By Patti Nickell
With centuries of history and culture, London is one of the world’s great group travel destinations. But there’s much more to explore outside of the city limits. Within a two-hour drive of the capital, distinctive towns such as Brighton, Rye and Bath give visitors a number of exciting experiences they won’t find in the city proper. Here are some opportunities to augment your group’s London tour with great day or overnight excursions.
A Bath for the Ages
With its mix of Roman and Regency influences, Bath, a UNESCO World Heritage city two hours outside of London, is one of the most visited destinations in England. Novelist Jane Austen may have introduced Bath to readers, but the Romans gave it its raison d’etre.
Legend says the famous baths there were discovered in the ninth century B.C. by Prince Bladud, father of King Lear, who was exiled from court after contracting leprosy. Following a bath in the area’s mineral rich waters, his skin lesions vanished. That story may or may not be true, but it’s a fact that the Romans, who arrived as a conquering army in A.D. 43, raised “taking the waters” to an art form. They used the baths not just as a source of healing water, but also as a sacred place for communicating with the deities of the underworld.
Visitors still flock to Bath to indulge in Britain’s only natural thermal spa, whose water contains 43 different minerals and maintains a temperature of 120 degrees Fahrenheit. The Minerva Bath is the largest of the pools, but the Thermae Bath Spa, with its rooftop pool, is the most popular.
After the Romans departed in A.D. 410, it took another 1,300 years for Bath to again become fashionable. During the Regency period, aristocrats and hangers-on alike followed the peripatetic Prince Regent there to indulge in all manner of fun and frolic.
The neoclassical Pump Room, just across from the Baths and completed in 1799, quickly became the social heart of the city. Today, the elegant dining room is an atmospheric spot for afternoon tea.
Across from the Pump Room is magnificent Bath Abbey. Founded in the seventh century as a Benedictine monastery, the building is now considered a classic example of the Perpendicular Gothic style of architecture.
If the Romans were responsible for the namesake baths, the Regency Period gave rise to Bath’s other iconic site: the Royal Crescent. This semicircular street of 30 elegant terraced houses is considered one of the best remaining examples of Georgian architecture in Britain. The five-star Royal Crescent Hotel is located at No. 16.
Another legacy of the Regency era is Pulteney Bridge, which spans the River Avon. The stretch of river near the bridge is one of the most scenic, with a terraced weir and bankside gardens bursting with blooms in every season.
Even if you’ve never read “Sense and Sensibility” and couldn’t name the five Bennett sisters in “Pride and Prejudice” if your life depended on it, make your way to the Jane Austen Centre for a retrospective of the novelist’s life. Afterward, refresh yourself with a cup of tea at the Regency Tea Room.
Another good spot for a tea break is Sally Lunn’s Tearoom and Restaurant, located in the oldest house in Bath. It’s named for a young French Huguenot refugee who settled there more than 350 years ago, bringing with her the recipe for her namesake bread. It’s a rare visitor who leaves there without trying it, and it’s a rare visitor who fails to be enchanted by the majesty of Bath.