A HALF-TERM VISIT TO BATH
It’s been over two years since our last, brilliant, visit to Bath. The girls and I stayed in a Premier Inn, having travelled down on a Friday afternoon in February, and then spent the Saturday visiting the Roman Baths, the Pump Rooms, Bath Abbey, and the Assembly Rooms. They loved the novelty of staying in the ‘hotel’ and enjoying the unlimited breakfast in the neighbouring family restaurant. We caught the Park and Ride bus into the city and arrived fairly early so there was no queue for the Baths. They were fascinating and we spent ages looking at everything before it got too crowded. The Abbey had a fantastic children’s trail and the staff were welcoming. We were too late to visit the Fashion Museum by then but we went into the Assembly Rooms and had a quick look around. We had such a lovely day-and-a-bit and were keen to return.
Last week was half-term here and my elder daughter has been very interested in the Georgian era and Jane Austen so it seemed a great time to visit again. Time and money meant that staying over near Bath wasn’t an option this time so we girded our loins and decided to do it all in one day. We live in a London Borough south of the city which means that Bath is a long drive away and, in fact, having done the trip I don’t think we’d be in a hurry to attempt to do such a long journey again in a day.
Two hours and forty-five minutes after we set off we reached Lansdown Park and Ride, the one nearest the M4, having stopped briefly for the loo at Reading Services. The Park and Ride is easy and reasonable; you just pay your return bus fare to the city and the car park is free. Children under 16 are free, too. The drive into the city is interesting, taking you down Lansdown Hill and passing Beckford’s Tower, a neo-classical folly built for the rich novelist William Beckford, a museum that exhibits furniture intended for the Tower and an historic cemetery.
Central Bath was quite a surprise. The last time we had visited it was a chilly winter Saturday. This time it was a hot, sunny day in the summer half-term holiday and, of course, peak tourist season. It was so much busier! We were glad we hadn’t been hoping to visit the Roman Baths that day because the queue was something else! We had a brief peep in at the Pump Rooms; no-one tried to seat us in the restaurant so I suspect they guessed we weren’t prospective diners!
Our first stop was the Jane Austen Centre on Gay Street, a street that was one of Jane’s several homes when she and her family lodged in Bath following her father’s retirement as a vicar. That house is further up the hill from the Jane Austen Centre, a bit closer to the Circus. Lucy Worsley’s enjoyable recent BBC documentary ‘Jane Austen: Behind Closed Doors’ gives the viewer a fascinating tour around the Austens’ Bath residencies, which became meaner and less fashionable with each move until they found themselves in the dreaded Trim Street, a grim haunt of prostitutes and low-lifes. My daughter had high hopes of the Jane Austen Centre because it has a fascinating website which has many recipes, crafts ideas, fashion tips and so on. Unfortunately, it was rather an expensive disappointment.
We qualified for the ‘small family’ ticket which was around £20. The very pleasant, and beautifully costumed, lady selling tickets and serving in the gift shop sent us upstairs and after about a minute we were invited (having shown our tickets) into a small lecture room for an introductory talk by another member of staff who was also wearing a smart Regency outfit and who was very enthusiastic and knowledgeable. If you were a beginner in the world of Austen then you would have come away with a good grounding in her life and works but, having just watched Lucy Worsley’s documentary and having visited the Jane Austen House Museum at Chawton, my daughter and I had already heard just about all of it. We were then asked to go back downstairs where we grouped in a corridor with the other members of our group and were given a short talk about the copies of different portraits, or possible portraits, of Austen. Again, the guide was a good speaker and she knew her stuff but I felt a bit silly; a quick Google would have turned up these images and I could have looked at them for free at home…
We were then allowed to ‘explore the rest of the Centre’ which doesn’t take long! Most of the information is displayed in little plaques around the house but there really isn’t much to see. There are some examples of fashion of the era, a window display of a milliner’s shop of the time, some copies of books, some examples of scents that people wore at the time… When we got to the dressing-up rail (my daughters were really looking forward to this bit!) we were hit with the most disgusting stench of drains. They had a big fan running to try and keep the air moving but it wasn’t very effective and the whole area was very unpleasant. My children had a bit of a try of the clothes and a play with the fans, sending each other signals by displaying the fans in different positions (there was a booklet explaining all this), but there was only one child-sized dress and the smell was so off-putting. My younger daughter had already been feeling a bit wobbly due to car-sickness and this really wasn’t helping; she asked to go the the ladies and we had a few minutes respite. On our way back to my other daughter we had to squeeze through another group of portrait-viewers. The lady who was giving them the talk asked, rather abruptly, to see our tickets, although we hadn’t left the museum at all and it really didn’t seem the sort of place to attract vast numbers of gate-crashers (especially a seven-year-old and her mother!), but perhaps I am naive.
We spun out our visit with the having a go at writing with a quill pen and then exited via the gift shop, as per usual! The entrance tickets entitle you to 10% off in the gift shop which isn’t to be sniffed at. It is only a small shop and there wasn’t a great deal to appeal to children of their age, fortunately, so we came away with a copy of the humorous history pamphlet Austen wrote and a pack of Jane Austen Top Trumps which were designed by the Centre and is definitely one of their better ideas.
The problem wasn’t that my children were too young for the Jane Austen Centre; I certainly did not get much out of the visit myself. It was just that it was too amateur and too small to be able to successfully charge such high entrance fees. It just didn’t have enough to show for itself. We were there under an hour and I really tried to make the visit last as long as I could.
After we left the Centre we had a little wander around the city centre, past the Abbey, Baths and Pump Room but it was so hot and crowded that we didn’t take very long. We headed to Pizza Express to use our precious Tesco vouchers but despite advance booking a table online we had to wait to be seated and the service was so slow that it took two hours which took a large bite out of our available time.
On our way to the Fashion Museum we visited the Royal Crescent and the Circus, just for a look. I was a little frustrated to realise that if we had been earlier we could have bought a saver ticket to the Fashion Museum and No. 1 Royal Crescent, a house that has been decorated just as it might have been in Georgian times and operates as a charity. I think we would have got a lot more fun out of this than the Jane Austen Centre and I have only myself to kick for not doing better research!
The Fashion Museum, which is housed in the magnificent Assembly Rooms, is very good. It is also expensive (hence why the saver museum ticket would have been great) but the girls enjoyed it a lot. The clothing is fabulous and there is a fair bit to look at. The clothes are arranged historically so that you can see how fashions developed over time and how social and cultral change has been reflected in fashion. Younger children or children who are not very patient might find it a bit trying as it is mostly very much a ‘just looking’ museum but it does have a couple of hands-on areas where you have the opportunity to draw your own costumes and then to try on reproduction vintage outfits. We were visiting at the same time as two groups of French school children who raced past the historic clothes (as in, they didn’t actually stop to look at any of them) and went straight to these areas of the museum. As these areas were so busy we had to wait a bit before we could have a turn but it was worth waiting for and the girls enjoyed themselves a lot, especially with the wigs and bonnets.
Unfortunately the Ball Room was being used for a private function so we couldn’t go in there again but we had a little peek into the Great Octogon and the shop before heading back to the bus stop. We left the car park at about 5:15 and took forty-five minutes to get back to the main road that leads to the M4 because the entire route was one big uphill traffic jam. At the end of the winding country road is a right-hand turn onto a busy main road meaning that it took ages for each car reaching the head of the queue to be able to safely join the stream of traffic, resulting in a vast rush-hour tail-back. So we got home at about 8:40 pm. It was a fun day out but full of travelling. Next time we go to Bath we will be staying nearby!