Saturday, October 13

Bath. A visit amongst walking cornucopia?

When looking for new walking country the area around Bath was not one that had readily sprung to mind before. Seemingly rather too associated with the urban sprawl that is Bristol, the city of Bath has poured itself across the hollow surrounded by a ring of low lying hills. Not big hills you understand. But significant enough that my memories of previous visits all seem to start with a steep descent downwards to the city centre. Not a place for learner drivers worried by car hill starts and sliding clutch mastery.

I’ve stayed here a couple of times in the past, and travelled through literally scores of times on trips to Cornwall pre the building of the M5 motorway. But previous trips were all centre based for urban duties. And as a result I’d learnt two lessons about Bath.

Firstly. Almost without exception the centre shops seemed geared-up to the tourist trade, especially at the wealthier end of foreign tourist market. Or more accurately geared-up to fleece the unwary.

It seemed at one time that the free spending American or Japanese visitor drove the retailers of the city. Part of that grand tour that so delights a London based foreign traveller on a fixed schedule. To "do" the city of the Roman Spa bath, and more lately the Jane Austin heritage trail, usually via the pitiful stones of Stonehenge. Which as tasters of "real" English history are all piss poor examples, but probably a good grounding in what to expect as they shoot north via the Cotswolds for a flying visit to Stratford-upon-Avon, to "do" Shakespeare, and then off to Oxford before a return to the airport home having assimilated the key to the English psyche oh so well.
Or perhaps not. Eh?

As a result spending time in Bath could never be regarded as a cheap venture until one learns to avoid the shops and pay-to-view tourist hot spots, but instead enjoys for free such places as the Royal Crescent and the rest of the copious and still outstandingly remarkable Georgian architectural heritage. To walk amongst the outlying city streets beyond the main High Street area is simple to achieve, doesn’t need to cover any huge distances and is a simple way to get under the skin of those long dead architects whose legacy stands still so vibrant. And all for the price of a comfortable pair of walking shoes and an eye open to the feel for land, space and expressions of wealth and status.

Secondly, and I guess related to the first point, parking in Bath Is Not Cheap. Even when using the perimeter car parks - £8 for a five hour daytime visit anyone? Once again a reason to leave the car beyond the centre and use walking to explore at a leisurely pace those open spaces and back street architectural jewels often overlooked by the coach party visitor.

But this was the first time I’d both stayed outside the centre and remained for more than a few fleeting days. And I was pleasantly surprised by the extent of the green gaps separating Bath and Bristol. Not as expected the endless urban sprawl of a Bristol/Bath conurbation, but an area packed with many small and thriving villages along with the newer dormitory estates. A steady mix of village, and open countryside once away from the main A4 feeder route. Most of the villages, still remaining small, appear to be thriving, if their success can be based in the number of local pubs that still remain available to each area. And based on those conversations I heard around me local life still retains a predominantly rural outlook, despite their geographical position pincered between the two large population centres.

As the area’s OS map revealed with minimal research, the network of local footpaths is extremely rich. Add in the recent additions of more recent formal trails such as The Cotswold Way & Monarch Way, and the opportunity for a variety of almost inexhaustible circular day jaunts along country paths, with convenient lunchtime pub stops is easily achieved. Or perhaps a few linear routes with connecting local transport to return to the start?

For us, a local meander up to the viewpoint of Prospect Stile (OS Explorer 155: GR 713 684) taking in local footpaths near our holiday accommodation and passing along ancient hedgerows.

Onto the Cotswold Way as we left Bath Racecourse down to a fine ridge walk looking out over western Bath, in the distance the sight of hot air balloons being launched, slowly climbing up over the outskirts of Bath for their short flights in the sunlight. Making their way across the Avon valley.

And finally a short climb to the heady height of 218 m as we touched the small copse sitting atop Kelston Round Hill (OS Explorer 155: GR 710 676) There to sit and look across the wide panorama southwards, the Severn Bridge towers glinting in the afternoon sun, the Welsh hills rising darkly beyond, before an easy descent down to the pub and a return home.

Panorama? Now there’s a word I wouldn’t previously have associated with urban areas in the south of England (unless you include cliff top views of unending English Channel) And whilst the views were not of fellside peaks and deep valleys, the variety of landscape on offer is easily achieved at a fraction of the effort I’d normally expect. A genteel way to walk and then quietly watch the world unfold below. And still be home for tea.

Bath, as I mentioned at the outset, not an area that readily springs to mind for walking. But possibly one that is a well kept secret? Or perhaps just too easily overlooked by those of us who normally look for their walking challenge in those areas free from human habitation.

But with a little lateral thinking, the inherent variability of this landscape with its features and local antiquities, plus an enviable rights of way network, seem a distinct advantage for short breaks during those winter months and only a short distance from home.

A landscape that calls for future exploration I suspect.

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