Go West – Bath and Bristol.
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Two West Country cities that may just be a few miles apart on the map but which have quite unique personas, Bath and Bristol both have plenty to offer for a visitor looking for a short trip from London. Whether you are touring the West Country, or on a short break both are deserving of a visit. There are regular trains from London Paddington taking around an hour and a half to Bath and a couple of hours to Bristol which is just one stop further south so it’s quite easy to get there by train if you prefer not to drive.
I’ve spent more time in Bath than Bristol in the past so I was delighted to have the chance to visit both over a couple of days. Bristol, early evening on a Bank Holiday Friday, was in full swing with packed bars. My first impression was of a quirky, vibrant and alternative vibe, quite distinct to refined and conservative Bath.
I enjoyed exploring a little of the Old City – there’s St Nicholas’s – an excellent covered market, some fabulous looking pubs and bars and a pretty river walk.
While I knew that there was a vibrant student community in Bristol and a focus on the Arts, I was particularly pleased to be invited to visit the Bristol Old Vic. The Theatre Royal which houses the Bristol Old Vic is the oldest continually operating theatre in the English speaking world and was built between 1764 and 1766. A Grade I listed building, which now incorporates the Coopers’ Hall, built in 1744, the present theatre company, the Old Vic, is an offshoot of the London Old Vic, formed in 1946.
Arriving first for supper in 1766, the Theatre’s restaurant, I was stunned by the space which must be one of the best fusions of contemporary architecture with a listed building I’ve seen. Despite a full house and plenty of people just there to eat and drink, it never felt overcrowded.
And the food was excellent. In some vain attempt to be healthy I chose pescatarian and vegetarian options from the menu and really wasn’t disappointed
A poignant production of The Remains of the Day stood up well to both the book and the film. The adaptation by Barney Norris of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Booker Prize-winning novel managed to capture the spirit of the original in a way that enhanced rather than destroyed my original love for the book. It may have helped that although I know both book and film, it’s been a while. But I suspect excellent performances by Stephen Boxer and Niamh Cusack, a fluid and dynamic script that skipped across decades seamlessly in seconds and elegant, simple staging were more to the point.
The parallel tragedy of Stevens and his employer, love and life unrequited was beautifully interpreted by Stephen Boxer and Miles Richardson while Niamh Cusack as Kenton, the funny and forthright housekeeper that Stevens holds a torch for with was both incisive and witty. With the exception of Stevens and Kenton, the cast had multiple roles, all delivered impeccably.
Best of all for me, the overall production was totally credible and I was transported into an era when even below-stairs there was a hierarchy and a protocol to be observed.
My resting place for the night was the conveniently located Brooks Guest House. A pretty but compact bedroom was just big enough for the king size bed, a dresser containing tea and coffee facilities and a hairdryer and a neat bathroom with shower. Peg rails around the room rather than a wardrobe worked for a solo traveller spending just a night there but might prove claustrophobic for a couple or for a longer stay. And personally, I missed having a desk or dressing table. These are rooms to sleep in.
Downstairs there was a well-priced honesty bar (a glass of wine for £3.50 for example) and a comfy lounge area. The quirky and comfortable outside terrace was supposed to close at 11 pm, but returning guests from Bristol’s lively nightlife tend to ignore hotel management requests not to use the space after that time. There’s often a trade-off between a central location and a quiet stay – here, on a Bank Holiday weekend, it was evident.
The excellent breakfast options are made to order for guests and I enjoyed my smoked salmon bagel with cream cheese together with a pot of tea and toast.
If you are looking for something different, on the roof of Brooks are a set of rocket caravans, refurbished and fitted out with designer bedding and wall coverings. I didn’t get a chance to see inside as needless to say they were all booked up over the weekend. I’d imagine they provide a more peaceful and romantic stay than the main hotel rooms, with stunning views across Bristol old town.
The journey to Bath the next morning took around half an hour. After leaving my luggage at one of the storage centres near the station, I set off to explore. Although I’ve been to Bath before, I’ve always found so much to do around the Abbey and the Roman Baths without climbing the hill. Around 15 to 20 minutes walk from the Station through the City takes you to the Assembly Rooms and to the Fashion Museum.
It’s a fascinating collection of beautifully preserved costumes that walk you through history. The current exhibition, a History of Fashion in 100 objects provides a real insight into how people lived. Apart from different style (open petticoat and closed petticoat for example), you’ll also find some curious reminders of how life was lived.
