There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..



Friday, 3 May 2013

Bath

Parking in Bath can be difficult so we took the bus, it was almost a door to door service from our Saltford B & B and we used our newly minted bus passes (how did we get so old we could have bus passes?).

We got off at Kingsmead Square. Bath is a small city, the centre neatly crooked in a bend in the River Avon, and from here we could easily walk wherever we wanted to go.

We strolled north to Queen Square. Born in Bath in 1704, John Wood (the elder) was an architect and entrepreneur who set out to restore his home town to ‘its former ancient glory’ and Queen Square was his first project. Renting the land from Robert Gay, a doctor and Bath MP, he designed the frontages and then sublet the plots behind to individual builders. His plan was firstly to provide a place for ‘polite society’ to parade and secondly to get rich. He succeeded on both counts. Wood chose to live on the south side of the square, which he believed gave the best possible view of both the square and the central obelisk, erected by Beau Nash in 1738 in honour of the Prince of Wales.

Queen Square, Bath


We walked up Gay Street towards The Circus. Gay Street, the next part of Wood’s plan, was started in 1735. We passed Jane Austin’s house, she lived at No 25, and No. 40 which is now the Jane Austin Centre, before reaching The Circus which Wood designed in 1750.

Doorway, Queen Square, Bath

When John Wood died in 1754 building had hardly started and the Circus, a circle of elegant town houses surrounding a green space, was completed by his son John Wood (the younger). Circular roads, as I discovered at Connaught Place in New Delhi, are difficult to photograph satisfactorily.

The Circus, Bath

Wood was a mason. He decorated many of his buildings with masonic symbols and designed the whole development of The Circus, Gay Street and Queen Square in the shape a masonic key.

Street map showing the 'key' shape of Queen Square, Gay Street and The Circus
Bath

Bath’s most instantly recognisable set of buildings, The Royal Crescent, starts just a 100m west of The Circus. Faithful to his father’s vision, John Wood (the younger) constructed what is often described as the finest piece of Georgian architecture in the country – and who am I to disagree? The Royal Crescent Hotel occupies the central section, and nowhere can there be so discreet a five star hotel. There is no sign, just an open door and a menu to tell you it is there.

Lynne and the Royal Crescent, Bath

We wandered the length of the crescent and photographed it from every angle but never quite managed to do it justice. The pictures above and below are the best we could do.

Royal Crescent, Bath

The museum of Georgian life at No 1 closed in April. It will reopen on the 21st of June as a newer, bigger, grander museum, and will probably be well worth visiting.

Returning to The Circus and crossing it to Bennett Street, we arrived at the Assembly Rooms.

The Assembly Rooms, Bath
Also the work of John Wood (the younger), the Assembly rooms are where the glitterati of Georgian Bath hung out. The ballroom alone could accommodate several hundred. With an orchestra at one end, tiered seating along the side and four substantial fireplaces, it would not pass a modern fire inspection. Characters from Northanger Abbey and Persuasion danced here, as did many real people who also used the Octagon room, the Card Room and the Tearoom (now a National Trust café).

The Ballroom, The Assembly Rooms, Bath

As NT members, a look around cost us nothing. We could have paid for the fashion museum downstairs, but as fashion and I are hardly on nodding terms – in this or any other era – we did not bother.
Assembly Room ceiling, Bath

From the Assembly Rooms we walked down Lansdown Road to Broad Street and paused for a morning cappuccino - with our bus passes and National Trust Membership, it was the first time we had to put our hands in our pockets. The sun shone and we sat in the courtyard outside the café enjoying the unaccustomed warmth.

Lansdown Road, Bath
Passing the Victoria Art Gallery we reached Pulteney Bridge. It has shops across the full span on both sides (one of only four such bridges in the world according to Wikipedia) and we were half way across before we realised we were on it. At the far side is the Bath Rugby Club shop and as it has been worrying me for some time that my grandson has reached the age of two without ever seeing a rugby ball, I popped in and bought a suitably sized ball. [I am happy to report that it has subsequently proved popular].
Pulteney Bridge, Bath
Completed in 1774 to a design by Robert Adams, the bridge has seen many changes. It was widened in 1792, partly rebuilt after the floods of 1799 and 1800 and then the shops were enlarged and cantilevered out over the river. Attempts were made in the 1950s to return it to something like its original appearance.
 
The best view is from the Grand Parade. The weir system which controls flooding dates only from 1972, and it was here that Tom Hooper filmed the suicide of Javert in the 2012 film of Les Misérables (so I am told – I have not seen the film).
Pulteney Bridge, Bath
Having reached the city centre after our wander through Georgian Bath we moved backwards in history by visiting the abbey. Bath Abbey has had a chequered history since it was founded in the 7th century and saw the crowning of Edgar as the first king of the English in 973.

John of Tours became Bishop of Wells and Abbot of Bath about 1090. More interested in wealthy Bath than poverty stricken Wells, he set about rebuilding the abbey as a new cathedral. It was finished in 1156, long after John of Tours was dead
Bath Abbey

Subsequent bishops concentrated on Wells and by 1499 Bath was in poor repair, if not a ruin. Bishop Oliver King set about the work of restoration, which was completed just in time for the dissolution of the monasteries. The church was stripped of lead, iron and glass and left to decay. However, a city the size of Bath needed a cathedral and it was restored between 1580 and 1620. Further restoration was carried out by Sir George Gilbert Scott in 1860.

