Back in Time at Bath, U.K.

A long-time resident of the UNESCO city sees the Roman baths and neoclassical buildings of her city with new eyes.  
Bath
The Regency Costumed Promenade is the highlight of the annual Jane Austen Festival in Bath. Every September, a procession of about 500 dancers, red coats and town criers bring Regency Bath alive through their 18th-century costumes. The procession starts at the Royal Crescent Lawn and weaves its way down the city to finish at the Parade Gardens near the Bath Abbey. Photo by: Matt Cardy/Stringer/Getty Images

Where do I begin with Bath? It is the story of secret desires and lovers’ trysts, of marauding Romans and their sanitary habits and of cosmic discoveries and distant dreams. It was the showiest city in all England. Still is. This story is over 2,000 years old yet incredibly modern and it begins 185 kilometres west of London.

I first heard of Bath when I was 13. I had borrowed a book from the school library and was so incredibly swept up in its pages that (at great risk) I snuck it in the folds of my school diary and took Northanger Abbey to the morning assembly. There, as my friends prayed for their ‘daily bread’, butter and absolution, I ‘arrived in Bath’ and like Austen’s Catherine ‘was all eager delight…’

University, three jobs, and a decade and three later when I actually arrived in Bath on the train from North West England, it was a grey morning, rain-soaked and dull. And yet again, I ‘was all eager delight… eyes here, there and everywhere.’ The street names appeared familiar. I didn’t need a map. Over the next two days, I went everywhere Catherine took me, Cheap Street, up Milsom Street, left on to Gay Street, the Circus and finally the Assembly Rooms. It seemed nothing had changed in the 200 years from when a young Jane Austen first arrived here for a ball. My eyes climbed the pale duck-egg walls to meet a row of windows set high to provide both ventilation and privacy to dancers on crowded ball nights since 1771.

Even the chandeliers have a story to tell. “One of them once lost an arm which fell, narrowly missing painter Thomas Gainsborough who lived nearby,” whispers the guide. Which one, I ask. “Oh! They took it down. Surely they couldn’t keep it after that. Gainsborough might have thrown a fit.” She laughs. The Assembly Rooms’ chandeliers are some of the finest examples to have not just survived two wars, but also been adapted through time, from candles to gas light and electricity. And that is the story of much of Bath. You can time travel through 2,000 years of history in two hours. But Bath is no museum city. Here, the Roman, Georgian, Victorian and modern live in one happy house share. And nowhere is this more apparent than at the Abbey Church Yard. Coffee shops and tearooms in this neighbourhood share their front doors with the Roman Baths and the Georgian Pump Room restaurant. On warm summer days, buskers and busloads of tourists stand, stare and stop for a bite and a selfie. Even the residents come out at lunchtime for a sandwich, drink and a soak of the sunshine on the courtyard benches. And from here begins our tour of Bath.

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For centuries, The Circus has attracted the rich and the famous, including Clive of India and David Livingstone (left); The Royal Crescent is a museum dedicated to the life and times of Georgian Bath (right). Photos by: Denis Waugh/Getty Images (The Circus); Matt Cardy/Stringer/Getty Images (The Royal Crescent)

“Bath. Isn’t that a funny name, like you are here for a wash!” I laugh and my niece laughs with me. Five years ago, I found myself a job in the city and moved. Friends, cousins and the odd nieces drop in and together we play tourist. With them, I rediscover old streets and new stories. We finish laughing, pick up our tickets and step inside the Roman Baths.

The city wasn’t always called Bath. When the Romans arrived here in the first century A.D., the local Celts had already discovered the green, mineral-rich hot springs. To the Celts it was their goddess Sulis. But the Romans had grander plans. They drained the Celtic swamps, raised grand bathhouses over them, erected a temple to Minerva and called their new city, Aquae Sulis. But the bathhouses were not just a place to bathe and pray. They were places to socialise. Men and women bathed naked and partied hard. Food and drink were served in the baths—oysters, snails fattened on milk and even dormice glazed in honey. But every good party comes to an end. After 400 years of being the beating heart of Roman England, Aquae Sulis was deserted—the Romans left, the city was forgotten. That is, until 1879.

That year, in a house not far from the Abbey, a Victorian housewife’s basement started leaking. An exploratory hole was dug in a passageway running between the houses. It hit lead and the Victorians came face-to-face with their Roman ancestors. Although Bath had always known about its Roman heritage, the actual bathhouses had never been discovered.

