In 1830, the 11 year old Princess Victoria opened the Royal Victoria Park in Bath. The legend goes that the following day a newspaper reported on the event and remarked upon the soon to be Queen's 'dowdy' appearance and ‘thickness of ankle.’ So incensed she was by the comments that she vowed never to return to the city ever again. It was a promise she kept managing to shun the city for the duration of her reign. Even when travelling through on the Royal train in later years, she'd order courtiers to pull down the blinds in every carriage to avoid setting eyes on the place.
I'd then thought most people's ability to hold a grudge (mine included) couldn't be surpassed by that of the most formidable of monarchs who seemingly set the standard. I’d learnt this bit of trivia on an open top bus tour around Bath. We’d stayed over for the night en route to South Wales to pick up a tuxedo AF had made in India and generously brought ‘home’ by a friend who lives in Swansea. So, with the chance of getting out of London for the weekend, with someone other than myself driving, and especially with the promise of hot thermal pools - my bag was packed immediately.
The city of Bath's main attraction has long been its famous hot spa water, fed by the area's hot springs. These natural geothermal springs were fed into the original Roman Baths complex, responsible for the prominence of Bath in the Roman period. However, the old municipal hot pools were closed in 1978 after the discovery of an infectious organism in one stratum of the aquifer. And that was that. Bathing was thus prohibited until the opening in 1996 of the Thermae Spa, where we spent 2 wonderful hours on Friday night. Nick Grimshaw’s bold reinvention of the spas with its edificial glass shell is quite startling and somewhat incongruous in a town known for its old world gentility and Georgian elegance. However controversial it was at the time, this new architecture, according to reports I scoured online, has been a success in these parts with some claiming to be a “thrilling rebuke to municipal introspection and complacency”.
It was busy when we arrived, but not so crowded as to cause a nuisance. Samuel Pepys, who was carried to the hot springs by struggling chairmen, said: “Methinks it cannot be clean to go so many bodies together in the same water.” I opined that such a reluctance to bathe with others could easily be applied to the spas of Budapest with their crumbling decadence and filthy facilities- there it was akin to marinating in a large smoothie of peasant excretions, but here it was immaculate - a floating tampon notwithstanding.
By 9pm it was almost deserted and from the rooftop pool we had uninterrupted views of the sun descending the city’s verdant hills, church steeples and Georgian crescents. Our skin still porous with minerals, we departed the aquatic bliss and ate at a local Thai, followed by drinks beside the Avon as the effervescent waters came gushing from beneath Pulteney Bridge.
Expecting another Cheltenham; bland, provincial – I was impressed with Bath's old world charm and rural pulchritude . Even Jane Austen, whose Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were set in Bath, felt it was living on its past. And that was 1816! But I kind of enjoyed the antwackie vibe, despite certain quarters proclaiming it to be merely a ‘pastiche of classicism’.
Indeed it was a weekend of surprises. Having had my impressions of South Wales tarnished forever by my year in exile (otherwise known as my first year at Glamorgan University) with the parochial lugubriosity of Treforest and Pontypridd nestled amidst the gloomy Welsh Valleys, and the equally underwhelming nearby Cardiff – 15 years later I set upon this part of the world with new eyes, enjoying lunch on the sea front in Swansea Bay, and a walk up to the Mumbles Lighthouse. Just for the afternoon of course. Not wanting to stay long enough for the creeping disdain of yore to stir, we decide to make the most of the glorious June weather and head west.
Most British seaside towns are famous for decaying and depressing facades of decadent days gone by. I'd decided Tenby would be no different. But I was mistaken. Situated on the Pembrokeshire coast, Tenby has been its premiere resort since the 1700s and I was astonished by its charm. Surrounded by its fortified ring of walls, towers and gateways for which its famous (built by the Earl of Pembroke in the 13th Century) this classic Georgian town boasts a magnificent sea front and an immensely quaint harbour which one could easily mistake for one of Cornwall's more picturesque locations. Traversing the town, as we did after arriving at dusk, new vistas constantly come at you with a brilliant mix of architecture and beaches, two of which are, according to the Readers Digest, the best in Britain.
I’d also read that this once-peaceful Welsh resort is now the piss-up capital of Britain, having been named the world's second-best stag night location after Los Angeles by Maxim magazine. This was confirmed not only by our hotel’s free bar for an hour (yes, we couldn’t believe it either) but by the sight of the micro-mini clad ‘ladies’ (and their equally inebriated male counterparts) falling up the cobbled streets after dark as we walked back from a post-dinner amble around the harbour. It seems even the drunks couldn’t be rebuffed by the gateways of the towns fortification.
After a night sleeping to the soundscape of waves crashing on the cliff rocks below our hotel room, we left the Ayia Napa of Wales behind to explore the more isolated and rugged territory of the Pembrokeshire Coastal National Park. “Coo, this is lovely" we chorused, as we drove along the coast which, in the midday sun was just as arresting in its scope and beauty as somewhere like the Big Sur.
After a brief spell on Freshwater East beach (preparing for the filming of a Russell Crowe movie later that week), we drive on, all unexpected turnings and random diversions, before stumbling across Stackpole Quay - a tiny harbour used by local fishermen and small pleasure boats with a quaint tea room as its centerpiece (cream teas alert). From here we climbed the cliff path walk to Barafundle Bay and the jewel in its crown - Peachy Beach; with its crystal clear waters in between the limestone cliffs and backed by dunes and expansive woodlands. Places like this make you wonder why we pay thousands of pounds travelling across the world in search of natural beauty and 5 star luxury. Often the simplicity of what Britain can offer is just as appealing and surprisingly rewarding, as the view confirmed.
After the long drive home to London and with aching backs, we make time for late supper at The Spaniards in Hampstead. Hungry and exhausted, we tuck into stodgy pub grub and sup guinness while reflecting on the last 3 days. AF is delighted with the tux, despite the cheap looking buttons, and I'm enervated yet secretly satisfied Wales had finally redeemed itself after 15 years. Unlike Queen Victoria, perhaps I no longer need to pull down the blinds on that part of the world, or that period of my life, ever again.