Inside Bath Abbey

The large clerestory windows - glass occupies 80% of the wall area – allow in much more light than in most Perpendicular Gothic churches and permit a clear view of the fan vaulting, part of Bishop Oliver King’s restoration.

Oliver King's vaulting as restored by Sir George Gilbert Scott
Bath Abbey

The abbey was hosting an art exhibition. Damien Hirst’s St Bartholemew, Exquisite Pain was unsettling – I am unsure if that means I liked it – but sadly I found the other installations rather forgettable.

We had lunch at Sally Lunn’s, reputedly the oldest inhabited house in Bath and the home of the Bath Bun, or at least the Sally Lunn. Solange Luyon, a Huguenot refugee, brought her recipe for a large enriched yeast bun to Bath in 1680. It is claimed (by the owners of Sally Lunn’s) to be the original Bath Bun, though the name is also used for a sweet roll with currants and sugar crusting. No less an authority than Elizabeth David is wheeled out in support of the Sally Lunn. The other version which she describes as an ‘amorphous, artificially coloured, synthetically flavoured and over-sugared confections’ was developed for the Great Exhibition of 1851 and should, she claims, be called a London Bath Bun.
Sally Lunn's, Bath

Sally Lunn’s was crowded but they found us a table on the first floor. The menu is complicated but I had done my homework online and knew what we wanted, which was more than can be said for the elderly Texan couple on the next table. Tables at Sally Lunn’s are close together and the chances of having a conversation with complete strangers are high.
 
The large buns are served in halves, the bases being used for savouries, the tops for sweets. We had one of each and shared. With a pot of oolong tea it provided a pleasing light lunch at a reasonable price. The buns are a superior version of their kind but, despite the hype, they are still just buns, and who would make a pilgrimage to Bath just for a bun? The base covered with melted cheese was good enough but the cinnamon butter top, which they consider a speciality, was spectacular; not too sweet, not too cinnamon-y and with the underlying richness of good butter. It alone was worth the trip from Staffordshire, though perhaps not all the way from south Texas.
 
After lunch we stepped further back in time at Bath’s major tourist attraction, the Roman Baths which welcomes over a million visitors every year.
 
Water falling on the Mendip Hills takes about 10,000 years to percolate down into the depths of the earth before rising under pressure and reappearing in Bath – over a million litres a day at 46ºC.
 
The Romans arrived to find there was already a shrine here to the goddess Sulis. They called the place Aquae Sulis, quickly conflated the Celtic goddess with Minerva and built a temple and a baths complex. After the Romans withdrew the baths fell into disrepair and silted up. John de Tours (the rebuilder of the abbey) built a bath of sorts but it was not until the 18th century craze for taking the waters that the Bath returned to its former glory. It will be no surprise that the Georgian entrance and the Pump Room are the work of John Wood (the elder).

Remains of the temple portico, Roman Baths
Bath
The Roman bath is still there, though everything in this picture above water level is 19th century. The bath still has its original lead lining, but the green colouration is due to algae that were not present in Roman times as they grow in sunlight and the bath was then covered. Sadly, unpleasant micro-organisms (and the lead plumbing system) mean the bath can no longer be used, though there is a modern bath complex nearby using clean water from new boreholes.

The Roman Bath, Bath
The baths and temples make up a huge archaeological site, much of which remains hidden under existing buildings, but the museum makes the best of what it is there, with a comprehensive (and multi-lingual) audio guide to the baths, the temple and the many well displayed finds. In fact, the guide is so comprehensive that I doubt that many visitors listen to every word.
 
Roman gravestone later incorporated into the city's medieval fortifications
Pride of place goes to the gilt bronze head of Sulis Minerva that was discovered in 1727 during the digging of a new sewer system. She does look scarily like Margaret Thatcher.
 
Gilt bronze head of Minerva, Roman Baths
Bath

I also liked the collection of curse tablets. Curses were written out and lobbed into the holy spring so the goddess could take the appropriate action. Many curses relate to thefts of clothing while the victim was bathing and one contains the only surviving words written in the Brythonic language used by the general populace.

Overflow water streams through Roman brickwork

Eventually we emerged in the Pump Room where the water gushes out of a clean modern tap. Warm and tasting strongly of iron the flavour is not actively unpleasant, but I cannot imagine anyone choosing to drink it unless they believed it was doing them good.

At £12.75 (more in July and August) visiting the baths is not cheap, but much effort has been taken to display everything as clearly as possible and to explain what you are seeing. It certainly occupied most of the afternoon and at the end I felt it was money well spent. There was nothing left to do afterwards except to make a few purchases and find the bus back to Saltford.

Almost every building in Bath, regardless of its age, is built of mellow Bath stone. It does not matter whether you are looking at the Regency Royal Crescent, the Victorian Art Gallery or even the relatively modern Bus Station, they all belong together and form part of a harmonious whole. Bath is not one of the world’s great cities, it is not a Rome or a Shanghai and with only 85,000 inhabitants it is far too small to play in that league, but such essential unity is impossible in a huge city. Bath has its star attractions, but it is the high quality of the buildings that are not part of those attractions that set it apart and makes it so memorable. Bath is a gem and well worth a day of anybody’s life.

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