Today, the Victorian terrace offers some of the finest views of the Roman Baths. On a still day, the Abbey towering over the terrace is reflected in its cloudy waters. Despite the crowds, it’s easy to lose yourself here. We stop and stare for sometime at the green waters and then suddenly, “Look, the Romans haven’t quite left.” My niece points at a Roman ‘legion’ and we head down to meet him. Along the way, we pass the Sacred Spring, where 1,170,000 litres of hot water has been rising every day since centuries. We also see the gilt bronze head of Sulis Minerva, and little lead curse tablets thanks to which my niece learns all about cursing, the Roman way. Today, the bathhouses offer a variety of entertainment for all ages. There are costumed ‘legions’ with a friendly dose of horrible histories; you can get married here, learn tai chi on the terrace, and even descend into the belly of the city and explore the tunnels underneath modern Bath. But we didn’t go there. Instead, we came up to the Pump Room for some scones and a spot of tea.

It is a good place not just to refuel but to do what the Georgians did best, people-watching. ‘Every morning now brought its regular duties—shops were to be visited; some new part of the town to be looked at; and the Pump-room to be attended, where they paraded up and down for an hour, looking at everybody and speaking to no one,’ Jane wrote in Northanger Abbey.

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A boat on the River Avon overlooks the Empire Hotel and the Pulteney Bridge. The latter is one of only four bridges in the world that has shops across its length on both sides (left); Both tourists and locals love soaking in the sun and music on the Bath Abbey courtyard (right). Photos by: Education Images/Contributor/Getty Images (boat); Kumar Sriskandan/IndiaPicture (foodhouse)

From our seat we could see Abbey Street, quiet and colourful with summer blooms. But in Georgian England it was quite another place. Here, in 1759 came Gainsborough in search of a better paying clientele. Abbey Street was one of the most sought after addresses in town then. Here amidst a row of luxury shops, he set up his showroom alongside his sister’s millinery store. Gainsborough knew his audience. The fashionable ladies and gentlemen who spilled out of the Pump Room were greeted with a sign on the door, ‘Mr Gainsborough, Painter.’ The smell of perfume, witty conversation and a window packed with grand portraits lured them in to the studio above. Gainsborough’s 16 years in the city were some of his finest. From an accomplished but minor painter who previously charged five guineas for a head, he bloomed to a supreme artist who was now charging 30 guineas for a head and 80 for a full-length picture.

The sign on the door is long gone and with it the many luxury addresses on Abbey Street. Today, the cobbled street is home to a few independent shops selling quirky wares. But as winter arrives, Abbey Street transforms itself. The smell of mulled wine and mince pies hangs heavy and shoppers pack the famous Christmas markets in search of a present, quaint and curious. Some simply come to drink in the experience. Gainsborough’s showroom and studios may have long been demolished but his house on No. 17 The Circus still survives.

“Finish up, I have something to show you.”

“What? Gainsborough’s house?” asks my niece.

“Yes. But there’s something else too. Something, literally out of this world.”

We finish our scones and weave our way past the lunchtime crowds. Union Street is particularly busy. The coffee shops are bursting at the seams, the pasty place has a snaking queue waiting to get in. We find a shortcut and arrive at No. 19 New King Street. It’s a different world; quiet, residential and tucked away from the clamour of shoppers.

In 1777, New King Street was a noisy place. A long terrace of modest townhouses was being built, the street was still un-metalled and the builders hadn’t quite left. Outdoors, there was dust, noise and chaos everywhere. When William Herschel moved in No. 19 with his sister Caroline, he was already a talented composer. The siblings were quite the darlings of the city, giving grand concerts where Caroline sang soprano parts. In No. 19, the Herschel siblings took up a new hobby, amateur astronomy.

The house, today a museum dedicated to Herschel’s life’s work, has been restored to its former glory. A Georgian townhouse built over five floors, it was far more modest than its glamorous neighbours on The Circus, which comprises three curved sections of Georgian townhouses that form a circle. Recounting their early days here, Caroline wrote, ‘…almost every room in the house turned into a workshop…’ with William ‘grinding glasses and turning eye pieces’ to build his famous telescopes. The workshop still survives but before we go there, we head straight for the back garden. For here, on an evening in 1781, with a telescope of his own making, William discovered Uranus.

