Bath is an iconic city bursting with British culture and history. On my travels, I have always been a bit baffled as to why many more people of other nationalities know Bath as a city over much larger Bristol, but upon moving here I soon realised – the quaint architecture and complex stories over the years which have evolved it into the city it is today make for the perfect historical place to visit.
Bath has had two huge booms – one in Roman times, when the hot springs were discovered and a community built up around them, and another during the Georgian period, when most of the buildings that we see today were constructed. Because of this, and due to its fascinating Abbey which is built upon the site where the first King of England was crowned, it has gained a reputation of one of the nation’s finest historical cities, which gloriously represents several different eras.
There is a wealth of museums and sites to visit in Bath, which serve to explain the story of the city a little more and which I will cover in detail in a later post, but, if you’re in the city on a fine day and are seeking free things to do in Bath, here’s my top five things to see.
You can go into it (donation only) and even go up it, but a great deal of the Abbey can be appreciated by just standing outside. Known as the ‘Lantern of the West’ because of the light that floods it, it is a fine example of Tudor and Elizabethan (and earlier) architecture.
As soon as you descend into Bath City Centre, the magnificent building looms in front of you, dominating your vision. The building deserves its prestigious status; there has been an abbey on the grounds since Norman times, and the site is actually where the first King of England was crowned in 973 (look for the Edgar Window, which depicts the coronation).
The Norman Abbey fell into disrepair, however, in 1499, Bishop Oliver King had a dream about angels travelling between heaven and earth and an olive tree – and took this as a sign that he should be the one to restore the great building. Work was started but halted during Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, during which the Abbey lost its status.
However, Elizabeth I ordered the complete restoration of the building during her rule. Take a look at the West Front, where angels travelling on ladders and an olive tree (wearing a crown!) are engraved into the stone wall, which represent Oliver King and his dream. The restoration was completed in 1611 –however it was no longer an abbey, but parish church for Bath, which it still is to this day.
No clowns or trapeze artists here I’m afraid! Named after its circular shape, The Circus was constructed by John Wood the Elder and was the pinnacle of his career. Wood was fascinated by prehistoric stone circles and this perfect circle of houses mimics the Colosseum in Rome.
Sadly, Wood died in 1754, shortly after work began on his masterpiece, but his son oversaw the construction of the buildings which finished in 1768. It remains one of the country’s best Georgian structures, containing 33 inward pointing houses in a large circular formation. Look out for the acorns on the parapets, which represent Prince Bladud and his pigs.
The Royal Crescent
A minute’s walk away from the circus is the renowned Royal Crescent. A set for many movies and TV shows, the crescent is the finest and most famous of its kind (although there are many in Bath). Construction of the Crescent began as soon as The Circus was finished, and contains 30 terraced houses connected with Ionic columns, looking out onto the Avon Valley and part of Royal Victoria Park.
Pulteney Bridge & the Weir
Pulteney Bridge was the beginning of a plan that never completely unfolded. Frances Pulteney inherited the whole of Bathwick (now a residential area the other side of the river) in the 18th century and her husband wished to construct a neo-classical garden suburb upon it. These plans halted due to the War with France, but the Pulteney Bridge had already been built; it was the first step in the construction of the suburb. It was quite clearly based on the Italian Ponte Vecchio and Rialto, and was completed in 1773.
Just over the bridge are the Sydney Gardens, a picturesque and tranquil area of the city which was loved by Jane Austen (one of Bath’s notable residents).
Royal Victoria Park & The Botanical Gardens
Bath’s largest park, 57 acre Royal Victoria, is a stone’s throw away from the city centre and contains beautiful ponds and grasslands. Nestled in the park are the Botanical Gardens, a beautiful landscaped area which makes for a stunning walk in the grounds.
The garden was opened in 1830 by the young Princess Victoria who was 11 years old at the time. It was the first park to carry her name, and there’s an obelisk dedicated to her by one of the entry points. Nowadays, it is frequented by dog-walkers, joggers, picnickers and families, and makes for a pleasantly serene respite after exploring the city centre.
Free things to do in Bath
Bath may be expensive, but there’s plenty to look at for free! A stroll around the town is fascinating, as you gaze up at the buildings and imagine how people lived all those centuries ago. Bath is a city that seems unchanged by the modern world; a slice of Roman, Medieval, Tudor, Georgian and Victorian history all perfectly intertwined together and standing gracefully by the River Avon.
While you’re in South West England, be sure to visit Bristol, the biggest city in the region bursting with exciting things to do and gorgeous sights and check out the things that make the West Country famous! For somewhere off the beaten path, spend a day in Bradford on Avon, a stunning Wiltshire village bursting with history.
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