The City of Bath6 May, 2015
Walk the streets of Bath and you’ll find both the key to its charm and marvel at its power to transform.
There are countless reasons to be charmed by Bath, not least of which is its name. To be both noun and verb, while so succinctly expressing the watery essence of itself, would be enough to make me love it, even if I’d never been there. The Romans were drawn to Bath by its hot springs, and visitors continue to be captivated by its classical architectural beauty more than 2,000 years later. I’ve been visiting Bath since I was a child, and for my sister and me, it represented a place of both adventure and contentment. Our mum, who worked long hours, would occasionally announce, “I thought we’d go to Bath tomorrow.” It caused instant excitement, but it also brought about the soothing pleasure that comes from knowing, rather than simply hoping, that something is going to be good. We followed the same ritual each time; get up early to cook sausages until they’re just the right side of burnt; wrap them in silver paper and several layers of newspaper; set off on the 70 mile drive in our rickety VW Beetle; stop halfway and eat the still warm sausages; arrive in Bath for a happy day of wandering and getting lost before, finally, retracing our path back to Dorset. For me, Bath is even more than noun, verb, and watery essence. It’s powerful nostalgia too.
I’ve just returned from another happy day in Bath. This time, instead of packing sausages, I took a map of the city that was completed in 1830, when Bath’s magnificent Georgian buildings were already in place. I was curious to see if a street plan drawn almost 200 years ago could still lead me unerringly through the city. The answer was ‘yes’ – a fact that’s increasingly rare in our remodelled, rebuilt urban landscapes.
What follows is a little bit of audience participation: I’d like you to imagine yourself standing exactly where I began my walk, and to follow my footsteps. Picture first a handsome circle of houses called The Circus, built in the 1750s by architect John Wood the Elder, and based on the Colosseum in Rome. Position yourself at about 6 o’clock on an imaginary dial, and walk clockwise around its impressive curve. Admire the soaring, flat fronted houses in their myriad shades of damp British seaside sand, and look approvingly on the beautiful filigree Juliet balconies adorning their first floor windows. When you arrive back where you started, walk away from The Circus down Gay Street which slopes impressively towards Queen Square. Here, notice that the buildings are more solidly handsome than their cousins up at The Circus, but still resplendent in the soothing shades of yellow ochre so beloved of those of us who’ve spent happy hours making sandcastles on rainy days at the beach. Walk along the first side of Queen Square and then turn 90 º to your right to complete the second side of the square. Swivel 90 º to your right again for the third side, and then 90 º once more to arrive back where you began. The entire walk takes around nine minutes to complete, and do you see what we’ve done? If you’re struggling to work it out, mark your steps on a map and you’ll see what I mean. We’ve traced the shape of a perfect, old fashioned key. Many have speculated that John Wood the Elder buried this secret key inside the city’s architecture as a clandestine symbol of the Masonic Order, of which he was a member. While that may well be true, I prefer to think of the hidden key as a metaphor for the playful yet elegant spirit of Bath, where crescents, terraces, squares, and circles intersect and overlap, but which only truly reveal themselves to the pedestrian rather than the driver.
Walk the streets of Bath and you’ll find both the key to its charm and marvel at its power to transform. Just as Charles Dickens made London a character in his novels, so did Jane Austen with Bath, in her final and most political novel, Persuasion. Her heroine, the passed over, put upon Anne Elliot, finally escapes the confining, stifling atmosphere of the aristocratic drawing room. As she walks purposefully towards a life of freedom, adventure, and happiness with Captain Wentworth, she is seen strolling up the broad, liberating slope of Bath’s Union Street. Bath has become not just noun, verb, essence, and nostalgia, but metaphor too.
Although thousands of buildings in Bath were damaged in WWII bombing raids, and the town planners of the 1960s and 1970s did their best to slice away some of the city’s most historic features, the city has largely survived these assaults on its architectural majesty. It’s the only entire city in Britain to have been granted World Heritage Site status by UNESCO. Much of the architecture put in place in the 18th and 19th centuries is still intact today. In 1962, then Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom, Sir John Betjeman provided the voiceover for a wittily acerbic film warning of the damage that unsympathetic town planners could do to Bath if they were allowed to. In a masterful piece of character acting, he played out the dialogue between himself and a nasal voiced property developer who saw beauty only in concrete stairwells and billboards advertising tobacco. As the camera lingers over the startling contours of a new municipal building in Bath with striking similarities to a huge squatting backside, Betjeman’s imaginary property developer looks on approvingly and declares with adenoidal pleasure, “Building must express itself honestly and sincerely, as for instance in this feature which might be termed the vital buttocks of the construction.”
Like Fleur Delacour in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, whose beauty at her wedding enhanced the looks of those around her, Bath’s stone and architecture lift and burnish the most prosaic of shops. Walk up Union Street today, as Anne Elliott did, and you’ll see the same dull, predictable chain stores that can be found the world over. In Bath, however, they take on a more handsome guise, clad as they are in Bath’s yellow stone and housed within its harmonious classical buildings. It was Betjeman once more who captured the city’s alchemical properties perfectly in his poem In a Bath Teashop:
Let us not speak, for the love we bear one another –
Let us hold hands and look.
She such a very ordinary little woman;
He such a thumping crook;
But both, for a moment, little lower than the angels
In the teashop’s ingle-nook.
Bath is not just noun, verb, essence, nostalgia, and metaphor. According to Betjeman at least, it’s angel maker too.