There’s something timeless and yet thoroughly cosmopolitan about Bath.
Perhaps it’s the mix of Roman remains flanked by the Medieval Abbey and surrounded on all sides by stately Georgian architecture. Perhaps it is its situation, nestled in a basin of green hills.
Maybe its just down to the honey-coloured stone that is used everywhere.
Whatever it is, you certainly get the feeling when you arrive that this is a golden, summertime city, comparable in its way to many Italian cities, such as Rome or Venice. Visitors throughout the centuries have felt the same. As Cecil Roberts says right at the end of “And So To Bath”, which was published nearly 100 years ago:
“From the windows of my hotel, as I looked out on the quiet crescent of houses, a glowing sunset made Bath a city of gold. I began to wonder about the many famous figures who had walked these noble pavements, whose sedan-chairs have been set down in many a stately doorway…”
Jane Austin was one of those famous figures, living here for six years in total at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries. She made Bath the setting of two of her books, ‘Northanger Abbey’ and ‘Persuasion’, and the life she led while she was here is reflected in both stories, and much of what she would have been familiar with still exists today. However, Bath’s history is much more complex and lengthy than Jane Austin would have even started to imagine, and it starts right back with in Celtic time with the goddess of the hot springs, Sulis.
The History of Bath
Legend has it that Bath was founded by Bladud, the eldest son of the legendary King Lud. Bladud discovered the miraculous hot mineral springs when he saw that when pigs rolled in the mud they were cured of their scurvy. Although Bath was, in fact, founded nearly 1,000 years after Bladud, it was without doubt a major centre of power in Celtic time, with Celtic forts situated on the surrounding hills and a Druid’s sacred grove, dedicated to the goddess Sulis, in the valley below near the hot spring.
Sulis is a diety who is unique to Bath because the Celts saw her as the very embodiment of the essence of the thermal spring-water, which gushes out of the ground at a rate of a quarter of million gallons/million litres a day, at a constant temperature of 46°C/120°F. The Celts saw this miraculous phenomenon as being nothing less than the nourishing, life-giving waters of the Mother goddess herself. And so Sulis was born.
Once the Romans arrived, they lost no time in honing in on the potential of the hot springs and a significant and revered town, Aqua Sulis, was established, and the springs were controlled and channelled in to a sophisticated system of baths and the great temple of Minerva was founded. Aqua Sulis was one of the most one of the major therapeutic centres of the Roman world and by the 3rd century its stunning temple and five luxurious baths attracted significant numbers of pilgrims. An elaborate hypocaust heating system serviced a series of hot sweat rooms, with swimming pools and cold rooms afterwards. At the centre, in its own hall and lined with 14 massive sheets of lead, was the Great Bath. Surrounded by the gods, whose statues would have emerged mysteriously from the swirling steam, it must have been one of the wonders of the ancient world.
Water always attracts wishes, and the springs of Aqua Sulis were no exception. Over the centuries, pilgrims inscribed dedications, vows and curses on thin pewter sheets that were then usually rolled up and placed in the water. Typically each curse stated a lost love or piece of stolen property, and there was usually an appeal that the guilty should meet some foul end!
In the Middle Ages the benefits of the hot springs were once again utilised after the ‘dark ages’ that followed the departure of the Romans and the invasion of the Saxons. Saxon Christians dismantled the sacrificial altar to use as paving stones for their new monastery. Before long the hot spring had returned to marsh and the site of Minerva’s great temple became a dumping place for town refuse and, in later times, a Saxon graveyard. However, the benefits of the hot springs were recognised by the monks of medieval England, and the monastery that flourished here later in the 14th and 15th centuries offered hospitality for people coming to take the waters of the spring for their health. Begun in 1499, Bath Abbey is the one of the last surviving great English medieval churches. The West Front is unique as it depicts the dream that inspired the Abbey’s founder, Bishop Oliver King, to pull down the ruined Norman cathedral and raise the present building on its foundations, and depicts angels ascending and descending to heaven.
In 1702 Queen Anne came to take the waters, and a whole new era in Bath’s history was launched as fashionable society followed her lead and within a century the population had risen from 2,000 to 30,000 and Bath became the eighth largest city in England by 1801. The Bath revival in the Regency period had three main figures at the helm:
• Richard Beau Nash – Bath’s Master of Ceremonies, (organiser and leader of the social scene), as well as self-confessed dandy and gambler. He was responsible for much of the levelling of polite society, which meant it was much more acceptable for women to go out on public, and for people to mix across social classes, something that is clearly shown in the novels of Jane Austen. In this way, Nash became a significant architect of social change.
• John Wood Senior – architect of much of Bath’s Georgian splendour, including Queen’s Square. He was later succeeded by his son, John the Younger, who added the gorgeous Royal Crescent as the feather in their joint architectural cap.
• Ralph Allen – post master and Mayor of Bath who decreed that all new buildings in Bath should be made of the distinguished honey-coloured Bath stone, mined from a nearby quarry, which coincidentally belonged to him. However he was also a benevolent man, giving money and the stone for the building of the Mineral Water Hospital in 1738.
