Jane Austen’s Bath
The best way to commune with Jane Austen and her unforgettable characters is to follow in their footsteps
By Monique Burns
Films like “Pride and Prejudice,” featuring the wealthy but aloof Mr. Darcy and the poor but courageous Elizabeth Bennet, have charmed moviegoers for decades. But few know the real Jane Austen, the writer who penned six novels about the manners and mores of Regency England. Events celebrating the 200th anniversary of her death in 2017 have provided valuable insights into the woman who authored such works as Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. But the best way to commune with Jane Austen and her unforgettable characters is to follow in their footsteps.
Less than two hours west of London is Bath, a UNESCO World Heritage Site where 18th–century English nobility and gentry flocked during the social season to see and be seen. Jane Austen moved there after her father retired from the ministry, quitting his Steventon parish church and 200–acre farm in Hampshire County. Jane and family lived in Bath for five years, from 1801 until 1806, and she set both Northanger Abbey and Persuasion there. Today, you can still visit the Royal Crescent, Assembly Rooms, Pump Room and other locales that Austen and her characters frequented. Plan your trip for the annual Jane Austen Festival in September—the world’s largest gathering of Austen enthusiasts—and participate in more than 60 events, including a Regency Costumed Masked Ball.
Nearly a dozen airlines fly to London from the States. But, these days, Norwegian Air is the hottest ticket to the British capital. Named the world’s best low–cost long–haul airline in 2017 for the third year in a row by Skytrax, Norwegian Air provides excellent Economy–class service aloft. Its reasonably priced Premium Class—comparable to other carriers’ higher–priced Business Class—might be the best deal in the sky, providing wide seats with 55 inches of legroom and adjustable footrests, plus delicious breakfasts, three–course dinners and complimentary drinks.
Arriving well-rested at London’s Gatwick Airport, take the Gatwick Express train 30 minutes to Victoria Station. From there, ride the Tube, or Underground, several stops to Paddington Station to catch a Great Western Railway train for the 1 ½-hour journey west to Bath. Ton save money, go online before leaving home and purchase a first or second-class BritRail train pass, and a London Visitor Oyster Card for unlimited rides on the Tube, tram, bus and Thames River boats.
From Bath Spa station, it’s a 15-minute walk or five-minute taxi ride to the heart of town, with harmonious classical architecture in the warm, honey–colored limestone known as Bath stone. In the 1700s, John Wood the Elder and his son, John Wood the Younger, designed many of Bath’s most notable buildings. The classical style reflected Bath’s social importance and paid tribute to the Romans, who, in 60 AD, built a spa town here around mineral–infused hot springs. Known as Aquae Sulis, it was dedicated to the wise goddess Sulis Minerva.
Not surprisingly, Bath has a long tradition of hospitality. You can savor the baronial lifestyle at five-star Macdonald Bath Spa Hotel, one of a chain of over 40 British country–house hotels. A 15–minute walk from the town center, the hotel has 131 elegant rooms, some with Georgian-style four-poster beds and all with marble baths, set amid landscaped gardens. Also on site: a spa, indoor and outdoor pools, a gym, and the recently refurbished Colonnade and Rotunda bars. Afternoon tea with finger sandwiches, scones and clotted cream is a major event. So is dinner at Vellore where home–grown British fare like 21 Day Aged Scottish Rump Steak is served on the terrace or in the former ballroom.
In the heart of town, choose the 98-room Francis Hotel, a Sofitel MGallery boutique hotel. Composed of seven adjoining Regency–style townhouses, it’s on Queen Square, a Palladian-style residential terrace built by John Wood the Elder between 1728 and 1736. Steps from the hotel, at no. 13 Queen Square, Jane Austen and her mother stayed in May and June 1799. “We are exceedingly pleased,” wrote the author to her sister Cassandra. “The rooms are quite as large as expected…with dirty quilts and everything comfortable.”
Today, the four-star Francis Hotel offers spotless linens, modern amenities, and stylish rooms blending 18th century–style furnishings with bright contemporary colors. Brasserie Blanc, under the direction of celebrity chef Raymond Blanc, serves English seasonal foods with French flair. Emily’s Tea Room, a long, sunny gallery with wing chairs, mirrors and gilt–framed portraits, offers classic afternoon tea. There’s also G & Tea Afternoon Tiffin, light dishes served with cocktails made with Bath gin. The locally distilled spirit, infused with wormwood and Kaffir lime leaves, sports a winking Jane Austen on its label.
The Francis Hotel faces Queen Square, a leafy little park with an obelisk dedicated in 1738 to Frederick, Prince of Wales, by Beau Nash, the Swansea gambler who became 18th–century Bath’s unofficial Master of Ceremonies. Just northeast of the square is the Jane Austen Centre at no. 40 Gay Street. It’s down the street from no. 25, the townhouse where Jane Austen lived shortly before leaving Bath in 1806. Outside the center, you’re greeted by a statue of Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth Bennet, in a royal-blue coat and bonnet, and costumed characters like her bewhiskered father, Mr. Bennet. Inside, watch a brief film about Austen’s life, then proceed to the well–organized exhibits. The center’s Regency Tea Room offers “Tea with Mr. Darcy,” including finger sandwiches, cakes, and scones with Dorset clotted cream, along with teas from local supplier Gillards of Bath.
