England’s Bath and York
In Bath, we visit the Georgian House and Roman baths, learn even more about this elegant spa town on a free town walk, drop in on the Fashion Museum and the Museum of Bath at Work, and chuckle our way through the Bizarre Bath street-theater walk. In York, we visit the majestic York Minster, the slice-of-life Yorkshire Museum, and the fun, hands-on National Railway Museum.
No. 1 Royal Crescent (formerly the "Georgian House")
This former residence at the east end of the Crescent is now a museum, taking visitors behind the classy Georgian facade for a glimpse into the everyday life of wealthy residents during the mid-1700s. At the time, Britain was on the leading edge of global exploration and scientific discovery, and the period artifacts show the wide-ranging interests of the educated rich. Take the time to talk with the helpful docents (who almost give you no option but to learn), or you'll miss fascinating details like how high-class women shaved their eyebrows and pasted on carefully trimmed strips of mouse fur in their place.
Free two-hour tours are led by the Mayor of Bath's Honorary Guides, led by volunteers who share their love of Bath with its many visitors. Their chatty, historical, and gossip-filled walks give you the lay of the land while you learn about the evolution of the city, its architecture, and its amazing Georgian social scene. How else will you learn that the old "chair ho" call for your sedan chair evolved into today's "cheerio" farewell? Tours leave from in front of the Pump Room.
Fashion Museum (formerly the "Museum of Costume")
Housed underneath Bath's Assembly Rooms, this museum displays four centuries of fashion, organized by theme (bags, shoes, underwear, wedding dresses, and so on). Follow the excellent included audioguide tour.
Modest, informative museum that features the circa-1900 fizzy-drink business of one Mr. Boweler. It includes a Dickensian office, engineer's shop, brass foundry, essence room lined with bottled flavorings, and factory floor. It's just a pile of defunct gadgets — until the audioguide resurrects Mr. Bowler's creative genius.
For an entertaining walking-tour comedy act "with absolutely no history or culture," follow Toby or Noel on their creative and lively Bizarre Bath walk. This 1.5-hour "tour," which combines stand-up comedy with cleverly executed magic tricks, plays off unsuspecting passersby as well as tour members.
The pride of York, and one of England's finest churches, the minster has stunning stained-glass windows, textbook Decorated Gothic design, and glorious evensong services. This largest Gothic church north of the Alps (540 feet long, 200 feet tall) brilliantly shows that the High Middle Ages were far from dark.
Located in a lush, picnic-perfect park next to the stately ruins of St. Mary's Abbey, Yorkshire Museum is the city's forgotten, serious "archaeology of York" museum. While the hordes line up at Jorvik, the best Viking artifacts are here — with no crowds and a better historical context. The video about the creation of the abbey plays continuously, and is worth a look.
If you like model railways, this is train-car heaven. The thunderous museum shows 200 illustrious years of British railroad history. Fanning out from a grand roundhouse is an array of historic cars and engines, including Queen Victoria's lavish royal car and the very first "stagecoaches on rails," with its crude steam engine from 1830.
See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.
Hi I'm Rick Steves, back with more of the best of Europe. This time we're in England, enjoying my two favorite cities outside of London: Bath and York. Thanks for joining us.
York feels more medieval while Bath is Georgian; both towns go back to Roman times. Each town is packed with way more block-buster sights than cities their size deserve. And each are about two hours by train from London. If you're looking for English city thrills without the expense and intensity of London, head for Bath and York…England's easy urban delights.
In Bath, we'll explore a Roman hot springs, immerse ourselves in Georgian elegance, and cruise the canals. Then we zip over to York where we'll marvel at England's finest Gothic church, ramble York's wonderfully preserved medieval quarter, meet the Morris dancers and lots more.
The island of Great Britain includes England, Scotland, and Wales. From London, Bath is a short ride to the west, and York is just to the north.
