Suffragette City: The Women’s Guide to Bath, England
October 10, 2018
Suffragette City: Walking in the Footsteps of Bath’s Badass Women
by Amethyst Biggs
‘If adventures will not befall a young lady in her own village, she must seek them abroad.’ – Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey
Bath, Somerset is a small city and World Heritage site in South West England famous for its spas, Roman baths and gorgeous Georgian architecture. Its history goes back to the Roman era, where they built baths and a temple to the goddess Minerva (awesome, wise war goddess!) around the natural hot springs there. The city experienced a bit of a revival in the 17th century when the alleged curative properties of the hot springs made it a fashionable place to ‘take the waters’, to see and be seen and to party (kinda like the Ibiza of its time).
Jane Austen fans —and they are legion — will know Bath as the city where she lived from 1801-1806, and from her novels Northanger Abbey and Persuasion (full disclosure: I’m not really a Jane Austen fan, and I don’t think I’ve even read any of her books). I know it as the beautiful city in which I’ve lived for over a decade, having first arrived in 2005 to do a Master’s degree. Like many who come here to study, I loved it so much that I decided to stay.
Bath, England continues to be a popular tourist destination — bringing in nearly 5 million visitors a year. It’s about 100 miles west of London, easily accessible by train or coach, and is both a great ‘home base’ from which to explore (you’re just under an hour away from Stonehenge or the seaside; London is 90 minutes by train), and a perfect day trip destination if you’re staying somewhere else.
The following is the ultimate women’s guide to Bath, England and the badass women who once called it home.
The Jane Austen Stuff
It is a truth universally acknowledged that there are enough Austen-themed activities in Bath to satisfy the most ardent Mr. Darcy fan. So let’s just go ahead and talk about them first.
If you want the most in-depth, full-on Austen experience, the best time to come to Bath is in September, for the annual Jane Austen Festival. Over the course of ten days, one can live, eat, breathe all things Austen — the highlight of which is probably the Promenade, where hundreds of fans dress up in Regency-era cosplay and march through the centre of town. There’s also a masked costume ball, where, if you’re so inclined, you may endeavor to find your own eligible bachelor (or bachelorette).
You’re not limited to September though — so even if you can’t make it over for the festival, you can get your fix at the Jane Austen Centre, which is open all year. There’s an exhibit, costumes you can try on (if you like costumes, Bath, England is your city!), tea rooms and of course a gift shop. Fun fact: I used to live in the same street as the guy whose job is to stand outside the Centre, in costume, welcoming visitors. I see him around town a lot, presumably in his off-hours, and he’s always wearing the costume. I’ve literally never seen him in modern clothes.
Of course, if you’d rather go on your little Austen adventure (without spending a lot of money), I suggest you just pop the few addresses where Jane lived into Google maps, then go for a wander. Bath is a beautiful city, and it’s not difficult to imagine you’ve gone back in time, retracing some of the steps that she most certainly would have taken as you seek out the places she lived and socialized. Start at 25 Gay Street (near the Austen Centre, at number 40) swing past the Assembly Rooms where she attended balls, and make your way down to 4 Sydney Place, where the building bears a plaque to commemorate her.
Suffragette City: A History of Bad-assery
Now, if Regency balls and Persuasion isn’t your thing — and it’s not really mine, so I don’t blame you — Bath, Somerset still has plenty to offer a lady in search of adventure, so let’s ditch the Empire-waisted frocks and move on!
(It may seem like I’m unfairly hating on Jane Austen, but I swear I have nothing against her. It’s just that I think she tends to overshadow a lot of other interesting women’s history here in Bath, much of which I didn’t even know until quite recently.)
It’s a little-known fact that Bath has its own place in the history of women’s suffrage. Many Suffragettes came to Eagle House, just outside Bath in the village of Batheaston, to recover from their time in jail – particularly from force-feeding to thwart their attempts at hunger strikes. Many of them also planted trees, complete with little plaques with their names on, to celebrate their fight. Several famous suffragettes, including Emmeline Pankhurst, planted trees and had their photos taken beside them. In the 1960s, the arboretum was eventually destroyed to make way for more housing.
In 2011, three ‘Suffragette Trees’ were planted around the city to commemorate the original arboretum and the fight for women’s suffrage. One of the trees lies near the entrance to the Botanical Gardens in Royal Victoria Park, within easy walking distance from the city centre, and only about 10 minutes from my house. (Coincidentally, one of the other trees is at Bath Spa University, where I work — it’s like I was destined to be a feminist.)
Come for the suffragette tree, stay for the gardens and just take in the lush scenery as you wander around. Once you’ve explored the gardens, you can carry on through the rest of Victoria Park, which takes you past the pretty breath-taking Royal Crescent, and back towards the centre of town, where it’s about to get a bit Gothic…
The Birth of Sci-Fi
In addition to carrying around her dead husband’s heart as a keepsake, Mary Shelley makes the Bad-ass Women List for writing Frankenstein, and kinda inventing Science Fiction. (She was also the daughter of proto-feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, so bonus points there.) It’s not widely known that she lived in Bath for a time, where she wrote Frankenstein. She finally got her own plaque in 2017, near the site where the building she lived in once stood. It stands near the entrance to the Pump Rooms, which also does a lovely afternoon tea, if you really want an authentic English experience whilst you’re here!
photo: Dark Horse via Yelp
Eat Great Food and Get Drunk on Fab Cocktails!
A note on tipping: Americans, have a hard time wrapping their minds around tipping culture here. You really don’t have to tip, especially if the service wasn’t great. If you do want to leave a tip, 10% is the norm. Anything more than that should be reserved for truly exemplary service, or for outing yourself as an American tourist.
Anyway, after all that walking, ladies gotta eat, and you’re going to have to ignore the silly name and just trust me on this one — Yak Yeti Yak serves amazing Nepalese food and is my favorite restaurant in Bath. Hidden away below street level down a flight of stairs, the Yak boasts a wonderful atmosphere, with whiffs of incense, Tibetan prayer flags hung from the ceilings, and a varied menu of tasty dishes brought out to you on warm, golden plates. It has loads of vegetarian and vegan options, and is very reasonably priced. A great place to stuff your face with friends. But do save room for dessert (or ‘pudding’, as the Brits call it), and get the spiced carrot tart.
Now that you’ve lined your stomach, it’s time for some booze. Life’s too short for shitty cocktails, so head to Opium for adult beverages made by serious bartenders who know what they’re doing. The drinks aren’t cheap, but you probably won’t need more than two. The bar is literally under a bridge, and is done up like a swanky opium den. You’ll have no phone reception, and you may not get a table. But, the drinks are so good you probably won’t even care.
Alternatively, The Dark Horse has a seasonal drinks menu made with locally sourced ingredients, and will make you feel like you’re in some kind of speak-easy – it’s dark and cavernous and you’ll likely need to book a table in advance or you won’t make it past security. In which case, you could always go back to Opium…
photo: vie Thermae Bath Spa FB
Bath: The Morning After…
Finally, after all that, it would be a bit ridiculous to come all the way to Bath, England and not experience the one reason the place even exists — the spa!
Ease your hangover with a visit to the Thermae Bath Spa. A two-hour soak in the rooftop pool overlooking the city starts at £36 ($47). Or go full on with a more comprehensive spa package. It’s not cheap, but sometimes you gotta treat yo’self. There’s also a restaurant and the ubiquitous Afternoon Tea.
Because if you don’t come back from Bath, England with a newfound love for tea, you’ve done it wrong.
(Featured photo by Jesse Loughborough via Flickr)