April

Historic Bath

Historic Bath

Historic Bath

Alternate timeline: Exploring Bath’s lesser-known historical sites

When you think of historic Bath, you likely picture well-known sights like the stunning Royal Crescent, the Roman Baths that give the city its name, and buildings made of golden limestone. 

Its renowned sites and beautiful architecture make Bath the perfect place for history buffs (it is a UNESCO World Heritage site, after all!), but if you’re willing to venture off the beaten path, there’s a wealth of history to explore in some of the lesser-known attractions in and around Bath. In anticipation of World Heritage Day, we asked our History staff to share their favourites. Here are their top ten: 

Cleveland Pools 

This soon-to-be-reopened lido is the UK's oldest public outdoor swimming pool and Bath's newest museum. The pool started out in the early 1800s as a simple diversion in the river, and was a popular local attraction and meeting place, remaining in use for swimming until the 1970s. 

Dr Alison Hems, Head of the School of Writing, Publishing and the Humanities says: “The presence of water is critical in understanding how Bath works, and it's great that this reminder has been so beautifully restored to us, as a place for play and wellbeing.”

The Royal Mineral Hospital

Situated in Old Bond street in the city centre, the Royal Mineral Water Hospital was founded as a hospital for the poor, one of the first of its kind, and was in operation for 277 years. Known for its use of the Bath spa waters as the basis of all its treatments, the John Wood-designed building is still referred to affectionately as ‘The Min’ by Bath residents. 

In 2019 all NHS services were transferred from The Min to the Royal United Hospital in Bath and the building was sold to private owners to use as a luxury hotel. However, you can still pay a digital visit to The Min and find out more about the history of medicine in Bath on the Bath Medical Museum website. 

“The presence of water is critical in understanding how Bath works, and it's great that this reminder has been so beautifully restored to us.”

The remaining sections of Bath's mediaeval city walls 

Following the removal of most of the walls during the eighteenth century, only three sections of the city walls remain. The best-known section is on the north side of Upper Borough Walls Street. The other two sections are located behind Marks & Spencer, where you can see the full scale of the fortifications, and the East gate which is on Boat Stall Lane, near the Bath Market on Grand Parade. 

Dr Kevin Grieves, Teaching Fellow in History says: “What I like about the walls is that they’re off the beaten track; you have to actually seek out at least two of them. They also offer a glimpse of the Bath that was swept away during the Georgian building boom."

Prior Park 

Just to the south of Bath, Prior Park is an 18th century landscape garden created by Ralph Allen. Alexander Pope and Capability Brown were also involved in the design and the gardens are known for the Palladian Bridge. 

Dr Sarah Morton, Director of Postgraduate Programmes, explains: “The National Trust has recently carried out a major restoration project to strengthen the historic dams, reinstate paths and restore lost features, making the site an interesting case study in heritage management.”

Beckford's Tower 

Completed in 1827 and originally known as Lansdown Tower, this 120-foot neoclassical tower was constructed as a study retreat and to house William Beckford’s collection of art, objects and rare books. 

Born to great wealth, William Beckford was a complex and fascinating character. Having been one of the most celebrated members of 18th century society, Beckford had to leave England in 1785 after the exposure of his relationship with William Courtenay.

According to Sarah: “For the rest of his life he would be a social outcast, but he was able to use his immense wealth, built from the profits of the transatlantic slave trade, to create Fonthill Abbey and the Tower.”

“What I like about Bath's mediaeval walls is that they’re off the beaten track; you have to actually seek them out.”

Saltford Brass Mill 

Bath's industrial heritage is often overlooked, but Saltford Brass Mill, just five miles outside of Bath and easily accessible via the Bath-Bristol cycle route, is well worth a visit. The mill retains its furnace, cone-shaped chimney and working water wheel and is the best remaining example of a group of 18th century mills that made copper and brass goods in the Avon Valley. A Scheduled Ancient Monument, the mill is cared for by volunteers, so make sure you check the website for opening times. 

Bath Union Workhouse and Burial Ground

Showcasing a side of Bath that’s often obscured by the grand Georgian buildings, Bath Union Workhouse (which later became St Martin’s Hospital) was established as a result of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act and opened in 1838. Over the road from the Workhouse and Chapel (which contains a memorial to American rock and roll singer, Eddie Cochran, who died at the hospital in 1960 following a car accident in Chippenham) is the Workhouse Burial Ground. 

“It's a lovely green space that is well worth a visit, but most people walking through the field are unaware that over 3,000 people who died at the workhouse between 1858 and 1899 were buried there in unmarked graves,” Sarah explains. 

There is now a plaque commemorating those buried there, and an information board provides more historic context for the site and life in the workhouse, but a campaign to raise funds for a permanent memorial continues. 

Little Solsbury Hill

We often associate Bath with the Romans, but Bath was also an important Iron Age settlement and Little Solsbury is the site of an Iron Age hillfort. It's a steep walk, but one that’s rewarded with great panoramic views across the city. (Pop in your headphones and listen to some Peter Gabriel for the full effect.)

"Most people walking through the field are unaware that over 3,000 people were buried there in unmarked graves.”

Dyrham Park 

This beautiful house on the outskirts of Bath boasts an extraordinary landscape and a story of wealth, corruption, and the astonishing ability of one man to organise a nation – and not in a good way. Between 1694 and 1717, Dyrham was home to William Blathwayt, a diplomat and civil servant, whose work laid many of the foundations for the oversight of an emerging British empire.

Alison chose this site because: “A visit to Dyrham Park prompts us to ask questions about then and now, and how the past is always present, closer to the surface than we think.”

Wiltshire Museum, Devizes 

A short distance from Bath, the Wiltshire Museum is home to one of the most significant collections of early archaeology, and contains some extraordinary objects. 

“There’s workmanship in gold that defies belief (how did they make that?), and objects that attest to the movement of people across the landscape and the connections we can make across centuries,” Alison says. 

The building is also its own mini adventure, with lots of changes of level and staircases which don't end where you think they will, meaning you’ll always encounter something unexpected.

Want to continue your journey into Bath? Check out our students’ posts on where to eat in Bath and some of the best places to visit as a student. And if History’s your thing, why not explore our undergraduate courses in History and History and Heritage, or our MA in Heritage Management?

Disclaimer: The Bath Spa blog is a platform for individual voices and views from the University's community. Any views or opinions represented in individual posts are personal, belonging solely to the author of that post, and do not represent the views of other Bath Spa staff, or Bath Spa University as an institution.

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