Saturday 2 December 2017

Relaxing at the Spa

The Royal Hotel, Bath, seen at night from the rail station
  1. I needed a rest: it had been a busy couple of months and I was very tired
  2. Last time we came to Bath the Christmas Market was being set up and we thought it looked like it might be worth seeing
  3. We had a loyalty card for the Royal Hotel because we thought last year that we might come to Bath fairly often
  4. There was a certain amount of family history research that required a visit to the Bath record office
  5. We needed something exciting to take our minds off the exciting trip to eastern Europe that we had already booked for 2018
So I booked a stay at the Royal Hotel, Bath; three nights of their Spa Break deal which not only included the room and breakfast at the hotel and tickets for Thermae Bath Spa, but also a Champagne cream tea at the hotel. I then booked train tickets with Cross Country Trains which would give us four days in Bath (three nights) without exhausting us travelling. As usual I booked First Class on the trunk haul between Birmingham and Bristol, with Standard Class from Stamford to Birmingham and for the short hop between Bristol and Bath. Tickets bought online, collected from the machine at Stamford station and carefully stored with our hotel booking confirmation, all I had to do was find a way of living with the anticipation!

Soon enough we were on our way to Birmingham on the 09:05 Cross Country train on a Tuesday morning, bright and sunny although cold - weather which lasted throughout our little trip. I had brought along a small bottle of sparkling rosé to get the trip off to a good start, with two plastic wine flutes rescued from an al fresco reception some time and packed with a small ice-pack. At New Street we simply looked around the shops at the station for half an hour between trains and caught our booked Cross Country train forward to Bristol. To my delight this turned out to be a HST (diesel high speed train) rather than the newer but less spacious Voyager more common on this route. It was a while before the refreshment trolley came round but when it did we were able to have our coffee and order a night lunch which the hostess brought along in due course, included in the cost of the First Class ticket (which, bizarrely, was less that the cost of the Standard Class tickets of the Stamford-Birmingham leg of the journey!).

Although I had reserved seats on the next reservable departure from Bristol to Bath as "insurance" in case the trains were crowded, there was a South Western Railway train for Waterloo at a nearby platform ready to go and with plenty of spare seats, so we boarded that and were in Bath earlier than I had planned. This was a stopping train but with only double track between Bristol and Bath I knew that nothing would be overtaking it so it would be the next arrival in Bath. The hotel is just across the road but our room was not yet ready (check-in was not yet officially under way but they'd have taken us if the room were ready), so they kept our luggage and we set off around the city centre and our first look at the Christmas Market. Novelty gifts purchased at Bath Abbey gift shop, and the Bath record office located at the Guildhall we were back at the hotel to check in and unpack and then we went to the hotel bar to enjoy our Champagne cream tea: thoroughly recommended.

Later we set off for an evening walk around the streets. For the first half of the week the Christmas Market closed at six o'clock so there was not much to see of that but there were the decorations to enjoy and we booked a table for the following evening at the Acorn Kitchen vegetarian restaurant where we had been once before and had wanted to revisit. We are not actually vegetarian, but always enjoy vegetarian food and this place is exquisite, the sort of restaurant worth dressing-up for.

After our cream tea we did not need an evening meal but bought a take-away fruit salad from Marks and Spencer to share back at our room. A bath and an early night were then all that were needed to complete the first day of rest. It is all too easy to try to cram a lot of activity into these breaks, but a large part of what had brought us here was the need to rest!

The Wednesday morning was bright and sunny as forecast and we enjoyed the usual standard of hotel breakfast in the restaurant dedicated to the memory of IK Brunel who apparently designed the hotel itself as well as being the engineer for the railway line across the road. after breakfast we did some leisurely clothes shopping and visited the legendary Fine Cheese Company where we investigated Swiss cheeses (not easy to obtain in England) for Christmas. (They also have a branch in Belgravia, London, if you want to visit without coming to the West Country.) With four weeks still to go we took away the brochure to order the cheese online later, but it was good to be able to sample them in the shop. Life could get expensive if we lived in Bath and could shop here every week! They also have a coffee shop & restaurant attached and we had our "morning" coffee there surrounded by people eating lunch ...

Lansdown Crescent
Sunset from Landsown

Back to the room with our shopping, and then I went to photograph architecture at Lansdown on the north side of the city while my wife visited the record office to seek details of her ancestors. From Lansdown there are great views (in autumn and winter when the leaves are away) over the city and while I was there I was fortunate to see a wonderful sunset before walking down among the evening peak traffic: if there is a city in the world where the private car is an efficient form of transport, Bath is not that city!

Parsnip & Hazelnet Soup: fantastic!
We dressed for the evening and made our way to the Acorn Kitchen restaurant and enjoyed another wonderful meal well up the the standard set last time, although this time we did not need a third course. On our way there we checked with Thermae Bath Spa when might a good time to visit on the following day - never having been there after dark we thought it might be good to do that this time, but with the Christmas Market on the spa was likely to be busy early evening. As our ticket allows two hours, which is extended if we take time out for a drink or snack in their cafeteria, we would need to be in and changed by 18:30 to get best value from our tickets - when to start queuing in order to achieve that is hard to determine, but we decided to have a look at the queue at about 17:00 and see how it is going.

