the Great Bath Feast, a gastronomic festival of astronomical proportions in October. The Bath Christmas Market, situated around the Abbey, is one of the prettiest in the UK, but be careful about the times – opening in November, the Christmas Market closes a fortnight prior to Christmas.
Also worth mentioning is the Iford Arts Festival, which takes place during July and August at Iford Manor, a five miles south east of Bath. The season of opera, concerts and picnic proms is performed in the Peto Garden, a celebrated garden designed by Harold Ainsworth Peto.
However, Bath's major piece of theatricality is the Jane Austen Festival held at venues throughout the city during September. If you're in town during this time, anticipate seeing any number of women parading in Empire line dresses and ribboned bonnets next to their male counterparts, parasols and top hats aloft. Numerous festivities take place with Regency dances, costumed walking tours, Regency meals and afternoon tea galore.
How to get to Bath
For caravan holidays in Bath, take junction 18 on either the M4 from the east or the M5 from the south west and the north, then the A46 (from the M4) or the A4 (from the M5). Use the A36 if you are approaching from the south.
Bath's through routes are well signposted and easy to negotiate when towing a caravan, but anticipate long queues during rush hour on main routes out of town. And remember that rural campsites near Bath might have tight and/or twisty access roads that are tricky to tow on, so ask the site's owners of the best route before leaving home.