Two hundred and fifty years ago, Bath was the trendsetting Hollywood of Britain. If ever a town enjoyed looking in the mirror, Bath's the one. And its narcissism is justified. Locals brag that they have more "government-listed" or protected historic buildings per capita than any other town in England.
The entire city, built of the creamy limestone called "Bath stone," beams in its cover-girl complexion. An architectural chorus line, it's a triumph of the 18th century Georgian style. Proud locals remind visitors that the town is routinely banned from the "Britain in Bloom" contest to give other towns a chance to win. Even with its mobs of tourists — 2 million a year — Bath is a joy to visit. Good looking towns are not rare, but few combine beauty and hospitality as well as Bath.
Visitors have been enjoying Bath for thousands of years. Even before the Romans arrived in the first century—the place was famous for its hot springs. For the ancient Romans, it was a popular spa town.
The town's importance carried through the Middle Ages, when it was considered the religious capital of Britain. In 973 King Edgar — called the first king of England — was crowned right here.
Later Bath prospered as a wool town. With the money it made from wool, Bath built its grand abbey. This church—the last great medieval church built in England—is 500 years old. The Abbey's facade features a very literal Jacob's Ladder—with angels going up…and down.
The interior features breezy fan vaulting and is lit with enough stained glass to earn it the nickname "Lantern of the West." With its broad windows and strong vertical lines, it's a fine example of Late Perpendicular Gothic.
Bath's heyday passed and by the middle of the 1600s, its population had dropped to about 1500 people — just a huddle of huts at the base of its abbey. Its residents were oblivious to the fact that their smelly mud was covering up the ruins of an ancient Roman spa. Then, in 1687, an English queen struggling with infertility came here and bathed. Within about 10 months she gave birth to a son. Soon after that, Queen Anne came here to treat her gout. With all this royal interest, Bath the spa town was reborn.
The revitalized town prospered as a resort. Most of the buildings you'll see today are from the 18th century. Local architects were inspired by the Italian architect Andrea Palladio to build a "new Rome."
The town boomed and the streets were built not with scrawny sidewalks but with broad "parades," upon which gentlemen would stroll and the women in their stylish dresses could spread their fashionable tails.
This is the Royal Crescent. Dating from the 1770s, these are the first Georgian "condos." "Georgian" is British for "neoclassical." As you cruise the Crescent imagine you're one of Baths' upper crust. What appears to be a seamless front lawn is actually an optical trick. The hidden wall called a 'ha-ha' fence keeps sheep and picnicking peasants out without creating an eyesore.
The Georgian House — at the prestigious address #1 Royal Crescent — gives an intimate peek into the lavish lifestyles of this age.
Volunteers in each room are determined to fill you in on all the fascinating details.
Docent: Georgian ladies were extremely fashionable, not fashions as we would think of them today because if they were very fashionable women they would wear the French wigs and they didn't start until this part of the head, so this hair here was shaved off, that meant your eyebrows were in the wrong place, they had to be shaved off and then you had little mouse-skin eyebrows stuck on further up the head.
And the kitchen had all the latest Georgian gizmos.
Rick: So what is this mechanism?
Docent: This is a turn-spit powered by the dog. The dog was bred specially for the wheel. He went in for 2 hours and then another dog would come in to replace him until the joint of meat was cooked.
Rick: So he spins the meat?
Rick: and if he stops walking. He just says I'm going to go on strike.
Docent: Well, first of all, prod him with sticks and then, last resort — shovel of coals in there — hot coals he runs.
Rick: So a nice steak, you've got to thank your dog.
Docent: Yes exactly.
A block away is another fine bit of Georgian architecture called The Circus. It feels like a colosseum turned inside out. Its Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian capital decorations pay homage to its classical inspiration… Servants lived in attic rooms just below the characteristic chimneys — one for each heated room.
The ancient Roman baths are the town's sightseeing centerpiece. High society here goes all the way back to Roman times, when big shots enjoyed the mineral springs at Bath. From Londinium, Romans traveled to Aquae Sulis, as the city was called, to "take a bath." Eventually, the name became simply — Bath.
