Spend a day walking around the spa town of Bath in the UK for its golden buildings, hot water baths, and literary monuments of Jane Austen’s worlds. By Barsali Bhattacharyya
I was introduced to Jane Austen at the age of 13, when I picked up a dog-eared copy of Pride & Prejudice from my school library. With time, our acquaintance became a special one. By the time I went to get a bachelor’s degree in English literature, I had read all seven of her works and pinned Bath, where the Jane Austen Centre is located, to the top of my bucket list.
More than a decade later, I am on a train to Bath, in Somerset, South West England. Austen is reported to have ﬁrst visited the town, named after its hot water baths, in 1797, and she came back to live here between 1801 and 1806 with members of her family. She was inspired by the town and chose it as the backdrop for two of her novels, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.
After three hours on the train, I reach my destination, armed with a physical map and an audio guide downloaded from Bath’s tourism website. The ﬁrst thing I notice is that most of the buildings are golden in colour, starting from the Tudor-style station to Bath Abbey, the starting point of my self-guided walking tour. Even on a grey rainy morning, the city is shining. The buildings are made of locally quarried golden limestone, a feature attributable to John Wood, a 19th-century architect who owned these limestone mines.
My walking tour kicks off at the cobbled Abbey Churchyard, which is wet and grey but makes a suitable backdrop for the sprawling Gothic church. The building’s history goes back to the Middle Ages, when a small town grew up around a monastery that offered accommodation to people who came to enjoy the natural hot waters. The baths were built by the Romans when they arrived in 44 AD. After their departure, the town lost much of its glory, until Queen Anne came to enjoy the waters in the 18th century. Amid a ﬂourish of art, culture, and the good life in the Georgian and Regency eras, Bath ﬂourished as people ﬂocked to the mineral-rich waters, a rare phenomenon in the UK. To keep the visitors entertained, a wide range of social activities, such as evening dances, concerts, and theatres, became popular.
I walk across from the church towards a complex that includes the Roman Baths— unfortunately, the water is no longer ﬁ t for bathing here, but you can head to the nearby Thermae Bath Spa—and The Pump Room, where you can drink the mineral-rich water. I am told that Georgian visitors drank up to eight pints of this water, but I’m also warned that it might not suit every stomach, so I refrain to avoid any misadventures.
Many of the visitors who flocked to Bath in the Georgian era suffered from rheumatism—just like Austen’s brother, Edward—and hoped for the hot waters to offer some respite. Younger men and women came to explore marriage prospects or simply to engage in the town’s social gatherings. The Pump Room catered to both sets of visitors back in its day. This sprawling room lit up by a giant chandelier is right next to the entrance to the Roman Baths, and gets its name from the fountain that pumped up the coveted water. In here, the gentlemen talked of politics, while the ladies walked about noticing the latest fashion trends. Austen explains in Northanger Abbey, “Every morning now brought its regular duties; shops were to be visited, some new part of the town to be looked at, and the Pump-room to be attended.”
The Pump Room is now a restaurant and quite crowded on the morning of my visit, with tourists eager to escape the rain and drink some tea. At the entrance of the building is a Bath chair, a Georgian-age relic of a vehicle used to carry invalids to the baths. The town centre is teeming with tourists shopping for souvenirs or sitting down for ice cream, and a violinist in front of the Abbey is adding to the merriment. As I get myself an ice cream and continue walking, I begin to understand why Austen, who grew up in rural Hertfordshire (in southern England), and her heroines liked the happening town of Bath so much. In Northanger Abbey, the young heroine Catherine Morland tells Henry Tilney, her romantic interest, that she would not grow tired of Bath even if she were to stay for six months. “I really believe I shall always be talking of Bath when I am at home again—I do like it so very much…”
Austen indicates in her novels that social life in Bath revolved around tea and catch-ups in The Pump Room, and card games and ball dances in the evening in the Upper and Lower Rooms, and occasional visits to concerts and theatres. The building that housed the Lower Rooms is unfortunately long gone, but I make my way to The Huntsman, Bath’s oldest pub, and witness the row of Georgian houses to the right where the Lower Rooms were situated. This is where Morland first met and danced with Tilney in Northanger Abbey.
I grab a pint of ale and some chips at The Huntsman before walking along the manicured Parade Gardens and River Avon towards Pulteney Bridge. After a brisk walk of about 15 minutes, I am at the Great Pulteney Street, at the end of which is Sydney Place, where Austen lived with her parents and sister Cassandra during 1801-1805.
Listening to my audio guide, I trace my steps back across the river and pass by Theatre Royal, which Austen’s heroines loved to visit. Soon, I reach Queen Square, a large open park to the south of which is a row of Georgian townhouses (on Gay Street) with almost identical facades. Austen moved to a house here (No. 25) with her mother and sister in 1805 after her father’s death. This was a step down from the tony neighbourhood in Sydney Place, but the family’s finances were strained. The women were supported by their brothers, but they eventually left Bath in 1806. My destination now is 40, Gay Street, which houses the Jane Austen Centre, a museum tracing the author’s life.
I buy a ticket for £12 (INR1,110) and queue up for a walking tour, conducted by the notorious Mr Wickham from Pride & Prejudice. In fact, everyone in the staff is dressed as an Austen character. The three-storeyed Georgian-style townhouse with an attic is very similar to the one in which the author stayed. The exhibits include wax statues of Austen and her family members, and commonly used items from that era, including a desk with a feathered quill, an inkpot, and some stationery— perfect for penning the first line of your future novel.
A minute’s walk away from the Jane Austen Centre, a flight of stairs lead me to the Gravel Walk. As the name suggests, this shaded narrow lane was once a popular destination for walking, especially among lovers. In Persuasion, Austen’s last completed novel, this is where the heroine, Anne Elliot, and Captain Wentworth reunite after years of separation.
My legs are tired by the time I walk back towards the Abbey, and there is still so much I have not seen yet. I recall that Austen loved walking and would often climb up Beechen Cliff, a small hill in the distance that offers great city views or walk on Milsom Street. My next and final destination, however, is along the North Parade Passage. Sally Lunn’s Historic Eating House is believed to be the city’s oldest surviving house and is famous for its brioche buns. Sally Lunn was a Huguenot refugee who came to Bath and became famous for baking the spongiest buns. Down the building’s narrow stairs, there is a small museum that offers a glimpse of what a kitchen would have looked like in Austen’s time. I opt for a toasted bun with baked eggs, smoked ham, and honey, along with some tea. My savoury dish features a bun that’s light, fluffy, and delicious. It’s an apt end to my journey as the last chapter of my audio guide describes Austen’s love for food and conjectures that she must have been a regular at this bakery. When it’s time for my return train journey, I get a bun packed, this time with a sweet topping I stop at Bennett Street to see the Upper Rooms, now known as the Assembly Rooms. Austen visited these rooms and mentioned them in a letter to her sister. Once used for drinking tea, playing cards, and dancing, the rooms are decorated with crystal chandeliers. Centuries ago, members of high society gathered here. Attendance at these gatherings was pretty high; a letter from Austen’s mother indicates that an event with 1,000 guests was considered a dull affair.
For a memorable stay, opt for Francis Hotel – MGallery, which occupies seven of the original 18th-century townhouses of the historic Queen Square. It’s a two-minute walk from the Jane Austen Centre. Doubles from INR 12,000.