It’s late afternoon. We walk past Queen Square up the hill to The Circus. This was the heart of Georgian Bath. Like the Romans, the Georgians too came to the city primarily for its waters. You could bathe in it, drink it. It cured gout, rheumatism and skin diseases. From the early 18th century Bath became England’s finest spa town. It brought royalty, the aristocracy and men in search of luck and lucre. Three such men gave rise to much of what we see in Bath today—Ralph Allen, John Wood the Elder and his son John Wood the Younger.

Ralph Allen owned the many surrounding quarries that supplied the city with its distinctive yellow stone. Father and son John Wood were architects, and shaped the upper town—Queen Square, Gay Street, The Circus and The Royal Crescent—in neoclassical mansions that glow like gold in sunshine and rain.

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(Clockwise)The open-top tourist bus takes in every important highlight, a great way to explore Bath if you are short on time; One of the finest views in Bath is from the Victorian terrace overlooking the medieval Bath Abbey, reflected in the waters of the Roman Baths below; The Bath Abbey’s most magnificent feature is its west facade, where angels climb up and down ladders; The Bath Christmas market sells everything from mulled wine to handmade wooden ties. Photos by: Jerry Driendl/Getty Images (Tourists); Joe Daniel Price/Getty Images (Roman Bath); Matt Cardy/Stringer/Getty Images (Market); Paulo Amorim/Getty Images (Statue)

The Circus was home to a veritable who’s who from world history. British general Robert Clive at 14, Gainsborough at 17, and more recently actor Nicolas Cage. Everyone except Cage has a brass plaque on their doors to mark their time here. They have remained private residences so we can’t enter them. We take a turn around the circle to admire its sheer scale and beauty. The Circus was an ambitious building project for its time. Conceived by the father and finished by son, it drew inspiration from the Colosseum and the Stonehenge with which it shares proportions. But John Wood the Younger’s finest work was yet to come, the Royal Crescent. A short walk from The Circus, the 492-foot sweeping crescent with a row of 30 terraced houses sits high above Bath and offers a breathtaking view of ‘the country in the city.’ This is where Jane, her sister Cassandra and many of her characters came for their daily mid-morning walks, to see and be seen in. This is where every September the Regency Costumed Promenade takes off, the highlight of the annual Jane Austen festival.

As we walk down the hill along Gay Street I point to No. 25 where a very reluctant Jane Austen came to stay. Her five years in Bath were her most unproductive and unhappiest too. Jane was a country girl. Once the shine of Bath wore off, she hated its stuffiness, the dancing, shopping and gambling and everything Bath was famous for. Yet the city was too important to ignore. So it found a place in two of her novels, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. The Austen Centre on Gay Street brings alive her life and times. If you are a fan, it’s a must visit.

As evening falls we run past Milsom Street, I have one last thing to show my niece. Back at Abbey Church Yard, at the entrance to the Roman Bath, is a small plaque that marks the site of a house long demolished. In September, 1816, Mary Godwin, 19, an unmarried mother, moved to the city with her son, nanny and her stepsister Claire. Mary took up two residences, 5 Abbey Church Yard and a second, five minutes walk away on 12 New Bond Street. Her lover and her son’s father Percy Shelley followed soon. The Godwin-Shelleys lived complicated lives even by Georgian standards. Claire was pregnant with Byron’s child, Shelley was in debt, and to avoid drawing further attention to themselves, Mary addressed her letters from New Bond Street while Shelley wrote his from Abbey Church Yard.

Mary Shelley spent five most tumultuous yet eventful months of her life in Bath. They were also her most productive. She often attended scientific lectures at the nearby Kingston Lecture Room where one day she heard that electricity could be used to bring inanimate objects to life. The idea stuck and Frankenstein’ was born.

Mary’s lodgings on Abbey Church Yard were pulled down following the housewife’s complaint of her leaky basement. The Roman baths were discovered, the Pump Room extended. Today, a plaque marks the spot where Mary conceived Frankenstein. Underneath is a vault with an electricity substation that delivers thousands of volts that light up central Bath.

  • Swagata Ghosh works at Bath Spa University and is a former journalist based in Bath, England. When not teaching or working on a post-graduate degree in Transnational Writing, she writes for the print and web in Britain, India and the Middle East.

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