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Bath, England Spa

Grimshaw & Partners

Photo: Nicholas Grimshaw & Partners

For more than 10,000 years, until 1978, the thing to do in Bath was bathe. A cradle of health tourism since prehistoric times, Britain's only hot springs became, in the late 18th century, an unimaginably stylish resort. The winter Bath Season provided entertainment to rival London's: there were concerts and balls in the grand Assembly Rooms; you would go—and you may still go—to the Pump Room to drink the salubrious (and mildly smelly) waters while a trio played a minuet. In its prime, Bath was renowned as "the premier resort of frivolity and fashion."

Even in Bath today, in England's wet western interior, you find a café owner who prefers to address you in Italian and news vendors who routinely stock Die Zeit and Le Monde. Innumerable "heritage" shops pander to itinerants of all tastes and pockets. Through an extraordinary profusion of museums, tours, books, and guides, all is explained, in interpretations ranging from the quaint (Sally Lunn's Bun Shoppe) to the relatively scholarly (the Building of Bath Museum). The town is a rightly proud, officially designated World Heritage City—and if the visitor occasionally feels worn out by the self-consciousness, the natives are even wearier. For since the closing of the last big manufacturer-employer, the crane-makers Stothert & Pitt, it seems that almost everybody, in one way or another, works in the tourist industry. Even Jane Austen is on the payroll, and her shrine—arranged in a narrow town house—is tastefully signposted everywhere. In fact, Bath welcomes more visitors per resident than any place in the world apart from Venice. How on earth, or rather, how in deeply provincial northeast Somerset, did all of this come to be?

In 1692, and again in 1702 and 1703, Queen Anne came to take the waters. And that was that. Where royalty led, the aristocracy followed, and just behind came the ambitious middle class. Into the same waters—remarkably enough, into the same pools—piled the desperately ill, the wretched, the festering, seeking relief from a seemingly unlimited number of ailments. The lepers alone had their own bath.

In fact, Bath's reign as the glamour destination for English Society lasted no more than 40 or 50 years. But the glories of the period continue to glow—and attract a new kind of "society": the 3.2 million annual visitors. For it was the enormous popularity of the waters in the Georgian era that brought about the great rebuilding of the city, giving us those gorgeous sun-soaked "Bath-stone" crescents, or semicircular streets.

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