This ancient Roman pool is still lined with its original lead — nine tons of it. You can almost imagine those Romans lounging around — sipping wine, schmoozing…just like they did in far away Rome.
Today, a fine museum surrounds the ancient bath. Roman artifacts and the remains of a temple pediment evoke a sophisticated city. The hot thermal water still bubbles — as it has for nearly two thousand years — past ancient Roman bricks. Enjoy some quality time looking into the eyes of Minerva, goddess of the hot springs.
After Rome fell, in the fifth century, these old pools silted up and Bath was forgotten as a spa. Over a thousand years later, when those English queens came here to soak and believed that its curative waters actually helped them become pregnant and deal with their gout, word of its wonder waters spread and Bath was back on the aristocratic map.
High society soon turned the city into one big pleasure palace. The Pump Room, an elegant Georgian salon just above the Roman baths, offers the visitor's best chance to raise a pinky in this neo-Classical grandeur Drop by for a fancy, three-tiered, afternoon tea… or just sip the curative spa water.
Rick: Ok, so Bath water?
Waiter: Yes this is Bath water. Generally its got about 43 different minerals in it. Things like arsenic, bromide, calcium, lithium…it's made from a lot of 'earth-metals' very, very high mineral content. This water is about 10,000 years old, comes in at temperature of about 116 degrees Fahrenheit, so about 44 Celsius.
Rick: So what's its going to do for me? Is it going to make me live forever?
Waiter: Generally, it'll cure a number of illnesses, things like rheumatism, gout, if you're suffering from impetigo, angina… So mainly it's sort of a painkiller in a way.
Rick: It tastes badly enough to be healthy I guess. Cheers!
Above it all is a statue of Beau Nash, Bath's "master of ceremonies" in the 1700s. Nash was a one man tourism promotion department — organizing the daily regimen of the aristocratic visitors, spiffing up the city, and banning swords.
Bath's relaxation theme survives to this day. Its natural thermal spas once again open to the public and tranquil parks offer a respite from the daily grind.
Here in the Parade Gardens, your modest admission fee entitles you to a rented lounge chair and a perfect chance to see how slow you can get your pulse.
Bath's Avon River offers more excuses for relaxation. You can hop a little cruise. Or, for more exercise, you can hike or bike along its canal. These waterways were built not for lazy vacationers but to ship coal and industrial cargo. The tow paths — originally the track for hard-working, barge-tugging horses — are now popular for hikers, bikers, and dogs out walking their masters.
Canal boaters enjoy an easygoing pace. Their idyllic cruises are punctuated by industrial age locks. With the help of these locks laidback vacationers can cruise all over England. Locks are self-service…and passersby are welcome to help out.
For the proper Bath experience, I like to sleep in a fine Georgian house. Our hotel comes with plush lounges, a bed room that fits right in with all the grand neoclassical architecture we've been enjoying. And an elegant breakfast that can be very hearty…as well as very healthy.
Bath expertly entertains its many visitors. Free town walks are offered by The Mayor's Corps of Honorary Guides. These volunteers bring the town's amazing Georgian heritage to life.
Guide: It's humanist architecture. Do you remember the Leonardo drawing? Of the man who stands like this… and what do you get? You get a circle and then you get a square and you get all sorts of geometry behind this. So what I'm saying is, the new town that we've got in Bath exploring this old, classical or reinventing this old, classical architecture is what the new town is about.
You don't need a guide to enjoy Bath's Museum of Costume. It displays 400 years of fashion—one frilly decade at a time. With provided audioguides doing the tour guiding, you can track the evolution of clothing styles right though the ages.
In about 1600 gloves were an important accessory — made with white goat skin, lovingly embroidered, and designed to make your fingers look more elegant and slender than they really were.
In the 1740s, aristocratic women wore basket-like hoops to show off their fabulously expensive and extravagantly embroidered court dresses.
In the mid-1800s, women shaped their bodies with smaller "under structures." Those wide hoops evolved to more discreet bustles.
