Bath is known for its ancient Roman spa, medieval abbey, and sweeping Georgian terraces. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site in Somerset in the south-west of England and visitors often come on a circular cultural trip that takes in Stonehenge and Stratford-on-Avon.
But it’s not all Jane Austen bonnets, Regency dresses, and afternoon tea — there is a darker and more interesting side of Bath if you escape the tourist traps and explore the layers beneath. In this episode, I talk about the city I currently call home.
- How finding a map shop helped me discover a different side to Bath
- Curse tablets for an ancient goddess
- Angels and demons and the dead of Bath Abbey
- The city of Frankenstein
- Ley lines, Druids and Freemasons
- Walking the Kennet and Avon canal
- Finding home in Bath during the pandemic
- Recommended restaurants, bars, pubs and coffee shops away from the tourist traps
- Recommended books about or set in Bath
How finding a map shop helped me discover a different side to Bath
My husband, Jonathan, and I moved to Bath in 2015 and we bought a house high on the hill overlooking the valley in 2019. I can happily say that this is my city now, but for the first six months of living here, I thought we’d made a terrible mistake.
We were thinking about moving out of London in 2014 and we came to Bath one weekend to visit Jonathan’s cousin who was joining in the Jane Austen festival. Think period drama come to life for ten days of bonnets, regency dresses, and fans held over coy smiles. Many people love it but it’s my idea of hell! I decided that I couldn’t possibly live somewhere so twee and excessively moored in the past.
But a year later, we found ourselves living in a flat behind the Royal Crescent, the sweeping Georgian terrace so beloved by tourists doing architectural selfies. Jonathan had left his consulting job to join my creative business so we were free to move wherever we wanted, and Bath had a lot going for it. It’s an hour from both of my (long divorced) parents and we wanted to be in a city with easy train travel to London and to an airport — Bristol Airport is fantastic with destinations all over Europe (when not in a pandemic, of course!). I didn’t want to be in a city where I had a previous history. We considered Oxford, but it belongs to my university years, and I went to school in Bristol where my Mum now lives.
So we moved here in mid-2015… and quickly felt like we’d made a mistake.
There is a buzz in London that keeps everything revved up, it keeps the pulse racing and you walk faster to keep up with city life. It seems as if everyone is achieving more than you, faster than you. There is always so much to do and see and experience and you never have enough time to do it all.
Of course, we moved out of London because we wanted a slower pace, we wanted to be closer to nature and walk and cycle away from the city. But Bath felt so slow those first few months, and our choices were suddenly diminished by the smaller physical location. It took six months for that buzz to fade, an addiction that lessened with time. Now when I go back to London — at least in pre-pandemic times — I find it invigorating but tiring and I look forward to getting away again.
I also couldn’t identify with the Jane Austen bonnet side of Bath. I am not a ribbons and bonnets type of girl! So how could I find my home here in this place that seemed so perfect?
For me, it’s all about writing and my fiction is rooted in my sense of place. My Brooke and Daniel thrillers are all set in London, and my love for the city is clear in the books, in the words and thoughts of Jamie and Blake. I thought that perhaps if I could set a book in Bath, I would learn more about the place and find something to anchor myself. I could not believe the city was just sickly sweet Jane Austen nostalgia — there had to be more. There had to be a dark side.
I started writing in a local cafe and walked almost every weekday from our flat down through Margaret Buildings, a pedestrianized street near the Royal Crescent, around the Circus and on to the coffee shop. I would always stop and look in the window of Jonathan Potter’s antique map shop as I passed, fascinated by the lines on paper and vellum that represented the physical world.
I’ve always loved maps and globes. When I was growing up, my Mum put a map of the world on the wall. We went to school in Malawi and I could see where that was, and I learned the countries and capital cities. I’m pretty good at the geography category on pub quizzes and Trivial Pursuit! Over the years, I had atlases, and even when I had a Filofax diary in the 1990s, I bought a map insert so I could always carry the world with me. This was before smartphones and instant Google Maps, of course! I have a map of the world in front of me as I write this, stuck on my wall so I can look up and see the world.
The cartographer, Jonathan Potter, worked at his desk in the shop and one day, I went in and bought his book, Collecting Antique Maps. Not that I want to collect antique maps, but I certainly collect books! The field of cartography has so much gorgeous imagery and as I walked past each day, an idea started to form. What if I could walk through the maps to the places they depict?
