A weekend in Bath and Bradford on Avon

Admittedly Worcester to Bath isn’t one of the epic European rail journeys, but we did get there by train and England is still in Europe (for now) so I think it counts.

I’d been to Bath and Bradford on Avon a year or so ago with friends for my birthday in July 2017, but that was more of a pub crawl than a sightseeing trip, so this time as soon as we arrived we did the ultimate touristy thing by jumping on an open-top sightseeing bus.  They’re a good way to get your bearings in a city though, so I settled back in my seat on the top deck, plugged my headphones in for the informative (and somewhat deafening) commentary and enjoyed the ride.

We got off half-way round at Royal Crescent, a spectacular row of 30 Georgian terraced houses in a crescent shape (yes really!) overlooking Royal Victoria Park.  It’s a breath-taking view from the park which I eventually managed to capture after struggling with the panorama feature of my new phone.

Royal Crescent

In the centre of the crescent is the Royal Crescent Hotel and Spa, which I recognised from featuring prominently in an episode of Inspector Morse.  Peering through the doors to see guests sipping drinks in the courtyard, I tried to blag my way in for a quick snifter but was politely rebuffed by the doorman who correctly assumed I was neither rich nor classy enough to darken its doors.

Royal Crescent

Back on the bus and as it took us behind the crescent it was clear that although the front of the terraced houses are uniformly beautiful, the rears are a mish-mash of architectural whims.  You’d be hard pressed to find a more beautiful façade though.

After doing the full circuit on the bus we wandered around town, taking in the Pulteney Bridge over the Avon.  Designed in a Palladian style by Robert Adam (thanks, Wikipedia!), it has shops on both sides and a narrow staircase leads down to the East bank of the river.  On the West bank is a disused colonnade underneath a large hotel.

The centre of Bath is easily walkable, we mooched around and stopped for a drink at the Pig and Fiddle.  This incredible English summer shows no sign of abating so a pint of something very quaffable while sat outside in the sunshine was a very pleasant interlude.

Bath Abbey

Bath Abbey dominates the city centre, with the square around it thronged with tourists, buskers and street performers.  It’s a beautiful building but the sheer number of people and the heat called for something a bit more chilled out.  A river cruise along the Avon, perhaps?

The cruise lasts an hour and leaves from the steps below Pulteney Bridge to the weir at Bathampton, a couple of miles upstream.  The river was awash with canoes and punts in the command of people of various degrees of expertise, with most in the amateur / inebriated category.  Our captain skilfully avoided these crafts as we chugged slowly upstream, while listening to commentary from a laconic and unintelligible Scotsman.  A gin and tonic was brought to my seat as we approached the weir and Inn at Bathampton.

Cruising along the Avon

It’s an incredibly English sight – a traditional old Inn with rolling fields to the side, a black Labrador splashing in the water by the river bank … and a shrieking child running amok with a super-soaker.  The boat performed a tight three-point turn as we returned to Pulteney Bridge (again, another impressive façade with an unremarkable hindquarters).

The Inn and weir at Bathampton

Bath is a famous Spa town, and many of the crowds of tourists were queuing for a tour of the Roman Baths.  I’d seen these when I’d visited as a teenager so we took the sensible approach of taking refreshments in the Pump Room next door.

Pump Room

This is an Anglophiles dream.  A tea room in a magnificent old building that was once an assembly hall, in a city where Jane Austen spent much of her life.  A classical trio played Vivaldi as groups of American women tucked into afternoon tea and dreamed of Mr. Darcy.  I sat back with a glass of champagne and enjoyed the spectacle.  You can catch a glimpse of the roman baths through the window and even have a taste of the spa water for the princely sum of 50p.  After drinking the lukewarm and peculiar tasting liquid, I felt I’d been ripped off.

The Roman Baths as seen from the Pump Room

Ten minutes down the railway line from Bath lies the little town of Bradford-on-Avon, which it was to become clear is the epitome of the phrase “hidden gem”.  The Avon runs through the centre of town, and all around are beautiful stone buildings, and narrow alleyways with quaint shops.  There’s also many restaurants and pubs, and it was above one of these that we had booked rooms for the night (and very reasonable boutique-style rooms they were too, above a fairly un-prepossessing pub).

The Shambles, Bradford on Avon

We had dinner at Ravello restaurant, next to the main bridge over the river in the centre of town.  The building, staff and food were all magnificent, the only drawback being a table of four next to us which included a woman who had taken to the second element of “eat, drink and be merry” with such enthusiasm that she’d bypassed merry completely and gone straight to completely smashed.  The staff dealt with her with admirable patience – in the old days she’d have been thrown in the lockup, a small domed building next to the bridge.

Ravello restaurant (drunken customer not pictured)

We awoke to blue skies and the sound of church bells, and located the source of these bells at Holy Trinity church.  A healthy congregation was belting out hymns as we explored the churchyard and grounds.  Meandering alongside the river we marvelled at how clear the waters were, fish darting around in the reeds and ducks boisterously announcing their presence to all and sundry.

The Avon flowing through Bradford

The Kennet and Avon canal, which runs alongside the river, is a ten minute walk from the town centre.  We strolled along the towpath past moored canal boats and forty or so minutes later we arrived at Avoncliff, a small village that boasts an aquaduct, a tiny railway station, and one of the most beautifully situated pubs I’ve ever had the pleasure of having a pint in.

The Cross Guns pub, Avoncliff – as seen from the Aquaduct

The aquaduct carries the canal over the river, and next to this is the Cross Guns pub, the main building of which is on the same level as the canal, with steps down towards the terrace and riverside garden.  We bagged a seat next to the river and watched a family of swans engage in a territorial battle with some ducks, while enjoying a cooling drink and a bite to eat (the swans got their share too).

It’s such a beautiful relaxing spot we could have easily settled in for the day and ended up in the same state as the woman from the restaurant, but we were sensible and caught the train back to Bath from the tiny station on the other side of the river.

Having a few hours to spare before your train is a far more pleasing experience in Bath than it is in say, Scunthorpe.  A meander round the Abbey, a stroll around the narrow streets, a drink outside the Pig and Fiddle.  Lovely.

Looking up to the Abbey from the gardens
View over the gardens towards the river

We paid the small entrance fee for the gardens next to the Avon just along from Pulteney Bridge, and I relived my childhood by having a Strawberry Split lolly from the café.  The tranquillity was unfortunately broken by a “samba” band who had taken up residence in the bandstand.  I use speech marks because I was unaware that samba consisted of repetitive drumming and shrill blasts on a whistle.  Such a genteel spot calls for a traditional brass band played at a sensible decibel level, preferably by octogenarians in smart suits.  Noise aside, the views across to the river and up to the Abbey are worth the admission.

Bath is more beautiful than I remembered, and Bradford on Avon is such a treasure that I’m surprised that it’s not a much more popular tourist spot.  I’m bloody glad it isn’t though.

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