Bath, Jane Austen, and the Regency Tea Room

A short visit to Bath, England creates lasting memories of both the uniformity of the cream-colored buildings and the diversity of the city’s historical contributions, including the nearly 2,000-year-old Roman Baths, Bath Abbey, Georgian-era architecture, and Bath’s culture. Yet for many of us, Bath’s most compelling legacy is the 5-year reluctant residence of Jane Austen. And considering the role of tea rituals in each of her novels, Bath offered a fitting venue for combining this beloved author with our pursuit of tea and scones.

4 Sydney Place sign

By using Bath as a setting in Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, Jane Austen (1775-1817) forever linked herself with the city. At the same time that these novels bring Bath to life for readers, they also suggest some unfavorable opinions of the city. Her letters provide additional insight into these opinions, while the other four novels, which all include at least one mention of Bath, further hint at Jane Austen’s feelings through the characters associated with the references to Bath (Wickham, Willoughby, the Eltons).

Without hiding from these feelings, Bath has embraced Jane Austen and built a tourism industry around her. The Jane Austen Centre at 40 Gay Street preserves Jane Austen’s presence in Bath through guided walking tours, a permanent exhibition, gift shop, tea room, and the annual Jane Austen Festival (the next festival is September 12-21, 2014).

Jane Austen Centre - Bath. Photo by Dorene

We began our Austen-related sightseeing with the Walking Tour of Jane Austen’s Bath. The tour starts in the Abbey Churchyard at 11:00 a.m. on Saturdays, Sundays, and bank holidays. (The website lists the cost as £12, although I don’t remember it being that expensive in 2013.)

Just prior to the start of our tour, a cold and relentless rain began. With one partially broken umbrella to cover us both, this was not how we had envisioned our Jane Austen journey. Fortunately our tour guide was delightful and accommodating, trying to find covered spots for us to stand wherever possible while keeping us entertained by reading scenes from the books, providing details about Bath society during Jane Austen’s time, and sharing stories about the Austen family, including the shoplifting scandal involving Jane Austen’s aunt, Jane Leigh-Perrot. (Visit the Jane Austen Centre’s website for an article about the scandal.)

Our tour guide had a special fondness for Northanger Abbey, and shortly after beginning the tour, he brought us to the Pump Room, now a restaurant, and explained its significance for Catherine Morland (visit Jane Austen’s World to learn more).

The rest of the tour was outside. Even though better weather would have been welcome, the tour guide was a fine companion and effective in sharing his perspective on the era and recreating scenes from the books. Perhaps because of the rain, the tour extended slightly past the scheduled 90 minutes before ending at the Jane Austen Centre, which is located a few doors down from what is now a dental office at 25 Gay Street, where the Austens lived for about 6 months following the death of Jane’s father.

Inside the Jane Austen Centre, there are three places to visit. On the ground floor is a delightful gift shop. The main section of the Jane Austen Centre is the permanent exhibition. Before entering the exhibition, a costumed staff member gives a 10-minute talk about Jane Austen, and while some of the information was shared during the walking tour, one can never hear enough about Jane Austen. While the exhibition is not large, the displays include many interesting objects and details relating to Jane Austen, the books, her family life, and the era, society, and culture that would have influenced her. (Exhibition fee is £8. We received a 10% discount because we had been on the walk.)

Finally, on the second floor (Americans would call it the third floor) there is the Regency Tea Room. Not that we saved it for the end. After almost 2 hours of walking in the cold rain, we deferred our visit to the gift shop and exhibition in favor of the tea room.

The Regency Tea Room offers lunch items and other treats, but we were there for afternoon tea (click here for the menu). Dorene selected the traditional Ladies Afternoon Tea (tea, finger sandwiches, and a scone). My selection was Tea with the Austens. Along with a better name, Tea with the Austens included a piece of cake instead of a scone. I would have enjoyed a scone, but the cakes were on display behind Dorene’s seat, and the chocolate cake looked irresistible.