That idea became the seed for Map of Shadows, the first in my Mapwalker fantasy trilogy. Sienna Farren inherits the map shop from her grandfather and discovers she is part of a line of Mapwalkers who can walk through maps and even make new ones with their powerful blood magic. The Ministry of Maps lies under Bath Abbey, and there is a portal to the Borderlands through the plane trees in the Circus. One of the Mapwalker team, Mila, even lives on the canal.
Jonathan Potter closed his map shop a few years ago and you won’t find it there anymore, although there are other map shops in Bath. It feels like wonderful creative serendipity that he was there as I was searching for a way to write about the city.
Because Bath is far more than the Roman spa and the sweeping romance of the Georgian terraces — welcome to the darker side of my city.
Curse tablets for an ancient goddess
There are layers to Bath and the most ancient begins at the hot springs. Once a pagan shrine and later turned into a spa by the Romans, it is well worth visiting the Roman Baths, but definitely book in advance as they get busy.
Originally dedicated to Sul, the pagan goddess of healing, the Romans did what they did so often across the Empire. They combined the pagan goddess with one of their own creating Sulis Minerva, making it easier to integrate the religion of local people with the invaders. The hot springs and temple turned into the town of Aquae Sulis around 60CE.
You can walk around the steaming pools and get a sense of how the Romans must have come to relax here, but you will also find evidence of a darker side. Over 100 curse tablets were found in the waters, rolled thin sheets of metal with pleas to the goddess. Some were binding curses against love rivals or sporting competitors, and others were demanding justice for wrongdoing and punishment for those responsible.
If you visit, don’t pay a ton of money to drink the water at the Pump Rooms. It’s disgusting! I’ve also tried a couple of the local spas and while I don’t rate Thermae Bath Spa (the pictures of the rooftop pool look amazing but it’s very crowded), I do think The Gainsborough is fantastic.
Angels and demons and the dead of Bath Abbey
If you visit the Roman Baths, you can’t miss the Abbey which is right next to it, looming over the great bath itself. You can even take a picture that incorporates the Roman statues, the sunken waters, and the Gothic architecture of the Abbey beyond. It’s built of Bath stone, a local limestone that gives the buildings a distinctive warm honey color in certain light and makes photographers very happy!
Stand in front of the ornate wooden door and look at the Jacob’s Ladder carvings either side. Most of the figures are angels climbing up to heaven, but some are crawling down. Are they angels or demons?
It was likely that there was a pagan temple on the site originally, but its Christian heritage begins with a convent established in the 7th century, which later became a monastery, rebuilt by Offa, King of Mercia, in the 8th century. In 973, King Edgar was crowned at the church and Bath became a rich Abbey during the middle ages before being stripped of its wealth during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539. Restoration started again under Queen Elizabeth I but the major restoration happened in the late 1800s.
Decomposing bodies under the floor of the abbey caused subsidence and the Bath Abbey Footprint project excavated underneath and is redesigning the Abbey for the future, using the hot springs as an eco-friendly way to heat the Abbey in the future.
If you’re looking for a graveyard, the rest of the dead are buried in the Bath Abbey Cemetery in Widcombe, up the hill from the center of town.
The city of Frankenstein
While you’re visiting this area of town, check out the plaque between the main entrance to the Pump Rooms and Roman Baths which marks the spot where a boarding house once stood within which Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein. It is, somewhat ironically, above an electrical power unit!
She famously had the idea for Frankenstein during a storm at Lord Byron’s house in Geneva — but she wrote much of the book in this boarding house while living in scandal after she eloped with the poet, Percy Shelley.
I highly recommend the Frankenstein in Bath walking tour by the theatre company, Show of Strength which gives a fascinating insight into the desperate family situation Mary lived through and the choices she made out of love for Shelley.
There are plans for a Frankenstein museum a few doors up from the Jane Austen museum, which I believe is a welcome antidote to the saccharine Regency period.
Of course, Jane Austen didn’t even like Bath. She lived here for several years and a character in Persuasion says it was oppressive, noisy, and gloomy. The romantic vision of the city was not true, even then.