With the outbreak of WWII designers made dresses that were chic yet practical, stylish yet simple. Bath's Museum of Costume takes you right up to today.
Bath was not all aristocratic splendor. There's a grittier side to its history as well. Like the rest of England the story here in the 19th Century was the Industrial Revolution.
At the Museum of Bath at Work, volunteers show off the quirky business of the ingenious Mr. Bowler:
Guide: This is the heavy machine shop dating all these machines to about 1850 to 1880. Steam driven and with a set of machines like this there was virtually no job he couldn't tackle.
Rick: People in the town had a need… Mr. Bowler could take care of it.
And Mr. Bowler took advantage of the local waters too and bottled his own fizzy water.
Guide: Right, this is where he bottled his mineral waters.
Rick: So soda-pop was one of his businesses?
Guide: Absolutely, yes and it was filled on this rather ingenious machine you see here… and you rotated that around…
Rick: And there you go. Wow!
Guide: There you are.
Rick: Mr. Bowler soda pop, 1875.
Bath is drenched in history. And a great way to learn absolutely nothing about that is to join the Bizarre Bath walk. Each evening through the summer local actors give visitors a goofy and immensely entertaining dose of street theater.
Actor: we'll we're going to stop here because…we'll I'm exhausted…it's the most walking I've done for ages and at this stage we are going to prove that there is such a thing as mind reading. For those of you who are telepathic, here's a quick joke for you, first of all….(laughter)
As this stage I'd like to show you how to be truly accepted as a local person here in Bath. This is a local bylaw a regulation that states quite clearly that one has to hop across this road. If local people see you hopping across the road they think you're a local person as well and they smile at you very warmly….over, over you go, that's good over you go.
Next we're heading for the historic and equally entertaining town of York, it's just a couple hours north by train. Britain's trains are some of the most expensive per mile in Europe. However, assuming you're on a main line, they're fast, frequent, reliable and comfortable.
York offers a fascinating collection of great sights mixed with an easygoing pedestrian ambience all lassoed within its formidable wall. Its rich history goes back to ancient Roman times. This column is a scant reminder of when York was a Roman provincial capital — the northernmost city in the Empire. Constantine was actually proclaimed emperor right here in the year 306.
Later, in the 5th century, when Rome was falling, the Roman emperor sent a letter to Britannia — as this part of the empire was called — and he said basically "you're on your own." When Rome pulled out, the barbarians moved in and York became the capital of an Anglo-Saxon kingdom.
The Vikings later took the town, and from the 9th through the 11th centuries, it was a thriving Danish trading center called Jorvik. Then came the Normans. Medieval York grew rich on the wool trade. With 9,000 inhabitants, it became England's second city. Henry VIII used the city's fine church, or Minster, as his Anglican Church's northern capital.
The Minster is the pride of York. Britain's largest Gothic church brilliantly shows that the late Middle Ages were far from dark.
The York Minster is filled with history and tradition. Its grand bells have called people to worship here for well over a thousand years.
Each day at noon the huge bell nicknamed Great Peter is rung from the church tower. At ten tons, the bell can actually ring its ringer.
Inside, your first impression might be the spaciousness and brightness. The nave, from about 1300, is one of the widest Gothic naves in Europe. On festival Sundays, 4,000 worshippers pack the place.
The central tower soars nearly 200 feet. The neck-saving mirror allows you to marvel at it comfortably.
The church has more original medieval glass than the rest of England's churches combined. The east window is the size of a tennis court. The Great West Window has exceptional stone tracery. With its nickname the "Heart of York," it represents the sacred heart of Christ and reminds worshippers of His love for the world.
The intricacy of the painted and stained glass held together by lead is exquisite. The fine details, far too tiny to see from the floor, are said to be for God's eyes only.
The choir screen separates the nave from the choir. This ornate wall of carvings is lined with four centuries of English kings: from William the Conqueror to Henry VI. While most of the faces are generic kings with the same scraggly beards…Henry, during whose reign it was carved — in 1461 — is both genteel and engaged.