Dorene’s Assessment

Afternoon Tea at the Regency Tea Rooms. Photo by Dorene
Afternoon Tea at the Regency Tea Room. Photo by Dorene
  • Tea – There was a good selection of tea, and we both chose the Jane Austen Blend, “a light blend of China black teas popular in Regency times.”
  • Sandwiches – They were nicely prepared and included cucumber, ham with mustard, smoked salmon, and cheddar with chutney. The smoked salmon and cheddar with chutney were especially good.
  • Scone – The scone was very good, of substantial size, with no sweetness (a good thing), and served with ample clotted cream and jam. Notice the jam and cream are missing from the picture above. Dorene had to request them.
  • Decor – There were two rooms with hardwood floors and red walls above white paneling. The larger room had windows, a fireplace, and a portrait of Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy. The smaller room by the entrance had just a few tables, the cake display, and the cash register. This is the room we were in.
  • Service – The staff was pleasant and friendly but also seemed frazzled. In addition to forgetting the cream and jam, our waitress spilled my tea while pouring it.
  • Atmosphere – Because we were near the cash register and the entrance, the activity of the staff was visible to us. There was a mildly heated discussion between two of the waitresses, which created tension in the room. The weather could have affected their moods, but we were distracted, and the tea room’s charm was diminished for us.
  • Overall Rating

    Good place to visit
    Good place to visit

Diane’s Thoughts

After years and years of reading and re-reading Jane Austen, I had hoped that the Regency Tea Room would transport me to another era. This didn’t happen. Perhaps with lovely weather and a seat in the room dominated by Mr. Darcy’s gaze, the experience may have been different. At least the tea, sandwiches, and especially the chocolate cake were wonderful.

The ultimate destination for a Jane Austen pilgrimage is the village of Chawton in Hampshire County where Jane Austen lived from 1809-1817. Since our visit to England would lead us in the opposite direction, Bath needed to suffice, and while the experience could have been better, overall this Jane Austen journey did suffice.

Side Hop

The walking tour did not travel to all of the Jane Austen sites, so we visited several places on our own, including another Austen residence and the site of her father’s tombstone.

The Austens lived in a few different buildings in Bath, with their longest residence at 4 Sydney Place near what is now the Holburne Museum. The building is privately owned and can be viewed only from the outside.

During our walking tour we learned that Jane Austen’s father was buried in St. Swithin’s Church, which is just north of the tourist section of Bath, but still within walking distance, with a slight uphill climb. The following day while in the area of the Assembly Rooms (more on those in a subsequent post), we decided on a whim to visit St. Swithin’s.

We thought the tour guide had said that George Austen was buried inside the church, so when we found the church locked, our side trip had seemingly ended. Then a church member arrived a few moments later and offered assistance. She did not know where George Austen was buried, but she let us enter the church to look around. Scanning the plaques on the walls with no success, we had little hope of finding anything.

St. Swithin's Church. Photo by Dorene
St. Swithin’s Church. Photo by Dorene

As consolation, the woman showed us a replica of the 1764 marriage record of George and Cassandra Austen. The church had been torn down and rebuilt several years after their marriage in order to accommodate Bath’s growing population, but church records were retained. The church was also known as Walcot Church or the parish of Walcot, which used to be a hamlet just outside of Bath and is now part of the city. George Austen once served as curate of Walcot.

Austens' Marriage Record

Joined by a second church member, who also did not know where to direct us, the first woman ended up calling someone who solved the mystery. The tombstone was outside in the small yard on the side of the church. We had arrived from the opposite side and had not seen the yard.

George Austen's tombstone. Photo by Dorene
George Austen’s tombstone. Photo by Dorene
George Austen's Memorial Plaque. Photo by Dorene
George Austen’s Memorial Plaque. Photo by Dorene

Originally George Austen’s tombstone was in the crypt, but it was moved outside in 1968, and the memorial plaque was added in 2000.

There is a more proper way to visit St. Swithin’s. The inside of the church is open to the public during the summer months on Wednesdays from 11:00-3:00. There’s also a crypt café open Wednesday through Sunday (visit the website for more details and some history about the church). As two clueless tourists, we were most fortunate to encounter such kindness from a stranger and bring an unexpected yet fitting end to our Jane Austen journey.

Advertisements

Sightseeing in Bath and Cream Tea at The Bath Bun

During our visit to England in 2011, Dorene and I experienced a week and a half of rain-free days. Not so in 2013. While the rain was not constant on our first day in Bath, showers would be followed by sunshine before another cluster of clouds would blow in with more rain. And there was wind. At least the weather gave us a perfect excuse to visit two of Bath’s tea rooms in one day — not that an excuse would ever be needed!