From a literary perspective, Charles Dickens also paid frequent visits to the city. He stayed at the Saracen’s Head pub on a visit in 1835 and some say he created The Old Curiosity Shop’s Little Nell during a stay in St James’ Square in 1840. Bath’s nineteenth-century social life appears in The Pickwick Papers.
Ley lines, Druids and Freemasons
If you take a walk up the hill from the Abbey towards the Royal Crescent, you will walk through The Circus, a gorgeous, round Georgian terrace with three layers of classical columns. It is impossible to take a picture that does it justice. Believe me, I have tried!
Five enormous plane trees stand in the central garden, blocking the view of the buildings and it’s really hard to get a picture of the curved facade. I used to walk through The Circus almost every day, so it’s a place I have come to love. In the summer, the sound of the leaves is like the ocean on a windy day, and in the winter, the skeletal branches reach toward the grey sky. It plays an important part in the story of Map of Shadows, for it is far more than just a round terrace.
Architect John Wood the Elder designed The Circus by modeling its dimensions on Stonehenge, which is only an hour south-east of the city. The outer circumference of The Circus matches the prehistoric standing stones, as well as incorporating the Druidic shapes of the circle and crescent in The Circus and The Royal Crescent just along the street. Some say a powerful ley line runs through the city, connecting these spiritually significant places.
There are over 500 carved emblems along the frieze of the columns around The Circus, including serpents, stone tablets of the 10 commandments, lightning bolts, and other symbols with religious and Freemasonry significance.
The layout of The Circus, Gay Street, and Queen Square also form a key, a common symbol in Freemasonry. The Bath Masonic Hall is worth a visit if you enjoy lodges.
Walking the Kennet and Avon canal
But Bath is more than just a pile of old stones! It is also close to nature, with the River Avon running through the heart of the city and the Kennet and Avon Canal running south-east towards Bradford-on-Avon. The canal is my happy place and I have walked part of it almost every day during the lockdown phase of the 2020 pandemic. There is always something new to see. The seasons turn and the hedgerows and trees change color, the cygnets and ducklings are born every spring and grow up on the water, the boats move on and new ones arrive. I never tire of its infinite variety.
I think a lot while walking and sometimes write with dictation and with the canal, there is no need to use any brain power on navigation. It’s just a straight line and I can’t get lost!
I’ve documented my walk from Bath Spa station to Bradford-on-Avon here (17 km). You can do it one way and return by train. There are opportunities for coffee, ice-cream, toilets and a pub en route, as well as plenty of photo spots. You might just see me along the way!
There are a lot of gorgeous walks around Bath that all take you beyond the tourist areas. Little Solsbury Hill is another of our favorites. It’s an old Iron Age fort, a flat-topped hill with views back over the city and skylarks singing in the summer. You can walk from town through Larkhall Village which has an excellent bakery, or along the canal and up through Batheaston with a rest stop at The Bathampton Mill for refreshments.
Head up to Prior Park Gardens to look back over the valley in the opposite direction.
For more walks around Bath, check out On Foot in Bath: 15 Walks Around a World Heritage City by Andrew Swift; and Country Walks from Bath also by Andrew Swift. All the walks start from Bath city center.
Finding home in Bath
As I write this in mid-August 2020, I have not traveled more than an hour from Bath since mid-March when the UK went into lockdown in response to the coronavirus (COVID19) pandemic.
As a travel addict, I have not remained in one place for this long since I was at university in the mid-1990s. I traveled every holiday back then, and once I started at a job, I commuted to Europe, working in Belgium, Finland, Holland, and then commuting to Southampton from London, before heading off down under in 2000. My life has been one of movement, and when the pandemic forced us to stay in one place, I had moments of rage. At being told I had to stay still, at the pandemic for upending all our lives, at not being free anymore.
That anger was part of the stages of grief that so many of us have been through over this time, but I was able to walk it out over kilometers along the canal or up Solsbury Hill every day.
As the anger passed, I began to feel incredibly grateful to live somewhere that has everything I need for physical and mental health, somewhere so beautiful with fast internet so I can work from home, with enough facilities to support the community — and as things begin to ease, some wonderful coffee shops and restaurants so we can begin to live more freely again.
This enforced period of remaining still has made me feel like Bath really is my home — at least for now. We will travel again, soon I hope, but I am content here — and that has surprised me.
