A Victorian flavor in a Georgian setting: That's Christmas in the English city of Bath

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Americans seem to think that Christmas was invented right here in England by Charles Dickens," the cheery pub owner told us over a pint of ale. "You were raised, like we were, on the story of Tiny Tim and the family gathered around a table with a huge Christmas goose.

"That's just the way we here in Bath want it to be for our guests in the holiday season."

Only an hour from London by train, Bath is a popular destination during the holidays -- with good reason, for there's much to see and do in this leisurely town, a favorite of Dickens.

Festivities begin in the old Georgian Guildhall in early December with a holiday concert -- quite appropriate, considering it was during the 18th to 19th century Georgian era that the spa town became fashionable.

Another tradition kept alive in Bath is caroling. As you stroll along the bank of the tree-shaded Avon River, you're likely to see groups of carol singers going from house to house.

Hundreds of visitors also attend the carol services on Christmas Eve at historic Bath Abbey. The first religious structure on this site was a "convent of holy virgins" founded by Saxon King Osric in 675 A.D. Later it became a monastery, and in 973, Edgar, the first king of all of England, was crowned here.

For lively entertainment, there's the Christmas "panto" at the Theatre Royal. Lavishly produced "pantomimes" -- including dialogue, music and songs -- are based on fairy tales (this year, "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs") with lots of broad humor and slapstick. Presumably staged for children, they are full of double-entendres meant to be appreciated by the adults.

Built in 1805, and rebuilt after a fire in 1862, Theatre Royal's crimson, white and gold auditorium looks much like the original and makes it one of the most beautiful theaters in Britain.

In addition, locals say the building has an added feature -- a resident ghost. You'll know her by her long gray dress and the feathers in her hair, or you might smell the jasmine scent associated with her as she drifts along the corridors.

Legend has it that she was an actress in the early days of the theater who hung herself in Garrick's Pub next door after her husband killed her lover. Ever since, she has supposedly haunted both the theater and the pub. When you're booking a theater seat, try for the top box, stage right, her favorite spot.

During the holidays, because of Bath's popularity as an old-fashioned, beautifully preserved town, you'll want to reserve rooms ahead of time. A few of the grand manor houses in the rolling green countryside that have been developed into hotels are good choices. One of the most charming is Lucknam Park, built in Georgian style in 1720. The half-mile-long entrance drive to the 280-acre estate traverses a double row of massive, 200-year-old birch trees and is surrounded by a thoroughbred horse farm.

Besides antique-filled rooms and suites in the main house, early Victorian stone stables and gardeners' cottages have been converted into rooms. The old walled garden has been turned into a spa, with a billiard room and indoor, heated swimming pool, a warm favorite when snow is falling.

Christmas Eve at Lucknam Park is wonderfully old-fashioned. Afternoon tea is served in the cozy, paneled library, with a yule log blazing in the big fireplace, followed by a champagne reception in the drawing room as the local parish choir sings carols. Later, guests join villagers for midnight mass at the nearby Colerne Parish Church, returning to the manor house for traditional hot chocolate and mince pie.

The next day Father Christmas arrives by Victorian horse-drawn carriage to distribute presents around the decorated tree, after which guests gather, along with everyone else in Britain at the same time, to watch the Queen deliver her annual Christmas message on the telly.

Christmas Day dinner, which can easily go on for hours, plays a large part in Britain's holiday tradition. There are so many drinks of punch and mulled wine, so many courses of fish and fowl and Christmas puddings, so much conversation and so many toasts that no one wants it to end.

In addition to Lucknam Park's festive Christmas Day dinner, there is a traditional feast at Bath Spa Hotel's newly renovated 19th century mansion, along with a "Peace and Quiet Christmas" three-day package.

A lavish holiday dinner is a feature of a package at the Royal Crescent Hotel, which includes Boxing Day -- the day after Christmas -- at the race course and a dinner dance. The Royal Crescent is part of an arc of famous town houses built by John Wood in the 18th century.

For many, the highlight of Boxing Day is attending the local fox hunt. Lucknam Park's guests usually join the nearby Avon Vale Hunt. Though fox hunting has been a traditional sport for hundreds of years, many in Britain are against "blood sports" these days. However you feel about it, the start of the hunt with spirited horses, the pack of excited dogs, everyone quaffing the traditional stirrup cup, all are a part of British life which Americans seldom have an opportunity to see, let alone join.

Of course, there's plenty to see in Bath itself. There are the Royal Baths, the reason there's been a town here for 2,000 years. The original Roman baths, which flourished between the first and fifth centuries A.D., remain in working order: A natural hot water spring still flows and fills the magnificent Great Bath.

The Georgian period, when Jane Austen was writing with such a keen eye and sharp quill pen about the upper classes' visits to Bath, saw the Pump Room built above the Roman baths. It's still the place to sample the spring water and have lunch or tea.

Also interesting to visit is Sally Lunn's Refreshment House on North Parade Passage. This is where a young girl named Sally Lunn, who had fled Huguenot persecution in France in 1680, began baking buns. They were a big success, as they are to this day.

Also, while you're there, check out the Roman and medieval ovens that have been excavated. The site had been a Roman inn in 200 A.D. and the kitchen of the medieval Benedictine monastery by 1150.

But, all in all, you'll find the town is still just about the way Charles Dickens left it.

If you go . . .

How to get there: British Airways, phone (800) 247-9297.

For more information: Lucknam Park, phone (800) 544-7570; Bath Spa Hotel, (800) 225-5843; Royal Crescent Hotel, 011-44-225-319090. For information about Bath, write the British Tourist Authority, 40 W. 57th St., New York, N.Y. 10019, or call (212) 581-4700.

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