People have been telling me for years that, in addition to its UNESCO World Heritage status, its Roman baths, its Georgian Terraces, and its Jane Austen associations, Bath is a great place for shopping. I love shopping so I was naturally looking forward to my visit to this lovely city in Somerset about 120 miles west of London.
Happily, I wasn't disappointed - but it did take me a little while to find Bath's shopping groove.
First, I had to dismiss the hype about Milsom Street. Apparently, in 2010, thousands of Google Street View users voted this attractive run of Georgian buildings "Britain's Best Fashion Street." Since, with less than a handful of exceptions, it is lined from end to end with high street chain stores - of the sort you can find in most British cities and many shopping malls - this really makes very little sense. If you are a true shophound and only have time for Milsom Street, you'll miss the best that shopping in Bath can be.
Instead, put on a pair of comfortable walking shoes and set out to explore this compact city on foot. Don't be afraid to duck into an alley, to explore a small square or a winding lane. That's where some of the most original, independent shops are hiding and where you'll find Bath's retail treasures.
An Explorer's Harvest
I devoted about a half day to nothing more than looking around.
It was worth it in terms of the many shops full of covetable goodies I found. With an open mind, a few leisurely hours and a willingness to turn that one next corner, walk that one extra block, you could probably find even more. Do keep in mind though, that unlike other famous shopping areas where all the cool boutiques are crammed onto a few, key streets, Bath's interesting boutiques are more scattered around the city center - one or two here, another there.
Winkling them out is part of the game. Here a few streets I found worth exploring and what I found on them:
- Milsom Place - This is a pretty but rather self-conscious little pedestrian area accessed off either Milsom Street or Broad Street. It has a few of the nicer chain restaurants - Carluccio's, Jamie's Italian - with an attached Italian deli. A good excuse for wandering into this precinct is Traffic People at No. 26. Not entirely a one-off (the group has three shops in East and Southeast London), this non-London outpost is a particularly good place for feminine, floaty and yet hyper-21st-century clothes. Youthful dresses, skirts, shirts, shorts and accessories for remarkably reasonable prices. Quadri at number 16 is a home accessories shop worth your time, specializing in modern, design-led home accessories. It's a major stockist of Alessi products. While you are in Milsom Place, have look at what's happening in some of the "pop up" shops. This is Bath's way of providing opportunities for new designers and makers in an environment where they are surrounded by established retailers. During my visit I liked the home accessories and furniture at Fig and the original shoes at Chanii B. By the time you visit, there may be a whole raft of new players.
- Northumberland Place This odd little collection of lanes, accessed off Bath High Street, has sandwich shops, travel agents, pop-ups and some rather nice jewelers - Gold & Platinum Studios, who handmake custom made items. Also some gorgeous jewels at goldsmith and designer-maker Nicholas Wylde. There are several other jewelers in this warren of streets and also Bath's smallest pub, the Coeur de Lion. I bought a designer-style, almost-but-not-quite knock-off handbag for a tenner from a stall holder - without even a twinge of guilt.
- Broad Street - This one is a sleeper. It looks like nothing much but has some cool shops. Try Boho at No. 13 for handpicked boutique clothing and accessories. Nice little shop.
- Green Street - Head here for foodie shopping. The Tasting Room is a wine, whiskey, and food gifts merchant that supplies some of the UK's best restaurants. You can taste before you buy, try some food pairings, have some tapas or a full meal with their wine of the week in the upstairs Café/Bar. Sadly The Bath Sausage Shop that was next door at No. 7, closed after 20 years in Bath in 2014.
- Quiet Street - I found some great looking ribbed glass canisters for next to nothing in Kitchens, an enormous cookware shop at No. 4-5. If you like poking around among kitchen gadgets, kitchen linens, and cookery tools, this place is fun. And it's been around forever.
- Margarets Buildings - Go up to the Royal Crescent for the views and then turn into Margarets Buildings (the name of a short street) for several important private art galleries and luxury handbag maker Liz Cox. All very stylish and made in England.
- George Street - Between the restaurants and bars, there are a few shops worth climbing the hill for. Try Prey, in the York Buildings for quirky fashion and home accessories. A few steps along, at No. 6, find Instant Vintage, a lovely little boutique selling moderately-priced, vintage-inspired clothing and accessories.
- Abbey Green Once you're in Abbey Green, a tiny square South of Bath Abbey off York Street, you are perilously close to full-blown tourist territory, souvenir shops and postcard shops galore. But it's worth finding this square just to gasp at the beautiful plane tree, planted in 1790, that dominates it. Simply breathtaking. Once there, you'll find a traditional sweet shop on one corner, and plenty of places nearby to wet your whistle while you rest up from your shopping.