HOT SPRINGS AND BEAUTIFUL BUILDINGS IN HISTORIC BATH
Sitting in the snow-covered Somerset landscape, a small Georgian city shimmers in the low winter sun. Honey-coloured limestone gleams gold in contrast to the white hills surrounding it. The streets of Bath are lined with 18th century townhouses that stand cheek by jowl with the remnants of its Roman past. It is less than three-quarters of a mile from the glorious, stately curve of its magnificent Georgian Royal Crescent, to the medieval Abbey, and on to the Roman Baths with Britain’s only natural hot springs. This is, however, a journey that runs through 2,000
years of history.
In 1987 Bath was awarded the coveted status of being UNESCO World Heritage listed. It is the only entire city in Britain to be so designated. “Bath is valued because of its beauty, inspirational design and rich history,” says Andrew Sharland, senior landscape architect at Bath and North East Somerset Council.
“As a complete city with such a harmonious relationship of buildings and open landscape, World Heritage status is justly merited. The landscape features in and around Bath are integral to the enjoyment of the city. There are opportunities for beautiful views, for wonderful walks and cycle rides as well as for exploring the landscape, history and nature.”
Many of today’s visitors come to admire the Georgian buildings. Crescents of narrow, tall homes raise their porticos above the streets. They transport pedestrians back to an era of horse-drawn vehicles and sedan chairs, made famous through the novels of Jane Austen, one of Bath’s best-known and best-loved residents.
A curve of stature
The Royal Crescent encapsulates all that is unique about Bath. Thirty three-storey Georgian townhouses are built in the creamy gold oolitic limestone, often called Bath stone. They stand proudly in front of a gently sloping lawn, complete with a rare example of an urban ha-ha or ditch. It was built to delineate the private grassed area and the public park beyond it. The feature allowed the lawn to blend with the countryside in an uninterrupted view from the windows of the houses.
Constructed between 1767-1774, this is thought to be the country’s oldest crescent. It was the creation of architect John Wood the Younger. Wood and his father, John Wood the Elder, were responsible for much of Bath’s Neoclassical Palladian buildings erected in the 18th century. Copying the style of Renaissance Italy, these buildings include the Assembly Rooms and the Pump Room.
The younger Wood’s vision reflects the era’s popular desire for picturesque landscaping. A total of 114 Ionic columns decorate the house facades, creating a look that is austere yet unmistakably regal. John Wood the Elder was known to have surveyed Stonehenge and it is possible that his son used the crescent shape to mirror a druid temple there.
Promenading along the Royal Crescent was a fashionable thing to do during the Regency period of 1811-1820. The idea was to be seen by other members of society.
The first house built in the Crescent, No 1, has been restored to its former 18th century glory. Open daily until 13 December, it conveys a living picture of life both upstairs and down, in Georgian Bath. The rooms are decorated and furnished in period style, from the dining room to the elegant drawing room. Below stairs, visitors can see the original kitchen, the housekeeper’s room and the servants’ hall.
As well as the Crescent, Bath’s Royal Circus is another architectural first, this time as Britain’s first circular street. It consists of three crescents of three-storey Grade-I listed townhouses. Designed by John Wood the Elder and completed by his son in 1754, one crescent has eight houses, the second 10 and the third 12. All encircle a green with five giant London Plane trees planted in the early 19th century. These trees replaced a well which originally stood in the centre of the space.
The inspiration for this magnificent circle of homes is believed to have been both prehistoric stone circles and Rome’s Colosseum. Wood the Elder was fascinated by both of these. A close look at the stonework reveals serpents, acorns, nautical and perhaps masonic symbols. It is thought the acorns are tributes to the druids, then believed to be the creators of the stone circles Wood admired.
Between 1758 and 1774, Number 17 was home to the artist Thomas Gainsborough. He used it as a portrait studio, painting his famous Blue Boy here in 1770.
In 1942, during the Second World War, Bath was subjected to a bombing blitz which resulted in the demolition of several houses in the Circus. These have now been reconstructed in the original style.
Behind No 4 The Circus, there is the opportunity to experience a Georgian garden. This was recreated in 1985 to an original plan from 1760-1770 and was originally designed to be enjoyed from the windows of the houses. Today it is open to the public who are free to stroll past the box-edged borders, yew and holly bushes. There is no grass, as this was difficult to maintain before the invention of the mechanical mower in 1832.
