Exploring the West Country cities – Part One: Arriving in Bristol and exploring Bath

The pursuit of getting to know my own country is back on!  After a fair while of being snowed under with work uncertainty and uni study I managed to get out and travel to Bath and Bristol this weekend.  Part 1 of this trip, Bath, is covered here.

Now, I have been to Bristol several times.  To my shame I hadn’t explored that city nearly enough and to my greater shame I had never been to Bath at all.  Being a mere 11 minutes’ train ride from Bristol and at a cost of £6.40 return that is a terrible injustice I am pleased to have righted.

Bath has a Christmas market running from 24th November to the 11th December so I thought it might be a nice aim to see the city in all its twinkly splendour.  The downsides to this plan are a) the excessive cost of accommodation in Bath, and b) the excessively expensive transport to Bath.  After some internet jiggery-pokery it became abundantly clear that the best way to see Bath is to see Bristol first.  Cue National Express coach to Bristol on Friday night and checking in to one of the Travelodges, the aforementioned return train to Bath on Saturday, and the train home from Bristol on Sunday.  Doing it this way saved us at least £60 each.  Which I’m pleased to report I spent on tourist things, good food, good booze, and good company.

So we got to Bristol mid-evening and after checking in we wandered out to find good scran.  Searching down St. Nicholas’ Street led us to ‘Old India’, a restaurant occupying an imposing Edwardian building, serving ‘avant-garde Indian cuisine’.  We had to wait 20 minutes for a table for two but waiting in the beautifully-tiled and log fire warmed lobby was no hardship and it alleviated my usual trouble of choosing from a delicious menu with hovering waiters by letting me carefully choose in advance.  Once we were seated we had our order taken immediately and then there was a half-hour gap until our food arrived.  That didn’t bother us though.  I’ve long been convinced that most Indian restaurants are plumbed into a vast underground network of curry conveyor belts bringing identi-kit food all over the country, whereas this food was unique and delicious.  My smoked lamb chops in pomegranate sauce, with a side of chopped okra were amazing.  My naan, however, was supposed to be stuffed with cheese and by that I expected paneer but instead I got a plain naan with cheddar melted on top… Either way the meal was delicious and we trotted home happy.

That happiness was short-lived as shrieking banshee women were staying on our corridor and the stupid drunk fools were incapable of keeping their voices to a level any less than 747 on take-off.  We were not amused.  But that serves us right for opting for a Travelodge.  That’s their job.

A leisurely wake up on Saturday allowed us to arrive in Bath at around 11:45.  A quick wander towards Pulteney Bridge took us to Gourmet Scoff, a multi-storey café with nice views out onto the Terrace Gardens and the River Avon.  I devoured a very tasty large full English breakfast and Kristina gobbled sausages sandwiched in fluffy bread.

Pulteney Bridge and the weir, Bath

This fuel fully-wolfed we swung by Pulteney Bridge and the Crescent Weir on the River Avon, saw the decrepit upstream side of the same bridge whilst avoiding the cascade of pigeon shit, stumbled across an antique market, and meandered up to the Royal Circus.

Royal Circus, Bath

These buildings were modelled on the classical rules epitomised in the Colosseum in Rome; Three storeys, columns with increasingly complex capitals as you look up, smaller windows at the top than at the bottom, ‘vases’ circling the roofs of the whole ‘Circus’.  It’s very serene, very expensive and reeks of the all-pervasive Bath Preservation Trust who museumify the whole city in a way ably mocked in the brilliant Hot Fuzz.  I don’t mean that to sound entirely disparaging, I think they’ve done a fantastic job of retaining swathes of the city in its full glory but I also think they could end up stifling the city in the long-term.  Dyson’s attempt to use a derelict warehouse as part of a technology college was thwarted by concerned conservationists – I think to the city’s great and enduring detriment.  It’s a very fine balance that I think may be being tilted too far towards conservation for conservation’s sake.  Never a good philosophy to adhere to.

Royal Crescent, Bath

The huge Royal Crescent of imposing Georgian terraced houses was actually a bit underwhelming for me, I preferred the more ‘intimate’ Circus.  After dutifully snapping these yellowy Bath stone residences of the rich we quickly descended from the hill towards the Abbey and Roman Baths – the point of the city existing in the first place.  Bath was originally called Aquae Sullis by the Romans and had a very important temple complex focused on Britain’s only thermal springs.  These fell into disrepair until uncovered by Victorians and thoroughly re-vamped into today’s marriage of Classical and pseudo-Classical architecture.  I wasn’t totally sure it would be worth the £12 entry fee but it really is.  We spent two and a half hours exploring the museum, bath and excavations, getting to grips with what this settlement meant to the Roman Empire.  It was fascinating.  The audio-guide is well presented, by Alice Roberts, and never patronises while informing.  Definitely a must-see but if you do choose to ignore the warnings about touching the water, as I did, then DO make sure you keep your finger well away from your mouth afterwards – in 1979 someone died from amoebic meningitis after swallowing the untreated water…

See the steam in the Roman Baths

When we came out the Roman Baths we were both happy to see the sun was beginning to set.  We strolled through absolutely rammo ‘Christmas Market’ and had mulled wine and a mince pie.  I say ‘Christmas Market’ because I can’t really say its content was sufficiently Christmassy to justify that name.  Nor, finishing on the 11th December can it be called a market that occurs at Christmas.  Instead it is a market set up with Christmas decoration and perhaps 2/5 of the stalls selling seasonably-appropriate goods, with the remainder ranging from absolute crap like drawings of Brad Pitt to Jig-Saw puzzles of the London Boroughs.  Seriously, and excuse the pun, but how does that fit?

The crowded Christmas market in Bath, from the top of the Abbey

Anyway it was still genial enough and it took us to one of my prime targets for the day – the £6 Bath Abbey Tower Tour just as night was falling.  We got on the 16:30 tour so the sun had just set, by the time we got to the roof it was dark and the city looked lovely below us.  What’s more there was a free cup of mulled wine at the top of the tower and we could see into the Roman Baths where flaming torches blazed.  Lovely.  On the way down Kristina spotted graffiti carved into the walls from as early as 1667!

Graffiti from 1667 spotted by Kristina in bath Abbey tower

Once we’d clambered back down the tower we decided to call time on Bath and head back to Bristol for a night of drinking and shenanigans with a few friends we know there, but that’ll be in part two of this blog entry.

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