Back in episode 30, recorded in mid-March at the beginning of the pandemic, I talked about sanctuary, retreat, and belonging, the importance of home in difficult times. I said then that ‘I do not have roots here yet,’ but perhaps that is because I never stay still long enough to put them down.
After five months of truly living in this few square miles, I feel that my roots are beginning to grow down into the soil of these hills, tapping into the ancient waterways. Some people have even commented that I’m beginning to pick up a west country accent! So I wanted to share my city of Bath with you, and when the world opens up again, I hope you will come here and see more than the average tourist does.
Books about or set in Bath
Peter Diamond Mysteries by Peter Lovesey. Book 17 is Beau Death. A wrecking ball crashes through the roof of a terraced cottage in Bath and exposes a skeleton in eighteenth-century clothes. Can these possibly be the remains of Beau Nash, the so-called King of Bath, whose body is said to have ended up in a pauper’s grave?
The Mapwalker Trilogy by J.F. Penn which starts with Map of Shadows. When her Grandfather is murdered under mysterious circumstances, Sienna Farren inherits his map shop in the ancient city of Bath, England. She discovers that her family is bound up with the Ministry of Maps, a mysterious agency that maintains the border between this world and the Uncharted.
Go Swift and Far, and An Unfolding Soul — Douglas Westcott. Born in the wartime German raids on Bath in the Spring of 1942, an orphan boy, alone and destitute, is determined to survive. A sweeping coming of age saga that exposes the deceit and hypocrisy lurking behind the genteel facades of the famous City of Bath.
Books by Akeman Press — including On Foot in Bath, Ghost Signs of Bath, Literary Walks in Bath, The Myth-Maker about the occult inspirations of the architect, John Wood, Country Walks from Bath, and more.
Recommended eating and drinking away from the tourist traps
You can eat and drink very well in Bath, but as with any popular location, avoid the touristy hotspots and get away from the main high streets. I’m writing this in August 2020 as the UK begins to open up again after the pandemic lockdown. Hopefully, these places loved by locals will survive.
Corkage. This is our favorite restaurant and wine bar in Bath with an ever-changing sharing plate menu based on local produce and an evolving wine list from different vineyards.
Menu Gordon Jones. Fantastic tasting menu only so it’s always a surprise. You need to book way in advance to get a table, although they do have a waiting list.
The Scallop Shell. Multi-award-winning fish and chips and seafood.
The Marlborough Tavern. This is a popular spot for locals with a garden area for sunny days. Perfect for Sunday roast or gastropub fare.
Walcot House. Excellent for brunch.
Sotto Sotto. Delicious Italian food in an atmospheric downstairs restaurant.
Oak Restaurant (previously Acorn) for vegan and vegetarian food.
Pubs and cocktail bars
There are lots of pubs in Bath, but I am more of a wine and gin drinker. For authentic west country, I recommend The Bell on Walcot Street, which has fantastic live music and a bohemian vibe as well as decent prices on beer and a pizza van some days. It’s owned and run by locals so has not become a perfectly presented (but soulless) gastropub!
Beckford Bottle Shop. Wonderful wine list with small plates of food and you can also stop in and buy bottles (or cases).
The Canary Gin Bar. Home of the Bath Distillery and purveyor of all kinds of excellent gins and tonics — as well as other drinks if they are not to your taste.
The Botanist at the Octagon. Varied gin and tonic options and other cocktails in a gorgeous octagonal building. You can eat upstairs and it’s worth going on a sunny day if you want to experience the architecture in all its glory.
The Dark Horse, Kingsmead Square. The perfect place to finish an evening with a vast selection of interesting cocktails.
Independent coffee shops
Colonna & Smalls. Definitely for coffee connoisseurs. Choose from a selection of beans and preparations and pick up a delicious pastry or cake.
Boston Tea Party. The Alfred Street location at the top of town is a large, airy space with plenty of room except for brunch at the weekend when it gets really busy!
Society. Two locations. One tiny place on The Corridor just up from the abbey and a larger location on Kingsmead Square.
Green Bird Cafe. Excellent coffee and our regular brunch spot. Go early as they don’t do bookings and it’s quite small. Or get a takeaway coffee and a pastry and sit in nearby Royal Victoria Park, or walk on to the Botanic Gardens.
I hope you enjoyed this personal tour of Bath and if you visit, you should know more than the average tourist! Happy travels!