So Hull has been unveiled as the UK City of Culture 2017. When I first visited last year, I stepped into a taxi from the station and asked the jolly driver to tell me all about the place. He didn’t reply at great length: ‘Philip Larkin worked at the University library, you know, and our telephone boxes are white’. Everyone else I met spoke about the city in less obliging terms, but still, with the harmless sense of love-to-hate fondness you’ll find embedded within the stanzas of its famous poet. Of course, this recent government-led initiative is less an actual award than a positive drive towards the cultural and urban regeneration; Derry/Londonderry has certainly witnessed an increase in tourist levels and economic activity since taking hold of the title this year. But it got me thinking: if the UK City of Culture prize was a literal recognition, which of the country’s many certified treasures would make the most deserving recipient?
For me, there’s little contest. It has The Circle, a fine abbey, the Roman Baths, the Royal Crescent, the Pulteney Bridge and the Assembly Rooms; it’s a Unesco World Heritage City, famed for its Christmas markets, the literary heritage of Jane Austen and the delightful Sally Lunn Bun. Oozing the words ‘high quality’ on every street corner, Bath is the jewel in Britain’s glittering crown.
A city worth visiting is one that makes you walk with your eyes: I always judge a place on the basis of what I call its ‘wandering potential’, and Bath continually rates highly. You can spend hours floating in the midst of colourful local activity, following the city’s attractive trail of honey-coloured Georgian houses, decorative boutique fronts and cute coffee houses, overall soaking up a distinctive cultural and aesthetic vibe. Bath manages to harness a timeless identity: it’s refreshingly contemporary, and yet is also the fully-fledged, archetypal Olde England city steeped in the heart of the Romantic tradition. I can stroll around and at once feel like the edgy hipster heading to the Theatre Royal, or Captain Wentworth striding to the ball in his gentlemanly finery; neither an indie festival nor a horse and carriage would look out of place.
The Circle leading to the Royal Crescent has to equal Palace Green, Durham, as one of the most panoramically astounding spots on British soil. The majestic impact of its architecture is impossibly addictive to try and capture on camera. Down the road on Gay Street, the Jane Austen Museum gives a short and sweet presentation on the writer’s life and career, dispelling many of the mythical claims surrounding her character. Who knew she had accepted an engagement from a suitor for a night, before changing her mind in the morning (the kind of impulsive behaviour she satirised in her own heroines)? You can even play dress up in period clothing, an entertaining supplement. Whether or not you want to dive into the steaming green pools, the Roman Bath Museum is another must-see, as is Bath Abbey, the last medieval church built in England.
A visit to Bath is one big happy treat wrapped in a pleasingly elegant bow. It naturally seems to form the yardstick against which I appreciate other great cities – York was the ‘Bath of the North’, Canterbury was the ‘Bath of the South-East’ etc. It’s handsome, grand and sophisticated, like the personification of Austen’s greatest male protagonists. Bath, you’re my hero.
Still, Hull, maybe one day it’ll be you.