While we spent some time indoors (visiting Bath Abbey and the shops in Guildhall, where we each bought a much needed scarf), most of our sightseeing on this adventurous weather day was outdoors. We walked through the Parade Gardens during one of the sunny breaks. Non-residents must pay a small entrance fee, which is unfortunate but worth it. With beautiful plants and flowers, interesting statues and monuments, lovely views, and a few surprises (an old pet cemetery!), the Parade Gardens offer a wonderful outdoor experience.

Bath also has City Sightseeing hop on/off buses with two routes from April to October. The City Tour passes by or near most of the tourist attractions. Since Bath is walkable, the bus is not necessary for anyone comfortable with walking the slightly hilly streets. Instead, we used the City Tour as a convenient introduction to Bath. The other bus tour, the Skyline Tour, travels out to the surrounding hills. The lovely views of the hills and the city offer a wonderful sense of Bath’s architectural beauty as well as its place in the bucolic Cotswolds. While the exposed, slightly wet top deck of the bus gave us the best vantage point, the wind up in the hills could be fierce.

The Skyline Tour ended a few blocks behind the Roman Baths. There we found St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church on a quiet side street, South Parade. The church celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2013, and while it does not have the historical significance of Bath Abbey, the beautiful and quiet interior has several highlights, including the altar, stained glass windows, and memorials for both World Wars. Like many Bath buildings, it suffered damage during the bombings in World War II and was subsequently restored. The church has Bath’s tallest spire, and later in the day, the crazy weather rewarded us with a rainbow over the spire.

Rainbow over St John's spire

After leaving St. John’s, Dorene decided that it was a good time for tea. Earlier in the day we had enjoyed afternoon tea at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, so now we were in search of cream tea. Down a side street near the Roman Baths we arrived at Abbey Green, which has a small green with a very large plane tree that was planted more than 200 years ago. In one of the buildings surrounding the green we found The Bath Bun. While we did not order a bath bun, which is a type of sweet roll, The Bath Bun’s website includes a bit of history about the treat.

Dorene’s Assessment

Photo by Dorene
Cream Tea at The Bath Bun. Photo by Dorene.
  • Tea – There was a good selection of tea. Dorene ordered Lapsang Souchong, and it was served with additional hot water to add to the teapot, which Dorene always appreciates in case she wants more tea.
  • Scones – There was a choice of fruited and plain, and Dorene chose the plain. The large scone was not too sweet and was served with Wilkin & Sons Ltd strawberry jam and clotted cream topped with a tiny strawberry. The scone was excellent, and I love how it looks in the picture above!
  • Service – The servers were pleasant and dressed in black and white maids outfits. Service was quick.
  • Atmosphere – There were two floors, and we were seated at one of the few tables on the ground floor. With the takeout counter, cash register, and door nearby, there was plenty of activity, but it was not too distracting.
  • Decor – Pretty place settings, flowery table cloths, and wooden chairs all invoked a pleasing sense of the English countryside.
  • Overall rating

    Wonderful Experience
    Wonderful Experience

Diane’s Thoughts

While I would not have minded eating scones twice in one day, a list of tea cakes on the wall caught my attention as soon as I entered. Chocolate sponge cake was one of the options, and while not my preferred cake style, I could not resist. The lightness of the cake was actually very enjoyable, as was the chocolate flavor.

Our table on the ground floor offered the chance for some people watching, an interesting activity, especially when traveling. Among the unexpected sights for me: five men in their twenties and thirties who stopped in for tea. Dressed in jeans and sweatshirts or t-shirts, the men had a ruggedness about them, and two were so undaunted by the weather that they were wearing short sleeves, which revealed tattoos covering their arms. I loved these guys! They illustrated that despite its aristocratic origins, afternoon tea has a universal appeal. As I continue with my journey into the world of tea, I enjoy the traditions, but I also appreciate that the tea-drinking culture is about far more than expensive tastes, formal rules, and dress codes. There’s also room for tattooed men and novices like me.

