A day after enjoying the Walking Tour of Jane Austen’s Bath, we continued our Jane Austen experience with a stroll through upper Bath to see additional sites associated with her life, books, and the movies. Our exploration of Georgian-era Bath was supposed to carry through to afternoon tea, but this plan changed with the unexpected discovery of a 1940s inspired tea room, which happily became a favorite tea destination!
Our stroll through Bath began on Gay Street, home to the Austen family in 1805, the Crofts in Persuasion, and the Jane Austen Centre today. Gay Street was designed by one of Bath’s most famous Georgian architects, John Wood the Elder, and leads to his masterpiece, The Circus.
Although John Wood died in 1754, long before the 1769 completion of The Circus, these three residential buildings set in a circle, their design, and the details of the facade exemplify the classical Greek and Roman influences on John Wood’s style.
Jane Austen did not refer to The Circus in her novels, but since the three streets that break the circle are either mentioned or lead to buildings that appear in the novels, one can imagine her characters passing through here, although the plane trees were not planted until after Austen’s time in Bath.
Brock Street leads from The Circus to the Royal Crescent, which was designed by John Wood’s son, John Wood the Younger. Completed in 1774, the Royal Crescent today provides Bath with one of its iconic images. In Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen described, as only she could, the social significance of walking along the Crescent:
As soon as divine service was over, the Thorpes and Allens eagerly joined each other; and after staying long enough in the Pump-room to discover that the crowd was insupportable, and that there was not a genteel face to be seen, which everybody discovers every Sunday throughout the season, they hastened away to the Crescent, to breathe the fresh air of better company. (Chapter 5)
At the foot of the Royal Crescent’s expansive front lawn is the Gravel Walk featured in Persuasion. The path winds behind a section of The Circus, where a small sign and door can be seen on the wall. This is the entrance to the Georgian Garden (free admission). In the 1980s, an excavation of a Victorian garden revealed the layout of a Georgian garden, which was then recreated. (Click here to read more about the garden).
Returning to The Circus via Gay Street, we went down the final side street, Bennett Street, which leads to the Assembly Rooms, also designed by John Wood the Younger. Opening in 1771 as a center for social life, the Assembly Rooms were previously known as the Upper Rooms (the Lower Rooms in the center of Bath no longer exist). The Assembly Rooms were damaged by the 1942 bombing of Bath, and the current building is a restoration.
The building’s chandeliers survived after being placed in storage prior to the bombing and now dominate the rooms. Not that we saw them all. The Octagon Room, where the Elliots awaited the arrival of Lady Dalrymple before her concert, was open. But on the day of our visit, the Ballroom could be viewed only from the doorway because a catwalk was being assembled, and sadly the Tea Room, which also served as the Concert Room, was closed for a private event.
After leaving the Assembly Rooms, we considered returning to the center of Bath for lunch at the Pump Room, a fitting end to this Jane Austen-themed stroll through Bath. As we walked beside the Assembly Rooms, Dorene stopped.
“Look at this,” she said.
This is what she saw:
She had discovered Bea’s Vintage Tea Rooms, and we went no further. The first to arrive for lunch, we were seated at one of the tables by the window overlooking the Assembly Rooms.
Opening in 2012, Bea’s Vintage Tea Rooms invokes the era of the 1940s. Bright and clean, Bea’s makes a memorable first impression with its friendly staff and amazing cake display. In addition to several tea options, Bea’s offers a varied menu with both lighter and heartier options (click here for the menu). Dorene obviously ordered Afternoon Tea. Because a large breakfast had left me less hungry than usual, I settled for a pot of tea and a simple toasted sandwich (also known as a toastie or, in the US, a grilled cheese sandwich with tomato).
- Tea – Dorene selected Bohea lapsang: “gently smoky and warm, with supple liquorice finish.” It was excellent.
- Sandwiches – There were 6 sandwiches served on brown and white bread: salmon, egg salad, and cucumber. All were very good.
- Scone – The scone was medium-sized, dense, and served with strawberry jam and clotted cream. Dorene detected a shortbread-type flavor, which she very much enjoyed.
- Cake – In addition to the scone, afternoon tea included a slice of cake. Dorene’s nut cake was a good size, not too heavy, and delicious. It came close to rivaling the scone as her favorite part of the meal.
- Decor – From fresh flowers and plants, to porcelain figures and wall mirrors, and mismatched furniture and teaware, everything works together to invoke the 1940s. Our waitress told us about a customer who, after observing that a table looked just like one that her grandmother once owned, then insisted that one of the wall mirrors actually was her grandmother’s old mirror.
- Service – Friendly and attentive. The 1940s theme did not extend to the staff’s outfits, as they looked natural in modern, everyday black clothing. The vintage feel came from their aprons and floral headbands.
- Atmosphere – For a short time we had the place to ourselves, listening to 1940s music and taking in the charm and authenticity of the space. As more customers arrived, both regulars on their lunch break and tourists, the lively and welcoming atmosphere grew, though one customer’s ringing cell phone felt out of place here.
- Overall rating
Hoping that I might enjoy the flavor, Dorene suggested that I try an herbal tea called Rooibus. I did enjoy it, but then committed a faux pas by suggesting that there was still little difference from one tea to the next. Not true, as I soon learned. In this case Rooibus comes from an African bush, not the tea plant typically used for tea, which, therefore, makes it unlike other teas.
So my tea was not tea, and my sandwich, though delicious, was not typical accompaniment for tea. Yet the spirit of Bea’s Vintage Tea Rooms proved that the tea experience still held a place for me and my naivete. Even the mismatched tea cups, saucers, and tea pots suggested the varied, universal, and multigenerational appeal of tea. And with the Assembly Rooms standing next door as a reminder of the devastation of the 1940s, Bea’s Vintage Tea Rooms also felt like a lovely tribute to society’s perseverance during this time.
Back to the Assembly Rooms, the building is also home to the Fashion Museum in the lower level. When we visited in 2013, the museum was celebrating its 50th anniversary with a 50 Fabulous Frocks exhibition.
An upcoming exhibit that begins on July 19, 2014, looks fascinating: The Great War in Costume. The exhibit will focus on changes in women’s lives and fashion during World War I. Click here for details.
The Fashion Museum and Roman Baths offer a joint ticket at a discounted price (valid for 7 days). As much as we enjoyed Georgian Bath and our Jane Austen experiences, seeing the 2000-year-old ruins and the recreated Roman Baths proved a highlight of the trip.