On Thursday morning we had success in finding ancestral monuments both in old St Mary's churchyard (where we had looked before and failed!) and in Bath Abbey, and we photographed addresses where we had reason to believe family members had lived, and we visited a great café, Boston Tea Party, for which we'd been given a discount voucher by a marketer in the street the day before and where we seemed to be the only people without a baby ... the coffee and cakes were great though. We then made our way back through the maze of the Christmas Market - and finally bought something from one of the stalls - and returned to the hotel to rest and to warm up before our visit to the spa.

For the visit to Thermae Bath Spa we pared our belongings down to the minimum: hotel key, credit card, admission tickets, clothes. Bath robe, towel and flip-flops are provided, so swimwear was all that we needed to take. We had decided to visit in the evening to see the spa after dark, our previous visits having been in mornings, and we knew that the trade-off for this would be that we would have to queue to get in.  It was cold, but we fell into conversation with others in the queue and the hour soon went by, helped by an introductory video in the windows, and the feeling of warmth once we entered the building with about 20 minutes still to go. When the spa is busy, new guests are let in as those already inside leave so that overcrowding is prevented. Admission is by wristband which opens the turnstile, locks the lockers and clocks up the cost of food and drink bought in the cafeteria which we then pay for on the way out (hence taking the credit card!). Once the wristband is handed in at the end of a session, another person can be let in. It is as perfect a system as I can imagine for ensuring the everyone gets a changing cubicle, a locker and space in the pools.

New this year is the "Wellness Suite" which replaces the former four steam rooms. It includes two new steam rooms, one with a Roman theme and one with a Georgian theme, as well as an ice room (which we did not use!), a sauna and a dark room with twinkling "stars", a video art installation on a cosmic creation theme and half-a-dozen loungers on which to relax. The last of these did nothing for me, but the steam rooms were very good and my skin felt better for days afterwards. We did venture into the roof-top pool once, essential, really, when visiting after dark. The water is so hot (this being the UK's only hot-water spa), but we knew that the air temperature was not much above zero so it was quite an act of will to leave the pool - straight down to the steam room to warm up!

We had a light supper at the Springs restaurant within the spa - not cheap but very good - and a final visit to the steam rooms and the Minerva Pool; we did not feel the need to visit the roof-top pool again as the air temperature was forecast to have dropped another couple of degrees by then! And so it was time to leave and wend our way back to the Royal Hotel where we fell for the advertised Christmas cocktail menu ...

On our final morning we checked out and left our luggage at the hotel while we had a final walk around Bath city centre, visiting a few interesting shops and posting our international Christmas cards, then we retrieved the cases and went to the station neatly in time to catch the 13:58 train to Bristol, arriving on the platform just as the train approached. A slight setback then occurred as I was stunned by a blow to the head while walking towards the train ... my head had struck a metal box (apparently housing train starting push-buttons) projecting from a roof stanchion. I picked myself up and made my way to the train, surrounded by much fuss and care from other passengers and platform staff. I ensured that the staff were aware of what had happened and then settled onto the train. On arrival at Temple Meads I reported the matter because by then it was clear that some minor bleeding had occurred, and after first aid and very kind care and attention from GWR staff I went on my way. No concussion, no lasting damage, but that box does need to be removed or the space under it rendered impassable so that no-one else suffers a similar accident: if I'd been shorter I'd have walked under it, taller and I'd have seen it, but at my height the top of my head hit it.

And so we walked into Bristol city centre which is good in parts! We chose a less scenic route in and a more scenic one back - not really through choice but because we did not know the best way. Like many places, there has been a lot of redevelopment along waterfronts lately and especially near the station it is looking very promising with some lovely urban walks to be had - even when wheeling suitcases, and even after dark. We had a very pleasant light meal at the House of Fraser store's Zest Café. We saw in Bristol some very similar Christmas Market stalls to the ones we had seen in Bath, though rather fewer of them. Someone is making a fortune out of supplying the timber chalets for these events!

We had a very pleasant pint of Tribute in the station bar (Bonaparte's) before boarding the 18:30 to Birmingham, again a HST (possibly the same one we'd come on: it creaked just the same). A very hospitable First Class host immediately offered us hot drinks and cake which were very welcome. At Birmingham we bought a snack supper at a kiosk and soon found our way to the platform for our connection to Stamford where the train was already waiting and although for some reason the reservation labels had not been applied, we found two seats together quite easily and had a smooth and easy ride home. There is something special about travelling in the dark - I would not want to do it all the time but it is an interesting experience occasionally.

It was a really good few days rest with the usual great feeling after a visit to the hot spa. Straight back into the thick of Advent and Christmas preparations ...