How about a quilted petticoat to keep you warm in winter for example?
Or, rather than pristine pastel baby clothes, ones which are patterned to help hide the dirt and grime!
And some stunning pieces which are closer to works of art than what we think of today as fashion.
I was particularly taken by the fashion dolls who were dressed to show prospective purchasers what the final outfit might look like. And with glove stories – a stunning collection of gloves through the centuries including a small exhibition of contemporary ‘glove art’.
Next on my list was the Holbourne Museum, another place in Bath that had passed me by.
While this is a fifteen-minute walk from the city centre, there’s plenty to see along the way and you’ll find yourself in another elegant building. The grade 1 listed building was originally designed as a hotel, built between 1796 and 1799. The intention was to provide a space which visitors to Sydney Gardens, pleasure gardens laid out by Thomas Baldwin, could use. Although Baldwin created a design for the hotel he was bankrupt before his work could be implemented and the building was designed instead by Charles Harcourt Masters.
The rather grand building would have been used for galas, private parties and meetings. Like the house, the gardens still exist, one of only two 18th century pleasure gardens in the country. After a spell as a private home, in 1916 the building became Bath’s first public art gallery, housing the collection of Sir William Holbourne who died in 1874 leaving the works of art and memorabilia he’d collected through his life to the city of Bath.
There’s something quite intimate about the way the galleries at the Holbourne Museum are laid out. Sir William’s own collection is on permanent display and, in addition to providing some great treasure, offers a very personal insight into the life of the nobility in the 19th century. There’s also a fine
The gallery is well set up to accommodate kids and there’s an extremely popular collection of illustrations by Lauren Child complemented by a family trail around the house and gardens. I was enchanted by the looks of delight on the faces of some of the younger visitors as they recognised pictures from their favourite books.
My own personal favourite was the collection of Flemish art in the Posnett Gallery. I love the detail in the works of the Breughel family for example and was delighted to find them in a setting that seemed entirely appropriate rather than in the larger and more anonymous galleries in London.
Lunch in the Museum’s Garden Cafe was a delicious salmon salad. The cafe is run by Benugo who always seem to provide a reliable offering that works well for all ages and tastes.
I loved the setting too with a large alfresco area complementing the cafe indoors and backing out onto the Sydney Pleasure Gardens.
I’m surprised that the Bath Festival isn’t better known outside of Bath – with a whole range of performances it’s the kind of programme that should attract visitors from London as well as local Arts lovers. But perhaps it’s a secret that Bath wants to keep for itself. It’s over now for 2019, but the 10-day programme should be well worth checking out next year.
Of course, apart from visiting a few new venues, I also spent plenty of time just wandering through the remarkable streets of Bath. I’ve already spent some time exploring the Roman Baths and the Abbey – but I never tire of walking around admiring the perfect Georgian architecture of this World Heritage City. Until my last visit to the city, I wasn’t aware of the challenges facing archaeologists in Bath. The stunning Bath stone buildings with many of the streets and squares laid out by John Wood the Elder in the 18th Century mean that excavating the original Roman and pre-Roman town is challenging. Bath is almost a tale of two cities in its own right – the Roman Baths and settlement which dates back to at least 60AD and the ‘modern’ Georgian city, built on top of the Roman settlement.
What I have learnt from this trip is that there’s more than immediately meets the eye in both Bath and Bristol – and that I need to go back and spend more time in both!
I stayed at Brooks Guesthouse in Bristol. Situated in the heart of Bristol’s old town near St Nicholas Market, Brooks Guest House is a boutique style hotel with compact, affordable accommodation.
I ate at 1766 Bar and Kitchen in Bristol which is attached to the Bristol Old Vic but open to all visitors. It has an excellent Bistro style menu with plenty of vegetarian and pescatarian options.
Bristol Old Vic runs a programme of theatre throughout the year.
The Holbourne Museum houses an astonishing permanent collection of 18th-century art and artefacts and also has a programme of visiting exhibitions.
The Bath Festival is held every year in May/June and offers a wide range of Arts events for all ages. The organisation also run several smaller festivals throughout the year
I travelled to Bath and Bristol by Great Western Railway. The journey to Bath takes around 1 hour 30 minutes and to Bristol around 2 hours from London Paddington. It is a popular route and worth booking your tickets in advance with seat reservations.
Thinking of visiting yourself? Why not pin this post for later?