BATH SPA People have been known to move into Bath and out again within a couple of years – not everyone finds it easy to break into the social circles that centre on its elegant 18th-century squares and crescents. Its attractions are manifold: beautiful parks, specialist shops, some of them rather exclusive, and restaurants where the prices compete with Mayfair. The beauty of commuting from Bath, apart from its physical splendour, is that you can live within walking distance of the station. Indeed you have to, otherwise the combined traffic and parking problems will sour your temper before the day has even begun.
The social hubs include the much-acclaimed international festival in June; the Theatre Royal, which is the starting point for many West End plays; Bath Rugby Club; and the Pump Rooms, where balls are regularly held. The stresses and strains of life can be soothed in the mineral-rich waters of Thermae Bath Spa where the rooftop pool is open year-round. Old Bathonians are extremely tight-knit. Public schools include King Edward’s School, Kingswood School for boys and girls, Monkton Combe for boys and girls, and Prior Park College, which is a Catholic school for both sexes.
The sought-after areas are the two hills to the north and south of the river. Sion Hill to the north is a sudden slope looking south over the city. This is where all the major crescents were built, including the Royal, for prominent figures in elegant 18th-century society. Very few of these houses are left intact, most have been split into flats. A top floor, two-bedroom flat in Royal Crescent, would go on the market at around £600,000. Between the roads full of architectural gems you will find a mixed bag of houses, though nowhere are prices cheap. A five-bedroom Victorian bay-fronted semi in a quiet road might sell for £600,000 or more.
To the south of the river is Bathwick Hill, with Widcombe and Lyncombe Hills, where a sister spa to the famous central spa was found in the late 18th century. The architecture is equally fine, but the views from the houses are rather more rural than those from Sion Hill. Both attract businessmen, professionals and culture vultures, but people attach fiercely to their particular hill and would never swap.
Living in the centre of Bath only became fashionable again in the early Eighties. For decades previously the Georgian architecture was not cherished, and the buildings had blackened and become gloomy. In the late Seventies you could buy a complete Georgian town house in The Circus for £7,000. By 2000 it was worth £1m and now you will pay £3.7m to £4m for one. There is a tendency for the houses to have tiny gardens because they were designed in the belief that people would take their recreation in the parks. If you own a house in a square, you will often have the right to buy a key to the central garden.
Elsewhere, a modest house close to the canal with a small garden, two reception rooms and two bedrooms might be found for £285,000. Three-bedroom ex-council houses sell for £180,000 to £220,000.
It is possible to live outside the city in one of the villages, but driving into Bath is a problem. Parking adds an expensive premium to the season ticket, and traffic wardens are vigilant. To the south is the old Somerset coalmining area, still with the occasional slag heap on the horizon. Peasedown St John, an early mining town, has been rediscovered and is now a popular commuter haven.
Norton St Philip, however, has conservation status. It was built in local stone from the profits of the wool industry, and has some small modern cul-de-sacs stitched unobtrusively into the whole. It is known for its pub, The George Inn, which is one of the best preserved medieval inns in the country. Pepys paid a visit with his wife in 1668, dined on 10 shillings and noted a plaque in the church to twin ladies who had only one stomach between them. Hinton Charterhouse is similarly unspoilt, with a shop and post office and the 13th-century ruins of Hinton Priory close by. The countryside is full of similar villages that you chance upon as you dip in and out of the valleys. But farming patterns are changing and in Wellow the local farmer no longer herds his cattle through the village at dawn and dusk. He has turned to arable and the barns have become houses. A small three-bedroom cottage will cost £350,000 at least. There are a lot of retired people, but also young families who use the primary school. Many people own horses, and there is a Trekking Centre that caters mostly for weekenders.
To the west are the villages served by the Bradford-on-Avon branch line. To the north is another magical stretch of countryside where time seems to have turned everything to stone. Charlcombe, Swainswick and Woolley lie in a U-shaped valley in a landscape which is almost Welsh, and which at its northen end becomes positively austere. It is expensive. In Woolley even a two-bedroom cottage would sell for £180,000 to £210,000; a four-bedroom house for over £500,000. To the east of the A46 is another stretch of villages which have that haphazard, ancient quality, including St Catherine and Northend. Batheaston is a favourite with commuters and the retired. Yet it manages to be a working village with post office, general store, garden centre and farmshop, and a large council estate. It has at least 142 listed buildings, which the Batheaston Society does its best to preserve, and has been rescued from heavy traffic by a bypass. You could also look at Bathford, which has a village shop, busy village school and playgroup. However, the breathtaking views across the watermeadows to the city may be ruined if a proposal to build a park-and-ride scheme for 1,300 cars on the meadows is given the go-ahead. Further north towards the M4, in villages such as Upper Wraxhall and North Wraxhall, prices drop considerably, but you become a little separated from the spirit, social life and interests of Bath.