Side Hop

We would return to Abbey Green a couple of times, including once as part of an evening comedy walk called Bizarre Bath. A combination magic and comedy show that moves at a leisurely pace around the center of Bath, it’s unlike anything I had attended before. With a suspension of disbelief and a willingness to laugh at silliness, the 90-minute show (there are no shows during the winter) is worth £8.

More traditional and expensive entertainment is at the Theatre Royal, where we went to see the Noël Coward play Relative Values.

Photo by Dorene

Our seats were on the right side of the royal circle (equivalent to mezzanine level), with a good view of the stage. Originally built in 1805, the building was destroyed by fire in 1862, rebuilt in a year, and then renovated in the 1980s.

Bizarre Bath and Noël Coward on consecutive nights: an unusual but entertaining example of what Bath has to offer.

Visiting Bath and the Mad Hatters Tea Party

When Dorene and I stayed in London in 2011, we ventured outside the city for a day on a bus tour to Bath, Stonehenge, and Salisbury Cathedral. This seemed like the perfect way to visit some of England’s most famous sites, but our plan had one problem. We didn’t realize that the schedule for Bath would allow time for only a tour of the Roman Baths, a brief glance at some of the buildings, and lunch. This was not a satisfying experience of Bath. Disappointed by all that we missed, we decided in 2013 to enjoy Bath properly over three days.

View of Bath from the Parade Gardens. Photo by Dorene

Bath is about 100 miles west of London, and we traveled by train from Paddington Station, a trip that lasted just under 1.5 hours and included many scenic views of the countryside. Located at the Southern end of the Cotswolds, Bath was selected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987 for its cultural significance. (To read about our earlier visit to the Cotswolds, click here.) Like the rest of the Cotswolds, the buildings were constructed from locally mined stone, in this case a type of limestone known as Bath stone. As a dense city on the slope of a hill, the uniformity of the cream-colored buildings creates a memorable impression.

View of Bath from North Parade Bridge. Photo by Dorene
View of Bath from North Parade Bridge. Photo by Dorene

Bath has almost everything that Dorene and I hope to experience when we travel:

  • Historical sites – Including the nearly 2,000-year-old Roman Baths, Georgian-era buildings (the Circus and Royal Crescent), the reconstructed Assembly Rooms (destroyed during World War II), and more.
  • Religious buildings – Bath Abbey, St. John the Evangelist Church, and a few other interesting churches.
  • Literary significance – Jane Austen! (Check back in December for much more about our Jane experiences in Bath.)
  • Museums – Along with the Holburne Museum and the Victoria Art Gallery, we also visited the Fashion Museum and a unique industrial place called the Museum of Bath at Work.
  • Photo opportunities and general sightseeing – Bath is enjoyably walkable, and bus tours within and outside the city provide additional vantage points for seeing the sights.
  • Evening entertainment – We saw a play at the Theater Royal (Noel Coward’s Relative Values) and also experienced something completely different, the Bizarre Bath comedy walk (I’ll try to describe this in a future post).
  • Shopping – Bath has typical chain stores, souvenir shops, and a mall, and also plenty of independent and local businesses, including those in Guildhall Market, the Corridor, and on Pulteney Bridge.
  • Tea and scones (of course) – On our final day in the city, we discovered what would turn out to be our favorite tea room of all the ones we visited in England (I’ll share this experience in December).

During our brief visit to Bath two years earlier, we had rushed through afternoon tea at a little restaurant with an Alice in Wonderland theme. We decided to revisit the place and enjoy it at a relaxed pace. Remembering little about it, we knew that it was somewhere behind Bath Abbey.

In a compact city with buildings made from the same colored stone, Bath Abbey stands out as a dominating structure that serves as a beacon from various vantage points. Once the site of a monastery dating to the 8th century, a Norman cathedral was built there in the 11th and 12th centuries. After the Bishop’s seat moved from Bath to Wells in the 13th century, the building slowly began to decay. The current building, a parish church rather than a cathedral, was started in 1499. This was not good timing. With religious upheaval soon arriving, the building again fell into ruin. After being salvaged in the early 17th century, significant restorations occurred in the 19th century and late 20th century. For its history, stained glass windows, interior and ceiling, monuments, memorials, wall tablets, and even contemporary artwork, Bath Abbey provides a worthy opportunity for a leisurely stroll.

