Austen, Shakespeare and a few regal reasons for an escape to the English countryside...
By Jeff Katz
All eyes were on London this summer, and for good reason. The city that the royals, Kylie and the Spice Girls call home stepped up in a major way, serving as host to the world’s greatest athletes (and a few million tourists). By all accounts, the city did a fantastic job, and with that comes an inevitable onslaught of new visitors. And while London is amazing (just pick up our upcoming December/January issue to see for yourself), there are also equally fascinating and fun parts of England that need to be on your itinerary.
Because, after all, an island is more than just its biggest city.
Truth is, there are plenty of cities and towns within a few hours’ drive—or even better, train ride—from London that offer an abundance of experiences and tastes of England. So before a jam-packed, party-filled visit to the big city, why not start in the country and work your way in?
An easy two-hour train ride from Heathrow can bring you to the history-rich city of Bath, which today maintains the perfect balance of Old World culture and modern amenities.
And there’s even a gay bar! (Just one, but we’ll get to that in a bit.)
Mention Bath to travelers, and the city is likely to elicit two responses: Jane Austen and the thermal waters. And while the famous author did live in Bath, albeit for a brief time, the reason Europeans would flock to Bath in the 18th century still rings true today: the waters.
With the only natural thermal springs in Britain, people head to the spas of Bath for the purported healing properties of the natural springs. And for a beyond-relaxing experience, of course.
Thermae Bath Spa is the queen among the city, in both size and experience. The five-floor complex features four aromatic steam rooms, their huge Minerva Bath, treatment rooms aplenty, a private 12-person thermal bath and, of course, the crown jewel itself—a mineral-rich rooftop pool. There may be no better vantage point in all of the English countryside than watching the sunset while soaking in the warm water of this natural pool.
Thermae also offers more than 40 spa treatments within the facility, from the dizzying list of massages and scrubs to rain forest showers and Watsu (an interesting session of water shiatsu that, upon first glance, looks like an adult version of Mommy and Me swim class, but is definitely not child’s play). You can book hourly or full-day passes for the water facilities on a walk-in basis, though personal treatments are best booked in advance.
Of course, all of the spas in Bath today can look to a singular inspiration, the original Roman baths within the temple of Minerva. Archeology and history buffs alike will be amazed at the meticulously detailed structure the Romans built around Britain’s only natural hot spring. Though natural hot water still flows today, the baths themselves are no longer open for bathing. But you can easily spend an afternoon wandering around the complex, filled with 2,000-year-old ruins, pools and even a tasting of the natural
The city center of Bath itself is wonderfully walkable and easy to navigate, but another body of water definitely worth checking out is the Kennet and Avon Canal. Bath Narrowboats offers visitors a completely different, and for many an unseen, view of the city by traveling up and down the waterway that surrounds much of Bath. But this is no typical two-hour tour. With six different day boats available for hire, the team at Bath Narrowboats can customize a canal experience for you, including onboard meals, bar service and even overnight experiences.
For the period queens and Keira Knightley fans among us, Bath is also home to the aforementioned Jane Austen Centre. Touted as the city’s most famous resident, the interactive museum is home to all things Jane: from reproductions of period homes and personal décor to the Regency Tea Room, where you can skip the biscuits and traditional tea and instead indulge in the afternoon champagne service. Cheers to you, Mr. Darcy!
The year 2013 will mark the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s most famous work, Pride And Prejudice, and as evidenced by the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, the royal wedding and the Summer Games, the Brits love a good celebration! As such, there’s a whole host of special events planned to honor the famous scribe all year long, so be sure to check with the Centre beforehand to see what’s happening during your visit.
A pleasantly surprising thing to find in such a historic (read “old”) city like Bath is how modern and youthful it can feel. The Francis Hotel offers the perfect mix of elegant tradition and modern design and comfort, from their large and individually decorated rooms (be sure to look up while lying in bed—you might just find a surprise on the ceiling) to the beautiful and traditionally styled lounge, where a nightcap is in no way frowned upon, but rather encouraged.
The Francis Hotel is also located in the most prime of spots for exploring Bath, on the south side of Queen Square. From the hotel’s front door, fantastic eateries like the Circus Cafe and Restaurant are just a few blocks away. As is Mandalyns, the sole gay bar in Bath. Unassuming from the outside, you’ll find friendly locals—and the requisite handsy boozer—inside the spacious lounge. Catch up on your Britpop, enjoy a few rounds, but be sure to check out the handful of great live-music pubs and bars around town, too.
Read more about England in the new November issue of Instinct, out now!