The garden is accessed from Gravel Walk, a path originally designed as a route for sedan chairs to travel between the Royal Crescent and the town centre. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, this walkway was known as something of a lovers’ lane. The secluded, gently rising walk featured in Jane Austen’s last novel, Persuasion. It is the place where her main characters, Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth, were finally reconciled. Walking here, they declared their love for each other.
Jane Austen and Bath
Austen lived in Bath between 1801 and 1806 at No 4, Sydney Gardens and 25 Gay Street. As well as Persuasion, a second novel, Northanger Abbey, was based here. She is thoughtto have moved to the city reluctantly and her stay was relatively unproductive. However her writing has come to define life in the Regency era.
Her connection with Bath is celebrated at 40 Gay Street, home of the Jane Austen Centre. Amidst the traffic and tourist throngs, a lady and a gentleman stand costumed in clothes that would have been fashionable in the Regency period. The woman is a statue representing Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice. The gentleman is a live Mr Bennet, Elizabeth’s father. His role is to greet visitors to the centre.
“Situated in an original Georgian townhouse, the Centre tells the story of Jane’s Bath experience,” says Paul Crossey, the general manager. “It includes the effect that living here had on her writing. There is chance to meet our costumed character guides, while enjoying being shown Bath’s fascinating history and associations with Austen and her family.”
The writer’s physical appearance has long been a mystery. However, at the Centre, her many fans can glimpse what is claimed to be the most accurate representation of the novelist anywhere. This is a waxwork by sculptor by Mark Richards and based on a portrait by forensic artist Melissa Dring, which took three years to complete. To create it she studied a sketch by Jane’s sister Cassandra from 1810, fleshing it out from contemporary eyewitness descriptions.
From the doorway of the Centre, a square of Georgian houses is easily visible. This is Queen Square, which surrounds a green open space. Dating from 1736, it was the first speculative build by John Wood the Elder, who lived in No 9. It is adorned with Corinthian columns and pilasters. There was originally a pool in the central space. This has now gone, but an obelisk erected in honour of the visit of Frederick, Prince of Wales, in 1738, remains.
The medieval Abbey
Three eras stand together in the town’s centre. In close proximity are the grandiose 16th century Abbey, the Roman Baths and the Georgian Pump Room.
The first sight most have of Bath Abbey is the West Front, with its stone ladders of angels. Oliver King, Bishop of Bath from 1495 to his death in 1503, is said to have dreamt of angels ascending to and descending from heaven. He was inspired to build a new abbey on the site of a ruined Norman cathedral attached to a Benedictine monastery. The last great medieval cathedral built in England, work was completed only shortly before the dissolution of the monasteries in 1539.
For three decades, the Abbey lay in ruins. In 1572 the remaining structure was presented to the mayor and citizens to be used as a parish church. In the north aisle is a memorial tablet to Peter Chapman, a soldier from one of Bath’s great families, who started the repairs. Elizabeth I supported a national collection to raise money for more work. Her leading statesman, Lord Burghley, visited Bath for its restorative waters and became interested in the Abbey. In his memory, his steward and the executor of his estate Thomas Bellot spent lavishly on the Abbey, both from Burghley’s funds and his own.
In the 19th century, the Abbey was developed into the magnificent edifice that stands today. In the 1830s, new pinnacles and flying buttresses were added. Then, from 1864 to 1874, Sir George Gilbert Scott transformed the inside. The famous Victorian Gothic architect added the stone fan vaulting over the nave.
Taking the waters
Standing next to the Abbey is the Pump Room. This was first built in 1706, but remodelled and expanded in the 1790s. In Jane Austen’s time, visitors came to Bath to ‘take the waters’, which was considered to be good for their health. Treatments involved drinking up to eight pints a day of the spa water, which contains 43 minerals. Today’s visitors can still try it for themselves from a special fountain in the Pump Room.
“It is an acquired taste. It is metallic, with a strong sulphur taste. As it is from a natural source, the aroma can fluctuate and sometimes the minerals smell particularly strongly,” says Tom Claridge, a supervisor at the Pump Room. “However, no visit to Bath would be complete without having tasted the waters.”
Today most visitors come to the Pump Room for the afternoon tea, rather than their health. With musicians playing in the background, as the low light shines through high sash windows, it is the chance to follow in the footsteps of earlier Regency visitors.
From its hot springs to the elegant stone buildings, Bath condenses two millennia of British history within less than one mile. Today, it remains a unique blend of natural and manmade excellence.
Words: Damian Hall Photography: Alamy
The feature about Bath originally appeared in the Christmas 2015 issue of LandScape.
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