Two hundred and fifty years ago, Bath was the Hollywood of Britain. Today, this former trendsetter of Georgian England invites you to take a 90-minute train ride from London and sample its aristocratic charms.
The entire city, built of the creamy limestone called "Bath stone," beams in its cover-girl complexion. Proud locals remind visitors that the town is routinely banned from the Britain in Bloom contest to give other towns a chance to win.
Tourists have been enjoying Bath for thousands of years. When the Romans came to Britain in the first century A.D., they discovered Bath’s hot springs and promptly built a resort around them. They enjoyed the popular spa for about four centuries before withdrawing from Britain when Rome fell.
The town's importance carried into the Middle Ages, when Bath was considered the religious capital of Britain. In 973 King Edgar--called the first king of England--was crowned here. Later, Bath prospered as a wool town. With the money it made from wool, Bath built its grand abbey, the last great medieval church erected in England. And sometime in the 1300s, a new thermal bath was built (the original baths had long since deteriorated).
But Bath's heyday passed, and by the middle of the 1600s, it was just a huddle of huts at the base of the abbey. Then, in 1687, Queen Mary, struggling with infertility, came here and bathed. Within about 10 months she gave birth to a son. A few years later, Queen Anne found that the mineral-laden water eased her painful gout. Word of Bath’s wonder waters spread, and the town earned its way back on the aristocratic map.
The revitalized spa town prospered, and most of the buildings you see today are from the 18th century--the Georgian era (named for the four Georges who sat as England’s kings from 1714 to 1830). In a round-robin of inspiration, the local builders followed the lead of Italian architect Andrea Palladio, who himself made a business of studying Roman ruins. The town bloomed in Neoclassical splendor, with buildings as competitively elegant as the society they once housed.
To imagine you’re one of Bath’s upper crust, cruise along the Royal Crescent. This long, graceful arc of buildings evokes the wealth and gentility of Bath’s glory days. Streets were built not with scrawny sidewalks but with broad "parades," upon which gentlemen in cutaway coats would stroll and women in stylishly wide dresses could spread their fashionable tails.
To get behind one of those classy facades, drop by the Georgian House at No. 1 Royal Crescent. At this museum you’ll get an intimate peek into the lavish lifestyles of the age--including how high-class women shaved their eyebrows and pasted on carefully trimmed strips of furry mouse skin in their place (www.bath-preservation-trust.org.uk). The kitchen has all the latest Georgian gizmos, included a meat-spit that was powered--I kid you not--by a dog (he worked in two-hour shifts).