Head northwest of Queen Square, along the Gravel Walk, and you’ll soon reach the Royal Crescent, a residential terrace of 30 columned townhouses facing a broad semi-circular green and, beyond, flower-filled Royal Victoria Park. Built by John Wood the Younger from 1767 to 1774, the Royal Crescent was one of Regency England’s most fashionable addresses. In more recent years, its elegant residences have been joined by the five-star Royal Crescent Hotel & Spa, at no. 16, part of the posh Relais & Châteaux group. Don’t leave without visiting No. 1 Royal Crescent, a splendid house–museum with carefully curated 18th–century furnishings.
On Sundays, Bath’s 18th–century residents paraded along the street that runs along the Royal Crescent. Jane Austen often walked there after church at St. Swithin’s Walcot, where her parents married in 1764 and where her father lies buried. She probably also strolled the Gravel Walk. In Persuasion, Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth, now a prosperous naval officer, are reunited in Bath after an eight–year separation. Strolling the Gravel Walk, wrote Austen, they “exchanged again those feelings and those promises which had once before seemed to secure every thing, but which had been followed by so many, many years of division and estrangement.”
Several blocks east of the Royal Crescent are the Assembly Rooms, designed by John Wood the Younger in 1769. Here Jane Austen and other visitors met to dance, hear concerts, play cards, gossip and find suitable mates. Adorning the 100-foot-long ballroom are the five original chandeliers made of crystal from the famous Whitefriars Glassworks of London. In the Assembly Rooms, Catherine Morland, heroine of Northanger Abbey, meets her match in Henry Tilney. And, in the Octagonal Room, Persuasion’s Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth first meet face-to-face after their long separation.
At the Fashion Museum, housed in the basement, see Regency dress, along with 100,000 other items from the 16th century onward, collected by Doris Langley Moore. Jane Austen’s heroines would surely have approved of Moore, a well-respected Lord Byron scholar who also penned the provocative 1928 self-help book, The Technique of the Love Affair.
From the Assembly Rooms, backtrack south to Pulteney Bridge. With shops on both sides, it’s reminiscent of Florence’s Ponte Vecchio. Across the River Avon is Great Pulteney Street. In Persuasion, Anne Elliot catches her very first glimpse of Captain Wentworth there. The restaurant and inn, No. 15 Great Pulteney, offers eclectic dishes like antipasto with chorizo jam, and whole salmon marinated in North African lemon, garlic and coriander-infused chermoula sauce and baked in salt. The Regency townhouse also features bold contemporary art and one-of-a-kind fittings like a colorful chandelier made entirely of dangling earrings.
Nearby is no. 4 Sydney Place. The first of Austen’s four Bath residences, it’s now Bath Boutique Stays, with luxury apartments named after Jane Austen characters. Just beyond are Sydney Gardens, where Austen often strolled and enjoyed public breakfasts. Visit the park’s Holburne Museum, with over 2,000 items including German Meissen porcelain and Gainsborough portraits.
Virtually every corner of Bath has some connection to Jane Austen. But perhaps the most famous site is the Pump Room. Above the Roman Baths, and steps from Bath Abbey, where Edgar, first King of England, was crowned in 973, it’s where fashionable 18th–century visitors came to drink the mineral–rich waters. Adorned with crystal chandeliers and gilt–framed portraits, the Pump Room is now an elegant—but moderately priced—restaurant.
The Set Lunch Menu includes well-prepared English fare like cod–and–prawn fishcakes and Castlemead Farm free–range chicken. Afternoon tea is served with coffee, tea, Champagne or Prosecco. The Jane Austen Tea features the author’s favorite, a caraway–seeded Bath bun, along with scones and plum jam.
Afterward, visit the Roman Baths. You can’t bathe in those sacred springs anymore, but you can do as the Romans did in the nearby Cross Bath at Thermae Bath Spa. Or do as Jane Austen did and simply sip a glass of mineral water from The King’s Spring, the Pump Room’s venerable fish–adorned fountain.
IF YOU GO
For flights to London, visit Norwegian Air at www.norwegian.com.
For Great Western Railway (www.gwr.com) train tickets, contact BritRail (www.britrail.com) or Rail Europe at (www.raileurope.com). Purchase the London Visitor Oyster Card at www.visitbritainshop.com/usa/london-visitor-oyster-card.
For details on the annual Jane Austen Festival, visit www.janeaustenfestivalbath.co.uk.
Monique Burns is a longtime travel writer and editor, and a European Correspondent for Jax Fax Magazine, a travel magazine for U.S. travel agents. A former Travel & Leisure Senior Editor, she travels frequently to Europe, but can sometimes be found in far-flung locales like India and Asia. After more than 30 years in the travel business, she still appreciates the world’s many cultural differences and can honestly say that she’s never met a place she didn’t like.