I got to spend a day in Bath in Western England last weekend. The entire city is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and it’s easy to see why: the city was built using natively sourced Bath stone and almost exclusively in the Georgian style. The honey-colored facades of buildings fold behind one another in neat, elegant rows, terraced together in the Somerset hills. The city is bordered on one side by the Cotswolds, known for its Outstanding Natural Beauty (actual designation – acronym AONB; there are 44 AONBs in the UK). On the other side is the Salisbury Plain in which Stonehenge can be found. On a clear day, you can see the Welsh mountains.
The River Avon flows through Bath. Apparently when the Romans showed up around 60 AD, they asked the native Celts what they called this river, and the Celts replied, “avon.” The Romans, assuming that was a proper name, called it the Avon River. Turns out, “avon” just means “river.” Keep in mind this means many miles down that same river, Shakespeare grew up in a town that means “street that fords the River-River.” Maybe it inspired his specificity.
But back to Bath: it was settled by the Romans in 60AD who called it Aquae Sulis, and they put… a bath there on the natural hot springs. More on this tomorrow with pictures of that still-working bath complex. It was populated steadily between when the Romans left in the 400s AD through the Anglo-Saxon period and beyond William’s conquest. Queen Elizabeth I called Bath Abbey the “Lamp of the West” because it has so many stained glass windows: 52, one for each week of the year. It’s said there’s more glass than stone. Bath came to real prominence, however, in the late 17th and early 18th centuries as a center for court life. Many Hanoverian royals, nobles and other fancy folk went there to “take the waters,” causing Bath to be the center of a cultural phenomena. Its most famous resident, Jane Austen, lived there for five years, though (as I heard several times on my visit to Bath), she did not like it. It does serve as the setting for two of her six novels: Persuasion and Northanger Abbey and is mentioned in all of the others. She wrote extensively about the Assembly Rooms, dances and various aspects of daily life in Bath in her novels and in her personal correspondence.
It would be George IV who decided that Brighton was better for healthful bathing, so he built his Royal Pavilion there, leaving Bath and its glorious Georgian buildings behind. This shifted focus allowed Bath to remain a little time capsule for Georgian Europe – as the court moved away, so too did the attention of the nation.
Later in the 19th century, Princess Victoria would visit as an 11-year-old to open a park. Unfortunately for the people of Bath, someone made a rude comment about the princess’ appearance. This cemented a deep and lasting dislike for the town in Victoria’s mind, a dislike she carried with her through her 63-year reign that would begin 7 years hence. Victoria did not mess around – she never returned to Bath, and when her train would pass through the town, she would have the shades drawn so she didn’t have to see it and so they could not see her.
Visiting Bath is like stepping back in time. It’s very crowded – lots of tour companies do a Bath-Stonehenge tour, so there are the usual street performers and vendors to take advantage of the influx. I took a bus from London on my own – regular train service is also an option. There is a lot of historic interest to see here, but I think the best way to appreciate a town Austen called home (no matter how grudgingly) would be to pick a pretty street (of which there are many), get a cup of tea, and read a novel.
Title quote: Jane Austen, Persuasion