“London is no longer an English city which is why I love Bath,” said John Cleese, of Monty Python fame, a few years back. “(London is) the cosmopolitan city. I love being down in Bath because it feels like the England that I grew up in.”
And it’s true. London may be buzzy and multicultural and full of great pockets for shopping and eating. But Bath offers heaps of old British charm along with some things you may not think of as being classically English – namely a sophisticated vibe and a great farm-to-table food scene. Perhaps that’s why it’s a hugely popular place to move for urban dwellers fleeing London – or maybe that great food and cool vibe is a case of chicken and egg. Either way, the result’s the same: This ain’t your granny’s England.
So next time you land at Heathrow, we propose heading west instead of east and choosing Bath over London. Here are 10 surprising reasons why.
1. It’s delightfully easy to get to.
You’re only an hour and a half by train from London or an easy hour-forty-five on the M4 from Heathrow. Bath itself is compact and wonderfully walkable – plus no complicated tube system – so once you get into town, you can ditch the car and explore by foot. Unless you want to visit sites such as Stonehenge, Castle Comb (called the “prettiest village in England”), or the Magna Carta in Salisbury, which are all super-easy day trips away.
2. Visually, it’ll live up to all your expectations.
Bath is full of immaculately-maintained Georgian townhouses, (as elegant as they were when Jane Austen was writing about the “real housewives” of Bath), and is surrounded by pretty-as-a-cliché English countryside; exactly what you thought England would look like. To take it all in from up high, climb the 212 stairs of the tower at Bath Abbey, situated on the same site where the first king of England was crowned.
3. Or enjoy the view from up here.
Nope, this isn’t an ordinary rooftop pool. In case you were wondering, the name Bath does indeed stem from the natural hot pools the Romans used to bathe in, heated by geothermal energy and containing more than 42 minerals and elements. You can still “take the waters,” as the noble classes used to do, at Thermae Bath Spa, which offers four different pools all heated to a perfect 33.5°C (92°F).
4. And about those baths…
No, you can’t swim in the baths the Romans used to use (as anyone who’s ever been to Bath will attest, it’s the No. 1 question you’ll get). But you can still walk the tiles from which ancient Romans used to kick off the gladiator sandals and wade in, and even taste the water – once thought to be healing – at the Roman Baths Museum. If typical droning audio tours aren’t your bag, there’s an alternate version narrated by Bill Bryson, the famously funny and wryly observational American travel writer (adult admission £13.50, including audio tour).
5. It’s a major Austen geek-out.
The beloved English author lived in Bath for six years and set two of her books here (in actuality, she hated Bath’s frivolous society scene). If you’re an Austen fan, there are endless ways to indulge your romantic fantasies here, from an Austen museum where visitors can play dress-up in old period frocks, to the Bath Assembly Rooms, where balls were held in Austen’s day. You can even travel back in time via the annual Jane Austen festival in September, which includes costume parades, harp and ball dancing lessons and readings, in a celebration of all things Austen.
6. It’s chicer than you’d think.
There’s more to Bath style than corsets and petticoats. Bath Spa University is home to one of England’s top fashion schools and the Fashion Museum, a must-visit shrine to style through the last few centuries. From Georgian gowns to modern couture, the exhibit — housed in the lower level of the Assembly Rooms building — is the most stylish basement you’ll ever set foot in (take that, Filene!). Among its treasures are a slew of frocks from Princess Diana’s closet and the Dress of the Year collection – a fashion accolade awarded to one dress each year for the last 50 years. JLo’s iconic down-to-there-up-to-here Versace dress is among the past winners on display.
7. One of a kind finds.
Of course, all that fashion might awaken a craving to shop. The town has a dense concentration of indie boutiques selling designs you won’t find anywhere else. Among our favourites: Grace & Mabel, bibico, which sells high-quality, fair trade knitwear, and the artisan’s stalls along Burton Street.
8. The food is quite lovely too.
Sure you can find classics such as fish and chips and steak pie. But the farm-to-table scene in and around Bath might surprise anyone who comes to England expecting heavy, bland pub food. Don’t miss The Pig Near Bath, a whimsical country inn and restaurant which grows most of its own ingredients – including at least a dozen varieties of green onions and 12 types of apples – smokes its own salmon and ham, and serves it all up inside a beautiful Victorian greenhouse.
9. It’s festival central.
For such a small town, Bath punches above its weight festival-wise, all year long. There’s the aforementioned Jane Austen fest, comedy and music festivals, food fairs, an acclaimed fringe festival, separate literature events geared to adults and children, Christmas markets, and even a 10-day Digital Festival, whose tagline is “Less Romans, More Robots.” Because, yep, Bath is becoming an innovation hub too.
10. Luxe – for a lot less.
And when it’s finally time for a rest? London may lay claim to the most expensive luxury hotel rooms in the world, but in Bath you can score lavish accommodations for less – much less. With rates that start at £165 (about $300 CAD — and even better deals can be found if you look), a room at the Bath Priory Hotel, comes in at about a third of the average London rate, with refined period-style rooms that ooze country romance. Set in a former-private residence that was built in 1835 (but is tricked-out with modern amenities including huge bathtubs and a full gym), the hotel has a spa, Michelin-starred eats and charming English gardens in case you’re struck by a sudden urge for a game of croquet. In this neck of the woods, it just might happen.