Where to go
The Royal Crescent
This is John Wood the Younger’s masterpiece and is a piece of architecture unmatched anywhere else in Europe. Number One, Royal Crescent was begun in 1767 and was built for a certain Mr Thomas Brock. It is a fabulous Georgian town house and today it is furnished exactly as it would have been in the 18th century, which gives you an authentic feel for how life was in Regency Bath. The rest of the Crescent is now apartments, apart from the two central houses that form the Royal Crescent Hotel.
At the time when the Crescent was built it would have faced open farmland, complete with sheep and cattle. This was taken advantage of in the design, which incorporated a ‘haha’, a low wall in a ditch that kept the animals on the other side but was invisible when viewed from the Crescent, thus giving the coveted 18th century impression of an endless vista of open parkland. The haha can still be seen, and the lawns in front of the crescent are the most fabulous setting for a picnic – get your provisions from Chandos in George Street, their smoked marsh lamb is incredible!
The Assembly Rooms
Commissioned by Beau Nash, in Regency times the Assembly Rooms consisted of The Ball Room, Octagon, Tea Room, and Card Room, and were a place where guests ‘assembled’ for balls, to drink tea, play cards, listen to music, or just to talk and flirt. The balls were extremely popular throughout the Season, and less than 1,000 guests was considered a poorly attended event.
The Museum of Costume
In the basement of the Assembly Rooms is situated the Museum of Costume, which is celebration of all things fashion for both men and women dating from the Elizabethan period through the Regency fashions to the present day. They have really good exhibitions, including the humorous ‘Corsets Uncovered’, where you can try on a corset like the one your great, great grandmother might have worn – if you are tiny enough to get into it that is!
The Pump Room
The Pump Room is a beautifully proportioned salon and the place where the hot spa water was, and still is, drawn for drinking, or as the Georgians put it “where you took the waters”. People seeking a cure would drink up to eight pints of spa water a day as well as bathing in it first thing in the morning. In Jane Austin’s time the Pump Room was the central point of the upper classes social scene, where people met and mingled, men talked politics and economics and women talked marriage and fashion, and all sampled the waters. It is best summed up in the following passage taken from Austen’s ‘Northanger Abbey’:
“They set off in good time for the pump-room, where the ordinary course of events and conversation took place; Mr. Allen, after drinking his glass of water, joined some gentlemen to talk over the politics of the day and compare the accounts of their newspapers; and the ladies walked about together, noticing every new face, and almost every new bonnet in the room.”
Sally Lunn’s House
In 1680, Sally Lunn, a refugee baker from France, arrived in Bath, bringing with her the recipe for a type of sweet bread, like the French brioche today, and the rest, as they say, is history. The famous buns are still served on the premises, made to the original recipe, and the kitchen that she used can be seen in the museum. Sally Lunn’s is one of Bath’s few remaining medieval houses.
Crossing the River Avon, Pulteney Bridge was built in the 18th century to link Bath with the ancient estate of Bathwick, which was owned by the Pulteney family at the time, hence the name. The bridge is unique in Britain as being the only one which still has shops built upon it, much like the original London bridge (of the nursery rhyme) and similar to existing bridges in Florence and Venice.
American Museum in Britain
Situated in elegant Claverton Manor just outside Bath, the American Museum is the only museum of Americana outside the United States. The Manor is set in 120 acres of gardens, which include Mayflower Garden and a replica of George Washington’s American garden at Mount Vernon. The museum uses period rooms imported from Stateside to show how Americans lived from the time of the early New England settlers to the eve of the Civil War. Their summer exhibition, ‘Dollar Princesses – American Heiress to Peeress in late Victorian and Edwardian Britain’ is well worth a look. In the 1870s, London was recognised as the social capital of the world and ambitious bourgeois American mothers looked to British high society to satisfy social aspirations and claim a title for their daughters. Perhaps the most well known ‘Dollar Princesses’, a term adopted by the ladies themselves, was society belle Jennie Jerome. She famously became Lady Randolph Churchill and the beloved mother of Winston. The exhibition features period costumes, including a sumptuous white, fur-edged evening coat worn by Winnaretta Singer (Duchess of Manchester). Equally as sumptuous and somehow more touching is the museum’s extensive collection of American quilts, while if you have a yen for travel and love maps, the Museum’s collection of maps, some dating from the 12th century, is wonderful; the hand-painted illustrations are particularly amazing. Downstairs in the basement you will find the American Heritage Exhibition, complete with Wild West and Native Indians, which the kids (both large and small) will adore.
The cathedral was begun in 1180 and is one of the most impressive of all the English cathedrals, not least because it is one of the few to have survived with all its associated 13th-15th century buildings, including the Chapter House, the Vicar’s Hall and Close, and the Cloisters. Wells is the site of natural springs, and remains show it was also settled and used by the Romans. In Medieval times the springs were harnessed to drive mills, flush drains, and provide a piped supply of drinking water for the needs of the cathedral from the late 12th century onwards. The water still flows under the cloister, where the remains of the medieval ‘dipping place’ (drinking basin) are preserved.
© Claire Burdett. Please only reproduce this article with permission, in its entirety and with a hyperlink to www.claireburdett.com. Thank you.
First published in Citylife magazine 2008