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Bristol and Bath: A tale of two cities

by Michael Leech

Of all Britain's cities, few make such a diverse - and easy - escape from London as the 'twin sisters' of Bristol and Bath. Though just 19 kms (12 miles) apart, each is a standard bearer of a different age. Bath, with its elegant architecture, is the place of the Romans and Jane Austen. Bristol is a lively harbourside city, its history peppered with pioneering seafarers, transatlantic adventurers, and daring entrepreneurs.
VisitBritain's city web site reassured me that they are, in effect, one destination only a few minutes drive apart, or a short train journey. They are situated about 190 kms (119 miles) west of London.

Bristol is a handsome maritime city built on sea trade. Shipping is still evident as you arrive, for the city centre is ranged around the old docks, now restored and surrounded by stunning new as well as historic architecture.

There's a number of towered and spired churches to see, but if you can only manage one make it St. Mary Redcliffe, dating from the 13th century. The modern buildings are also notable. Look for Millennium Square, a new open air space for fairs and concerts, with a silvery sphere that contains a planetarium.
Explore on foot, to find many interesting places: from a restored Victorian Byzantine granary - now Belgo restaurant - to the old Corn Exchange with its brass tables, or nails. To pay "on the nail" is an expression that has passed into the English language. The spacious quays of Harbourside are clustered with cafes and restaurants. Try the Firehouse Grill, River Station or Pero's Bar.

Even a short stroll around the centre reveals lots. Take in handsome Queen Square, where the first overseas US Consulate was established in 1792. Among varied exhibits, the Industrial Museum reflects Bristol's darker past, with a section on the slave trade.

The Old Vic Theatre, which is almost 250 years old, and the Old Duke pub with its jazz, are both close. At the Arnolfini Centre (a modern gallery where Sir Paul McCartney was a recent exhibitor) and the Watershed are cafés and shows.

Bristol was a centre for wine export and glassmaking and the famous blue glass can be seen at the city museum. The Clifton Suspension Bridge across to handsome Clifton was a marvel when constructed in 1830 by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Thirteen years later he designed the first screw propelled 'ironside' ship for transatlantic crossings. The SS "Great Britain" is now at berth here and can be visited. Brunel, a prolific Victorian engineer, also built the Great Western Railway, whose route still links Bristol with London.

Among the annual events is a colourful Harbour Festival (Aug 4-5, 2001). For a flavour of the seafaring past, visit the historic Llandoger Trow pub, reputedly where writer Daniel Defoe met the inspiration for "Robinson Crusoe".
Highlight of the city's new attractions is '@ Bristol'. Actually, it's three-in-one, made up of a hands-on science and technology centre (great fun!); an IMAX theatre and 'Wildscreen', a tropical rainforest with free-flying birds and butterflies.

Bath is famous for its 18th century architecture. Built of blocks of golden stone it is all displayed superbly: the buildings marching up hillsides, in sweeping crescents and rows of smart terraces. Fittingly, it is England's only World Heritage City, an accolade awarded by UNESCO. Head up towards the Pulteney Bridge, spanning the River Avon; to Bath Abbey, and, beneath its golden tower, the wonderful Roman Baths.
Here you can see the UK's only natural thermal springs, the water gushing out of its rocky cleft. Just 100 metres away, Bath is building a new, state-of-the-art spa, opening in autumn 2002, when visitors will once again be able to take the waters.

Walk across to the main shopping street and squares to Gay Street - home of a new centre devoted to one of Bath's most famous residents, authoress Jane Austen. She and her sister lived in various houses - although not this one. But you will gain a very good impression of life in late 18th century Bath here: I also found the staff happy to discuss their favourite author's works.

Walk up the hill to the Assembly Rooms where another treasure can be found - the Museum of Costume. An array of dress styles from three centuries is displayed - you are given a 'wand' to listen to descriptions. After your tour, look at the suite of grand salons above. These were once Bath's great attraction for fashion-conscious 18th century citizens.

A very curious museum is to be found near another Bath landmark -the Theatre Royal, with its year-round entertainment programme. The Impossible Microworld offers a world in miniature.
In Bath they take tea time seriously - and in several of the local hotels, including the luxurious Royal Crescent, you can try this very English pastime. England's first Chinese tea house can also be found here: silk cushions, a tranquil atmosphere and delicious infusions at Tai Tai Teahouse in Walcot Street.

A wide variety of accommodation is available in both cities. It is possible to get a comfortable twin room from £50 per night. Nearby attractions include the villages of the Cotswold Hills, the Wye Valley on the border with Wales, and King Arthur connections at Glastonbury. From London fast trains run to Bristol and Bath - and most rail tickets allow you to save money by stopping over at Bath on your way back. Birmingham, Cardiff and, of course, Bristol airports are within easy reach.