If you take the time to wander around Bath,
- You’ll probably get lost
- You’ll begin to notice that everything. looks. the same., and
- You’ll feel so relaxed you won’t mind.
Let me be the first to warn you. It’s all a facade!
A big, giant, deception largely built by Britain’s high-class 18th century Georgian society.
(If you’re a Jane Austen fan, you probably understand this on some level.)
We awoke to a beautiful, warm, sunny day. As our Open Palace Programme group made its way to the courtyard between The Roman Baths and Bath Abbey, a busker crooned mellow, tuneful songs. The warm sandy color of Bath’s buildings, all made of Bath limestone, plus the warmth of the sun on my back put me in mind of the beach. Despite the hundreds of other tourists also in the area, I felt relaxed. Such a difference from London’s bustling, packed sidewalks! Although only about an hour outside of London by train, it felt worlds away. No wonder the masses flocked to Bath to relax and escape city life.
Instead of sunbathing and people-watching in the courtyard, which is what I felt like doing, we had arrived for the first activity on our itinerary- a two-hour walking tour of Bath. Surprisingly, rather than focusing on the Roman Baths or Jane Austen, the two reasons I had assumed everyone else currently in the courtyard had come to Bath for -I mean, the ticket line for the Baths was certainly out the door and down the road!- our walk introduced us to Britain’s 18th century Georgian period society and their Palladian architecture.
According to our tour guide, legend has it, that it was a young leper shepherd and his pigs that discovered the restorative properties of the mud in the area where Bath is located today. After three days of being lodged in a pool of mud quite accidentally, all climbed out cured of all ailments. Whether or not this story is true, we know for a fact that the Celts first called this place Aquae Sulis, naming the location in dedication to the goddess Sulis, and took to the natural hot springs, believing them to have restorative properties. Based on the large structure of The Roman Baths, we also know that the Romans later arrived for the cures provided by the pools here in what would be renamed Bath. And finally, much later, the Brits continued the tradition of coming to Bath to “take the waters” for their medicinal properties. Although Bath had been used as a spa town for ages, it was during the Georgian period that Bath had its heyday.
It was during the 18th century that travel to the European continent became easier, and young men who had the opportunity to do “a grand tour” brought back design ideas inspired by their travels, and a new style of architecture became popular. Palladian architecture is the rebirth of classical Greek and Roman style with a European interpretation. It is based on balance, proportion, and harmony. The pleasing symmetry of building fronts was kept, however the decorative flourishes were stripped away, deemed unnecessary by the pragmatic Brits. Walls were also added to enclose buildings, unlike in ancient Greece, because the weather of Britain is considerably wetter than in the Grecian isles. The high-society, spa-going Georgians of course wanted their resort town to appear pleasing to the eye. So all buildings in Bath that did not fit this elegant new scheme were torn down and rebuilt in the new fashion. Only two buildings from the 1600’s, found at Abbey Green, were considered to fit Bath’s new aesthetic and today they are the oldest buildings in town. It’s this reinvention of Bath that today gives it the distinction of being a UNESCO World Heritage City.
Our guide, a volunteer with the Mayor of Bath’s Corps of Free Walking Tours led us through Bath, pointing out the elegant, classical, and symmetrical fronts of nearly every building. It wasn’t just the monochrome color and eye-pleasing fronts that the Georgians used to give the illusion of class, however. We passed the Jane Austen Museum and arrived at Queen Square, where we encountered another architectural deception. From the park in the middle of the square, it appeared as though all four blocks contained identical city-block-long mansions with classical facades. Once around back of one of these, we saw quite a different story! These were connected rowhouses with no symmetry, small entrances, and discolored stones from years of black chimney smoke. Today the trees in the park block the view of the opposing buildings, but originally, when residents looked out their windows towards the square, the view of the mansion across the park let them pretend they lived much more well-off than in reality.
Now obviously a society doesn’t just give itself airs because of the face of their residences. A flamboyant gentleman named Beau Nash arrived in Bath during the 18th century and quickly established himself as the “Master of Ceremonies.” He lived beside the theater, in a building which now houses the Gerrick’s Head pub. -I made a mental note to return to this attractive little place for lunch. Nash recognized that Bath needed to be attractive to tourists, which made up much of the population. He made sure the streets were clean, paved, and well lit. He also set social standards. You were to dress for events, no public drunkenness, no swords, and no jewelry. At public dances he required that people from all social classes dance together. Bath became the resort town that everyone wanted to be part of. Who wouldn’t want to partake in the spa town where well-dressed people walked clean streets, enjoyed luxuries such as bathing, dancing, and theater going, and social rank was put aside?
Our tour took us uphill through the Bath Circus, a circle of townhouses, to the Royal Crescent. This Palladian styled row of domiciles appears in several of Jane Austen’s novels, though I have to admit I recognized it…not from the books…but the film adaptations. So where does Jane Austen fit into all of this? Jane Austen arrived in Bath just as this age was ending. I suppose it should come as no shock that naturally, when those with means spend temporary time in a place meant to cater to enjoyment, human vices are sure to follow. Behind closed doors in Bath there was gambling, drinking, and prostitution. While the mingling of social classes and slumping of moral behavior was enjoyed by some, the upper echelons of society weren’t thrilled and began to move their vacations to places like London or Brighton. This left the landed gentry class playing at high-class in Bath. Austen saw right through the facades and mocked her own society mercilessly through her novels.
Eventually the government clamped down on gambling and other immoral behaviors and Bath’s popularity petered out. Mulling over all I had learned, I walked back towards the Gerrick’s Head for lunch. On my way, I walked past the new spa built about ten years ago. Bathing has finally returned to Bath. As I chose a table outside the pub, I looked across the street at the new building going up. A new casino. Gambling will be returning to Bath once again as well. Perhaps Bath is on its way to a new heyday. I waited excitedly for lunch because the chalkboard had promised “The Best Fish and Chips in Town!” Unfortunately, when food finally arrived, I realized that this too was a facade. Some things never change.