Thursday, 29 December 2011

Off to Bath

27 - 29 December 2011

In the days between Christmas and Caramel returning from Canada, I decided it made sense to make a trip out to Bath.

It was one of these places still on my list, despite visiting with the family more than a decade ago. This is  no doubt initially due to my love of Jane Austen but over the years was embellished and expanded by addition of the details provided in Georgette Heyer's Regency novels.

While London remains contemporary, the Bath I know is that of the Regency Period 1, 1800 - 1820, when Bath was the socially acceptable watering place where invalids and old ladies congregated, creating an insular little society second only to Almacks in London.

I knew about the Baths and the Assembly Rooms - Upper and Lower. The Royal Crescent and Laura Place. I now just wanted to see them for myself, remind myself what they looked like in order that I knew what to imaging when next reading those tales of Bath.

When we'd come with the family, I remember visiting the Jane Austen Museum and the Baths, but inexplicably, the image that stuck most in my mind was that of standing in the park by the river, the columns on one side, a bridge with buildings up ahead and the strange stepped waterfall in the river before us.

Laura Place, where 'our cousins the Dalrymples live' Persuasion.
Although the Jane Austen Museum is on the other side of town, it is in Sydney Place, across the road from the Holburne Museum that Jane Austen actually lived four the last four years of her father's life.

While I enjoy Austen's novels, I found that the City of Bath took the association into overdrive. There are plenty of other famous authors, or famous people for that matter, who have either lived in and/or written about Bath... and actually like it. The future French Emperor Napoleon III stayed there in 1846, and Charles Dickens visited on several occasions, mentioning the Upper Assembly Rooms in the Pickwick Papers:
"In the ball-room, the long card-room, the octagonal card-room, the staircases, and the passages, the hum of many voices, and the sound of many feet, were perfectly bewildering. Dresses rustled, feathers waved, lights shone, and jewels sparkled. There was the music — not of the quadrille band, for it had not yet commenced; but the music of soft tiny footsteps, with now and then a clear merry laugh — low and gentle, but very pleasant to hear in a female voice, whether in Bath or elsewhere." Charles Dickens, The Pickwick Papers

There really is no need for the Jane Austen overkill!

As a world heritage listed city, the architecture here is perfect for an camera-wielding-historian desirous of testing her new toy. Wandering north after dark (it was the middle of winter, so the sun did set at during its usual hour of four), I was heading in the direction of the Royal Crescent, not I might add to dream of catching a glimpse of Rupert Penry-Jones as Captain Wentworth2, but to play at capturing the warm stone, christmas lights and shapes in the best possible light.

Much of the old architecture is constructed from the local Bath Stone producing a creamy welcoming colour in the day light and enhancing the golden glow of the Christmas decorations and street lights once the sun has set (I would say evening but with the Winter equinox barely a senight past, sun set occurs in the mid afternoon).

The last two photos above are The Circle on the way to the Royal Crescent.

Unfortunately, the Royal Crescent was too large for my camera to capture in a manner that was satisfactory to us both, so you are stuck instead with the artistic shot of a street light and an unsatisfactorily contemporary row of cars. 

The Roman Baths

In Regency novels, it is usually for these that the elderly and infirm come to Bath. If not to immerse themselves in the 'healing waters' then to at least 'take the waters' carried up to the Pump Room through lead pipes, whilst family and friends made their presence known by promenading through the rooms. Such scenes are familiar to Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.  More recently it has been determined that the water that flows through the Baths is unsafe for bathing, partly due to it having passed through still-functioning original lead pipes (up until World War II the waters were advertised on the basis of the radioactivity they contained).

The one of the smaller pools near to the Pump Room, seen from both sides:

The main pool is far more appealing, surrounded by Neo-Classical pillars supporting a terrace decorated with 19th century classical statuary. In the right lighting, the sulphurous water contrasts beautifully with the local Bath stone softened by the overcast sky and steam rising into the wintery air.

Attached to the Baths is a museum discussing the history of the site and displaying some of the archaeological discoveries made throughout the centuries.

Bath is the seat of some naturally occurring hot springs near the river Avon and though this was known to the Iron Age inhabitants of the area, it was after the Roman invasion that the city (then named Aquae Sulis after the local goddess Sulis) was founded and a set of baths established on this site. Evidence of several different pools including a circular cold plunge pool, and the hypocaust of the sweat rooms are readily visible and a part of the route through the site.

Dedicated to Sulis Minerva, remains of a temple complex have also been located, in addition to an extensive hoard of silver Roman coins and a large collection of curse tablets often written by Roman patrons who had returned from their bath to find their clothes missing.

The Upper Assembly Rooms.
“…it being absolutely necessary that propriety of dress should be observed at so polite an assembly as that at Bath”. Captain William Wade, Master of Ceremonies, New Assembly Rooms Bath 1771.
With such an attitude, it is appropriate that these New Assembly Rooms are attached to one of my favourite museums, The Fashion Museum.

The Ballroom

With so much history around, it feels inappropriate to be viewing these rooms in modern clothes. 

In the silent spaces it's not difficult to let your imagination take that small leap to populate the room with Regency residents at a ball while in the gallery an orchestra played, enjoying a concert or simple promenade around the rooms, avoiding the exertions of mingling with society and disappearing into the card room where the other gentlemen were already enjoying a rubber or two. 

With the chandeliers lit, it was almost tempting to pretend the orchestra had already warmed up, and execute a twirl or two. 
Pity I can't dance. 

The Tea Room

Instead, I disappeared downstairs to indulge in the historical fashions on display. Originally designed purely as another set of Assembly Rooms, after the repairs caused by WWII bombings were completed in 1963, the basement has been used to store and display the fashion collection started by Doris Langley-Moore and gifted to the city of Bath that same year. 

The collection is superb but was still suffering from the aftermath of the marriage of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge as the main exhibition was What will she wear?  looking at the history of the wedding dress. 
While a lot of their previous exhibitions look at the fashions used in historical films and TV series, there have also been those celebrating the craftsmanship of some designers like Vionnet, looking at the history of a feature like the pocket, or the clothes worn by Nureyev and Princess Diana of Wales. 

Headed back to the Royal Crescent for a daytime pic or two. Still arguing with my camera.  

I had one more stop on my leisurely tour of Bath: the Abbey. 
It's not really that I had a special interest in this particular one, more that I appear to have developed a habit of walking into every possible available church. On tours of the continent I would have to take note of the ones we visited and the order if only to correctly label my photos at a later date. it bad to say that this one was pretty, nothing more, but far more magical when viewed from outside, at night?

1: Technically the Regency Period refers to the years 1810 - 1820 inclusive when King George III's mind deteriorated to the extent that his son Prince George of Wales (later George IV) acted as Recent on his behalf.
2: I am a fan of the 1995 adaptation starring Ciaran Hinds and Amanda Root.

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