Dorene at Bath Abbey
Dorene outside Bath Abbey

Behind Bath Abbey (the East End), there is a small circular park called the Orange Grove. Could there really be an orange grove in England? A nearby sign cleared up this question for me. It was named for the Prince of Orange to commemorate his visit to Bath in 1734.

In the building seen in the photo on the left, we found the Mad Hatters Tea Party.

Outside sign and seating area. Photo by Dorene
Outside sign and seating. Photo by Dorene

There are only four tables inside, two on each side of the door, and a few more outside. Given that it was a cool day with off and on rain showers, sitting outside was not an option. There was one available table inside, so we sat down to order Afternoon Tea for Two.

Dorene’s Assessment

Afternoon tea at the Mad Hatters Tea Party. Photo by Dorene
Afternoon Tea for Two at the Mad Hatters Tea Party. Photo by Dorene
  • Tea – Standard, enjoyable tea fare.
  • Sandwiches – Afternoon tea usually includes a few varieties of finger sandwiches, but at the Mad Hatters Tea Party, we each had to chose one sandwich. There were multiple options listed above the counter, which caused us a bit of confusion as we tried to decide which ones to order, finally selecting one with chicken and one with brie. The sandwiches were served on soft, thick white or brown bread, and the quality of both sandwiches was excellent. However, as an afternoon tea traditionalist, Dorene would have preferred finger sandwiches. With scones still to eat, we did not finish the sandwiches.
  • Scones – Medium-sized with plenty of cream and jam. They were not too sweet, which is how Dorene prefers scones.
  • Service – Quick and efficient.
  • Atmosphere – The small space is slightly uncomfortable, but there is an enjoyable brightness and color throughout the room.
  • Decor – The many decorations relate to Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland books or to the spirit of the books, including backwards clocks, a trick teapot, and reproductions of John Tenniel’s illustrations from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (there are just a few references to the 1951 Disney film). The plates and teapots coordinate nicely with the theme. Visit the Mad Hatters Tea Party website for photos of the decorations inside.
  • Overall Rating

    Good place to visit
    Good place to visit

Diane’s Thoughts

As part of my ongoing initiation into the world of afternoon tea, I discovered what now seems obvious: I should not expect traditional afternoon tea at a place that pays homage to the unconventional world of Wonderland, the Mad Tea Party, and the Hatter.

The Hatter

Many tea rooms in England and the U.S. are named “The Mad Hatters (or Hatter’s) Tea Party.” Technically the term “Mad Hatter” never appears in the Alice books, although the Cheshire Cat does describe the Hatter as mad. And the Mad Tea Party occurs in front of the March Hare’s house, not the Hatter’s.

A Mad Tea Party

No matter. It’s the Mad Hatter who has survived in popular culture, and his tea party continues to inspire and delight. While there may be more traditional and comfortable places for afternoon tea, the Mad Hatters Tea Party in Bath is worth visiting for its tribute to Lewis Carroll’s books.

Even the small space may bring to mind Alice’s tendency to find herself not quite the right size.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland illustrations from www.alice-in-wonderland.net.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland illustrations from www.alice-in-wonderland.net.

Side Hop

Not far from the Mad Hatters Tea Party and Orange Grove is Grand Parade, which offers views of the River Avon. Since the original meaning of the word “avon” is river, several unconnected rivers in England ended up with the same redundant name.

Pulteney Bridge over the River Avon. Photo by Dorene
Pulteney Bridge over the River Avon. Photo by Dorene

Apropos of the unconventional, the bridge crossing the river in this photo is Pulteney Bridge, one of only four bridges in the world lined with shops.

Shops on Pulteney Bridge. Photo by Dorene
Shops on Pulteney Bridge. Photo by Dorene

While the bridge has architectural significance and adds to the beauty of viewing the river against the backdrop of the buildings, having only four of these bridges in the world sounds just right to me. Our inn was on the other side of the bridge, so we crossed it several times each day. Most of the time I forgot that I was walking on a bridge. Of course this illusion makes the architectural achievement even more remarkable, and without question Pulteney Bridge works as a tourist attraction. In most cities, though, I would prefer to feel the experience of walking over a river and enjoy views of water winding through a city.