There was a time not too long ago when UK ‘staycations’ were something of a joke. A dreary caravanning holiday where emptying the porta-potty and walking were the only exciting things on the agenda. In the last decade or so though, the idea of Brits holidaying in the UK and actually enjoying themselves has had something of a renaissance. Of course the past 18 months have forced us to re-evaluate the staycation once again and escaping out of town to a semi-rural retreat has an even greater significance.
Heading to the West Country feels quintessentially British. The Cotswolds, the Mendip Hills, Somerset – all of these names evoke a uniquely British sensibility and one location in particular acts as a fulcrum for all three: Bath. For Londoners it’s within very easy reach: just 1 hour 20 minutes on a fast train from Paddington, and even the service with a few extra stops arrives in under 2 hours.
Bath seems to offer the best of both worlds: a lot of people do the quite touristy things and so some areas unsurprisingly get quite busy, but head down a quiet side street and suddenly you’ll find yourself almost alone, window-shopping at endless independent boutiques. There’s a distinctly continental vibe too. You might stumble across a market or a pavement café in a honey-coloured square of stone buildings that could easily be in the south of France. Having been starved of international travel thanks to Brexit and Covid, to find this so close to home is very much welcome.
After a visit to the Circus or the Royal Crescent to marvel at the Georgian revival architecture, a mandatory tour of the Roman Baths, or perhaps a march up to the Sham Castle which provides the perfect vantage point to take in all of Bath in one go, refreshment is needed. Following a recent visit in that unexpected heatwave, we provide Palate’s tips for hostelries and hotels in this fabulous historic city. We start with the most important institution of them all: the British pub…
Pubs and cocktail bars
Bath is blessed with wonderful pubs, though they’re perhaps better known for their beer selection than unerringly friendly service (Keir Starmer may never set foot in The Raven again after his inglorious ejection).
A few metres away from The Raven is The Salamander. Behind its aesthetically-pleasing façade, a bloody good pub lies within offering a diverse beer selection. Even with its pubby appearance, the barman asks which gin one would like with their tonic. It’s like a Kinder Egg, with the surprise being excellent knowledge and welcoming, relaxed service.
If real ales are your thing, Coeur De Lion is Bath’s smallest pub and owned by Bath’s only brewery, Abbey Ales. If you don’t mind stretching your legs (which is impossible to avoid in Bath really), head to The Star Inn (also an Abbey Ales pub) and, even further afield, The Hop Pole.
For cocktails, you can’t go wrong with The Henrietta Bar at the Roseate Villa Hotel just off the main drag. Overlooking the Henrietta Park, this bar serves all the classics – we tested them with the uber-dry gin Martini challenge and they passed beautifully. Meanwhile, the Dark Horse Bar, with its moody speakeasy vibes, celebrates all things local: they make delicious cocktails with almost entirely English spirits and liqueurs and other ingredients foraged from the surrounding area.
Wine shops and bars
As for wine bars and shops, a trip to The Beckford Bottle Shop is a worthy use of your time. It’s effortlessly central, just a 2-minute-walk from the Circus with a small but perfectly formed terrace. As you’d expect, the wine list is plentiful though beware that their chosen ‘wines of the day’ are more like a lesson in upselling rather than a deep exploration of exciting viticulture. Fortunately the full list (basically avoid the blackboard for booze) has value for money options out the wazoo, and we found a delicious Viognier at £8 a glass a welcome libation. The food here is great too, but there could be slightly more of it. A bowl of sweetbreads with Alabama White Sauce (basically a blonde BBQ style sauce) were deep fried to perfection, but gone in a moment.
Corkage is another lovely place on Chapel Row near the Jane Austen Centre, complete with a small outdoor area and shop. Small plates include the likes of pork belly ‘tacos’, chorizo swimming in red wine or a red lentil dahl with coconut yoghurt and crispy onions. Pleasingly for a hot afternoon they were able to prepare a white port and tonic – an aperitif that is rarely seen outside of Portugal, though some London bars are now cottoning on, and so they are in Bath too, it seems.
