I usually come to Bath in a crisis that requires the emergency application of mini break. When my mother was ill, I brought her to the Royal Crescent Hotel to recuperate; I put her in a tub of warm water in the spa in the gardens, and she rallied. When my mother-in-law died one cursed Christmas, my husband and I came here on New Year Eve. I rang the Royal Crescent Hotel and asked them if they had any cancellations. They gave us a remote golden room – it is a very meandering hotel – and we watched The Ladykillers and cried. The next day, we went to Bath Abbey and prayed. Last year we came for Christmas Eve with the children and rode the merry-go-round and visited the Christmas market. It was a trip without a crisis; and so is this one.
I wonder why I love Bath and I have this: its surfaces are Georgian – beauty, harmony – but there is, underneath, deeper magic and hotter drama, more explicit here than anywhere in England. Under the Georgian city of Bath, the Roman city of Aquae Sulis is buried, with its curses written on lead. That is true of all England – Christian ‘civilisation’ is built on pagan ruins – but nowhere is it as pointed as in Bath. And everyone comes to Bath; or they should. I come because Jane Austen came because the Romans came because the Britons came; and we all come for the one million litres of hot water that pours from the ground each day. It feels both commercial and miraculous – like people, I suppose.
Where to stay
We stay again at No. 15 Royal Crescent at the centre of John Wood the Younger’s ‘rus in urbe’ (‘country in city’) masterpiece of 1767-74. It is thirty terraced houses with 114 Ionic columns, 150 metres long. It is, with No. 16, the Royal Crescent Hotel, and it is both monumental and cosy. If I am ever reported missing, I am likely here watching Netflix in an enormous bed. That is how attached to Paganism I am.
My son and I have a vast suite over-looking the gardens; the sort of place I would fold myself into, and never leave. I am dead, said Disraeli on his elevation to the peerage; dead and in the Elysian Fields which, in this incarnation, has kindly staff, fifteen-foot-high ceilings, and multiple cushions. I prefer the back of the Royal Crescent because it is limestone rubble, not carved stone. Like Bath itself, there is something more curious behind the glorious façade; something to make you return, a puzzle that cannot be solved. My son is charmed by it: by the concept of room service, which is new to him (if it is not from a parent); by the secret door to his bedroom; and by the knowledge that these may have been the rooms of Frederick, Duke of York, who was Prince-Bishop of Osnabrück at six months old, inspired a nursery rhyme, and who once owned this house.
We live in Cornwall, and he responds to Bath as he is supposed to, if you are a character in Jane Austen’s novels. He develops town manners; polish; a contradiction, if you believe in the fierce gods below. He opens doors for me and says: ‘after you, Madam’. Then he runs off screaming.
What to see
Bath is a boom-and-bust city. The Georgian boom began when Queen Anne came in 1702, haunted by her dead babies, seeking solace. She didn’t find it, but Bath became a spa and casino for the moneyed classes. Jane Austen was dragged to Bath by her family and set two novels here – Northanger Abbey, and Persuasion, her first and last, innocence and cynicism, so Bath bookended her life. She spent her visits sulking in various houses in the city.
You can tour the sites of Austen’s sulks by bus. It is a bus with misogynistic commentary. The voice-over mentions the ducking of talkative women in the Avon and asks if it should return. Austen fans remember the sulks and the prose, and they haunt Bath dressed as heroines, daydreaming about political disenfranchisement and bonnets. There is a Jane Austen Centre – why ‘centre’? – where the credulous can have ‘Mr Dashwood’s Tea’ – wasn’t he dead five pages in? – and ‘Tea with Mr Darcy’. A tribute death in childbirth is not included, although it should be. That is what I think about when I close Sense and Sensibility. Which of the sisters died first – and of romance? Or was it Lucy Steele? It was, on contemplation, probably Lucy Steele.
I like the older parts of Bath yet more: the early Tudor abbey – ‘the lantern of the west’ – and Abbey Green, a tiny square of houses with an ancient plane tree at the centre. It is something, that tree, and I wonder if the god in the tree calls to the god in the water, but I am very suggestible, and Bath allows me to be suggestible. I become porous as limestone, and I relax. In this, it is quite like the Jorvik Viking Centre – again, why ‘centre’? – but it is infinitely more charming.
My son wants to have a bath in Bath because he likes baths, and puns. He is too young to bathe at the Thermae, the modern complex which uses the water from the spring – you can bathe on the roof, and watch the Christmas bustle – so I take him to the old baths and tell him there is a god in the water. It was called Sulis by the Britons, and Sulis-Minerva by the Romans, who knew a lot about successful conquest and incorporated the old gods so people would hate them slightly less. Sulis-Minerva’s mask glares out in the museum; but there is yet more underneath. Geoffrey of Monmouth said that hot mud cured King Bladud’s pigs of leprosy, and they were the first tourists to Bath, but who knows if this is true? The Romans enclosed the water in a lead and stone reservoir and made the baths. So practical. So vicious. But I am not really over Titus’ conquest of Judea, and this is a good place to think about it, and about everything that happened before the Industrial Revolution whose presence, of course, is marked by the railway.
I watch the steam rise off the Great Bath, whose water is now an eerie green. Last summer a woman jumped in and swam around, possibly for political reasons. There are lots of bourgeois socialists in Bath; sometimes they are dressed in Georgian costume, like ghouls. She could have died; the bacteria – Naegleria fowleri – gets in through the eyes. The Roman baths are poisoned now, and I like that – I like everything about the Roman Baths – although I probably shouldn’t have told my son about it. He cried. We watch the water pour out of the Great Drain, staining the stone red. We peer at the steps to the temple of the goddess, made uneven by centuries of yearning.
Where to eat
We dine at Sally Lunn’s Eating House. Sally Lunn’s is medieval, with a Roman cellar which is now a museum with a wax (inevitably) female baker, although the style above is more depressed Casanova. I eat a garlic bun. I have never had a garlic bun before, and it is singular. Possibly too singular, but I am glad I came.
To me, Bath feels like a hotel, not a city in pieces: our Las Vegas. Like Las Vegas, it was designed for leisure from the off. But if Las Vegas piles civilisation on civilisation in what feel like seconds – you get Egypt, Venice and Paris in one drag, like a swiftly-built dreamscape – Bath’s layers are more weathered, put down in the correct timescale, and that, for me, is harmony.
As we leave, I think only Edinburgh is more beautiful than Bath, which is a tiny city of Paganism and fudge emporiums; and that is because it looks like Bath after a catastrophe. The cream stone terraces rise up the limestone hills from the River Avon. Bath exists because of the limestone. It made the terraces, and it made the waters.
For more information visitbath.co.uk