York's Minster is considered England's number two Anglican Church — after Canterbury. The Anglican Church came into existence about 500 years ago—born out of Europe's long power struggle between popes and kings.
England's split with the Vatican goes back to King Henry VIII. Henry wanted to divorce his wife and marry his mistress. The pope said no. Henry did anyway, declaring that he, and not the pope, was the head of England's Catholics. While Henry considered himself a faithful Catholic—just not a Roman Catholic—his Church of England soon embraced the essence of the Protestant Reformation.
Canon Jeremy Fletcher explains in a nutshell how Anglicanism differs from Roman Catholicism.
Canon Fletcher: Henry the VIII's archbishop was archbishop Cranmer and he defined three pillars for the Church of England: scripture, and reason, and tradition. The Bible, our own human understanding, and the tradition of the church — and that's the great difference between the new church of England the Roman Catholic church then, that the medieval Roman Catholic church which was much less based on the Bible. The Church of England is a reformation church. It's a Protestant church but the structures remained Catholic ones as well, so it has both and we like to describe ourselves as being Catholic and reformed.
York's mighty wall is a reminder that the city was more than a religious power. It was a military and political center vital for the control of North England from Roman times through the Middle Ages. These ramparts—some of which sit on the remains of the Roman wall — are mostly medieval — 14th and 15th century.
Each of the town gates was heavily fortified — and, I imagine pretty scary if you were trying to break in. Gaze up at the tower, imagining 10 archers behind the cross-shaped arrow slits. Keep an eye on those 12th-century guards, with their stones raised and primed to protect their town.
Today those walls seem only to protect the half-timbered charm. Ye olde downtown York — much of it as car-free today as it was 500 years ago — is filled with characteristic old buildings. It feels made for window-shopping, people-watching, and strolling.
York's rich history goes back much further. The ruins of St. Mary's Abbey — once the wealthiest abbey in north England — are located in a lush and inviting park.
In his fight with the Roman Catholic Church, Henry VIII saw the wealthy monasteries and convents as both a threat to his rule and some easy money. In what's called the dissolution, he dissolved the religious orders. He took their money and destroyed their great buildings.
The Yorkshire Museum — actually built into the ruins of the abbey — tells the story of life here for the monks, how that all ended, and much more.
The ancient Roman collection includes slice of life exhibits from cult figurines to the skull of a man killed by a sword blow to the head — making it graphically clear that the struggle between Romans and barbarians was a violent one. This fine 8th century Anglo-Saxon helmet shows a bit of barbarian refinement. And they wore some pretty decent shoes and actually combed their hair.
The Middleham Jewel, an exquisitely etched 15th-century pendant, is considered the finest piece of Gothic jewelry in Britain. To the noble lady who wore this on a necklace, it both helped her worship and protected her from illness. The back of it, which rested near her heart, shows the nativity. The front shows the Holy Trinity crowned by a sapphire which people believed gave your prayers top priority with God.
For a lively change of pace look for the local Morris Dancers who boldly keep centuries of dancing tradition alive. Mixing both pagan and Christian traditions, they're always ready to celebrate — cheer leading the town through the return of spring, the harvest, your mother's birthday…whatever.
For something a little weightier, visit York's National Railway Museum. Showing two centuries of British railroad history, it claims to be the biggest and best railroad museum anywhere.
Fanning out from a grand roundhouse is a stunning array of beautifully preserved historic trains. A steam engine is sliced open, showing cylinders, driving wheels, and smoke box all in action. You'll trace the evolution of steam powered transportation from very early trains like this 1830 stage coach on rails — with its crude steam engine to the aerodynamic Mallard — famous as the first train to travel at two miles per minute…a marvel back in 1938.
York has all these historic trains because it's long been the hub of train transportation for northern England. It still is today and it's time to travel on. I hope you've enjoyed our look at two great cities — Bath and York. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on traveling. Cheerio.