Casual dining and Sunday lunches
The Elder, recently lauded by Jay Rayner, is a relatively new spot at the Indigo Hotel with a smart bar space and a lovely little terrace where you can enjoy some delicious oysters, served simply with classic Tabasco, shallot vinegar and lemon alongside well-made cocktails. They also do a fabulous Sunday roast (with the added bonus of even more beef hidden within the Yorkshire pudding). However, we found service a little distant here, with a sense that the staff weren’t always smiling under their masks. But that’s perhaps more indicative of the huge pressure the industry is under right now.
Over at No. 15 Great Pulteney Street, a chic hotel which features in many a to-stay guide, the Sunday lunch has something of a reputation. It didn’t disappoint. Whilst this wasn’t really the weather for something so hearty, this Sunday lunch was near-perfection. The rosy, well-rested beef, the creamy horseradish sauce, perfect crisp and fluffy roasties and the rich, thick gravy to bring it all in – everything was as it should be.
Bath has an excellent dining scene but our recent reconnaissance mission did reveal some inconsistencies. At Henry’s, the ground floor dining space was where the action was on our visit but sadly, probably because of Covid, we were sequestered upstairs into a rather uninspiring dining room. With the distant spacing of tables and hear-a-pin-drop quiet of the dining room we became desperate for some human connection. The service was fine but with lots of different waiting staff coming to the table, one never felt really well looked after. The 7 course dinner menu proved disappointing, course after course. It was slightly like MasterChef, in the early rounds. You know when people try a few whacky combos to make Greg squeal, but they turn out a bit naff? That! The food lacked an elegant simplicity.
Meanwhile, French bistro Chez Dominique offers simplicity in abundance but it seems to be stuck in an early 90s time warp. Our experience wasn’t actually bad but it didn’t really impress either. Perhaps we had been spoilt by the astoundingly excellent Littlefrench in nearby Bristol.
Things turn up several notches at The Olive Tree, Bath’s only restaurant with a Michelin star. Located in the basement of the Queensberry Hotel (on another hill), chef Chris Cleghorn serves modern British high-end cuisine with 9 courses at £119 or 6 courses for £85. Not cheap, but for the level of precision and excellent service we enjoyed, it seemed justifiable. On this visit we enjoyed a tartare of Orkney scallops with powerful wasabi and sweet Granny Smith apple, an artistic arrangement of smoked Devon eel with white asparagus and tarragon, delicious monkfish that had been basted in lashings of butter and Wiltshire lamb rump with gem lettuce, anchovies and sheep’s curd (arguably too small a portion).
The Olive Tree also has an intriguing wine selection with a plentiful choice by the glass. They’re unafraid of showcasing the developing Welsh wine scene, including the Gwin Gwyn from White Castle vineyard in Abergavenny and an entire section entitled “The Future Is Orange” with wines from Ancre Hill (also in Monmouthshire, as featured in Palate’s article on UK vineyards here).
For pre or post-dinner drinks, the hotel’s Old Q Bar is perfectly pleasant too. The young chap who served us on our visit didn’t know what a Martinez was but the important thing is, instead of a ‘computer says no’ response, he understood our quick tutorial and his first attempt was very good indeed.
Where to stay
Bath is a small city and really everything is walkable, but just remember that Bath was forged by a 10,000 year old ice cap and, as such, its unique geology means hills. Lots and lots of hills. When staying for a long weekend you’ll need somewhere decent to rest your feet.
The Apex City Hotel is located near the railway station if convenience is important for you. It’s a stone’s throw from the Green Park Brasserie and its accompanying market of food stalls, but it does feel quite ‘corporate’ – as if you’ve come to Bath for a conference rather than for fun. They also have a seagull problem.
Fortunately, there are plenty of hotels oozing with character in Bath. The Broad Street Townhouse is a fine lodging in the city and a 5 minute walk from everything worth seeing. Breakfast is served in a shabby-chic café and when Covid is but a distant memory, their hip, well-designed indoor pub space will reopen to dish out morning sustenance as well. Service here is excellent: prompt, friendly and genuine, the team here just seem to have it all worked out.
If you’re staying and looking for more upscale digs, No. 15 Great Pulteney, the Indigo and Hill House Bath will all more than suffice. The aforementioned Queensberry Hotel and Roseate Villa also have lovely outdoor spaces.
This article was last updated on 1 July 2021.
All photos by Mike Daw and J A Smith.