The locals' guide to Bath

Anna Walker

"I really believe I shall always be talking of Bath,
when I am at home again. I do like it so very much…
Oh! Who can ever be tired of Bath?"—
from Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

Walking around the refined city of Bath, you can almost hear the honey-coloured limestone of its buildings whispering tales of its history in your ear. First settled in the 7th century, Bath's name comes from its famous thermal spring waters, which first brought the Romans to its walls, transforming it into a spa town with their historic baths, which can still be visited today.

In the Georgian era, Britain's wealthy flocked to the city to sample the healing properties of the waters, and Bath became the place to see and be seen, hosting balls enjoyed by the upper eschalons of British society. In the early 19th century, Jane Austen called the city home, and her influence can still be felt in the myriad Austen experiences and souveniers available throughout the city. Visitors to Bath today are as likely there to swoon at the Jane Austen Museum as they are for a visit to the thermal waters, or stroll along the magnificent architecture of the Royal Crescent.

 

Mike James, 46, has lived in Bath for over ten years. He runs Savouring Bath, who offer hugely popular foodie tours of the city.

I moved to Bath in 2010 with the intention of staying for two years. After six months, I had no intention of living anywhere else—Bath is home.

I was born in East Yorkshire and came to Bath entirely on a whim. I knew almost nobody here, but having lived in York I always saw Bath as the “York-of-the-South”. It has a big, old church; it has a thriving tourism industry; quaint old streets; beautiful architecture, and lots to do and see. I also quickly learned that Bath also has a wonderful, friendly community vibe.

 

The independent business scene in Bath is something I really love about the city. So many people come here to try out new business ideas, which I guess is because we’re very open to new concepts. We like to see innovation and want to be part of it. This means we’ve got a great hospitality scene with some really interesting places to eat and drink. There's everything from a world-renowned, champion barista to a unique single-estate tea merchant, whose gyoza dumplings have gained something of a local cult following.

 

I’ve been a tour guide since I was 17 and combining my love of food, with my love of the independent business movement for my work as a tour guide with Savouring Bath has been the most natural process, and something which I don’t think I’ll ever stop loving.

Bath has such a plethora of great artisan food and drink outlets for us to share with visitors, that we have a selection of different tours we’ve developed over the years to ensure we can share them all. Each tour is different and lasts three hours, including visits to independent culinary artisans with a sample at each stop, representing in total, a meals' worth of food. So instead of taking a walking tour with a guide for a couple of hours, then going for dinner or lunch… you can combine the two into one activity and sample some great food along the way! We don’t reveal in advance where we’ll be visiting as all our feedback has shown that the surprises are the best part.

 

Jars Meze is one of Bath's great hidden gems—a Greek restaurant and family business in Northumberland Place which is an alleyway hidden off the high street. The Jars family who all work in the restaurant are from Corfu, and Mamma Giouli’s Corfiot inspired dishes always take me back in my mind to the island, where my partner and I once worked. It never ceases to amaze me that food and drink can inspire memory with such intensity. To have a small part of Corfu in my home town is something I truly relish and make use of!

 

My favourite spot in the city is a bench in the Royal Victoria Park which looks up towards the Royal Crescent. It was there in 2017 that I got down on one-knee and popped the question to my partner before we went into the fabulous Dower House restaurant at the Royal Crescent Hotel for a celebratory engagement dinner.

The views of the Royal Crescent from the park really evoke the city’s rich history of the18th century golden age. It’s not difficult to imagine characters from period novels by the likes of [former Bath resident] Jane Austen wandering through the park or along the streets from there. I also love to sit there and watch the hot air balloons depart from the park and fly over the Royal Crescent during the warm summer evenings.

 

Chris Stephens, 55, is the director of Bath's Holburne Museum, which showcases fine and decorative art.

I have lived in Bath full-time since 2017, when I became the director of the Holburne Museum, but I had been dividing my time between here and London for 12 years before that. Bath reminds me a lot of my time studying in Edinburgh. The architecture is similar, of course, but I also love that it's a city small enough to walk across, to constantly bump into people you know and to have a sense of as a whole but big enough to have a rich cultural life. It’s smaller than Edinburgh, obviously, and warmer in both its colour and its climate. It's hard to capture a single Bathonian spirit— here are all sorts of people with different traits and interests. One minute the city might seem very grand and metropolitan, another you definitely know you’re in the West Country.

 

One of the things I love about Bath is that it has managed to preserve a number of small businesses, independent shops and old-fashioned pubs. The Little Theatre, Bath Old Books at the top of Margaret’s Buildings, The Old Green Tree in Green Street are among the places I love. I love wandering through the back streets in the evening, when you might suddenly find a corner which seems not to have changed for 200 years, but most of all I love to walk out the back of the Holburne Museum, drop down on to the canal tow path and in minutes you feel as if you are in the countryside.

 

The Holburne was Bath’s first art museum, given to the city by the Holburne family in 1892, though it only moved into the historic Sydney Hotel at the end of Great Pulteney Street in 1915. In many other cities, it would be recognised as the cultural highlight, if not the city’s claim to fame, but it is a reflection of the richness of Bath’s cultural offer that to many it is part of a network of museums and galleries all of which add value to the city.

I am extremely proud of the different ways in which the Holburne contributes to the life of the city and engages and supports different local communities, but I came here because it is an art gallery of national importance with a reputation greater than its size.

This is such an exciting time for museums as the pandemic is forcing cultural and behavioural change in such an accelerated way. As we reimagine cities in light of the climate emergency, especially tourist hotspots now mpacted by the virus, organisations like the Holburne have a crucial role to play.

 

Has the city changed since I arrived? Or is it my perceptions that change? Bath is one of those places which sometimes feels as if time has left it alone but when you look closely you can see it has undergone constant change, as anywhere does. I am more concerned about how we shape the ways it will change in the future so that it retains the best bits of what it has managed to keep until now, and recent developments, but becomes a healthier, cleaner, more equal and diverse city. 

Read more: Autumnal British holidays you have to try

Read more: All you need to know about glamping


Keep up with the top stories from Reader's Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter