Today we are off to an historic city prized in Roman times for its hot springs that enabled the construction of an elaborate bath house. The modern name still reflects this ancient usage: Bath. The weather is being kind and instead of yesterday’s clouded skies we have sunshine.
We left home just after 7 am and caught a 205 to Paddington station. We were too early for many of the breakfast places and made do in the meantime with coffee and croissants at Sloe Bar. Later we found a stall selling porridge which we consumed aboard our train.
As it is the weekend, the cheap rate applies all day and we have reserved seats on the 0900 Weston Super Mare train. Annoyingly, they keep us waiting until the last minute to announce the platform number so that when they do so, there is an undignified rush to board. Although we have reserved seats (they are obligatory as we are limited to specific trains) they are not together. We do what we usually do in such circumstances: hurry ahead of the crowd and grab a pair of unreserved seats. They are so called "Priority Seats" (for disabled passengers) and have extra room for our long legs.
The train, destined for Weston Super Mare, became full as we progressed, with standing room only after Swindon. We had a struggle to disembark in Bath.
From the station, we walked down Manvers Street, past the famous premises of George Bayntun, seller and binder of books,
into Pierrepont Road where the Labour Party occupies Century House,
and so to Terrace Walk, an 18th century (1730) terrace, built inevitably in local stone, originally accommodating luxury shops and coffee houses with living accommodation above them. We also partook of coffee here at Gourmet Scoffs.
On the island limited by Terrace Walk and two other roads, stands this rather pretty fountain. It was made by one S. Stefano Vallerio Pieroni in 1859 and was placed near the Pump Room from where it was removed to this position in 1989. It is a listed building. Pieroni seems a somewhat obscure artist though he was responsible also for the statue of King Bladud that originally topped a fountain of free mineral water (also 1859).
We continued on and our path took as past Bath Abbey, whose full name is The Abbey Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul. The present building was begun in 1499 upon the foundations of a demolished Norman cathedral. The tower can be visited as long as you don’t mind scaling the 212 steps.
Bath is of course full of grand buildings, most made of the famous Bath stone. Strict building regulations control the style of modern buildings and the materials that can be used, in order to preserve the visual harmony of the city. Above is the Guildhall, built between 1775 and 1778, the third building on that site. Today it can be hired for “events”.
Contrast the Guildhall with the rather sad looking building above. This is the Corn Market, which I believe was opened in the 1850s, having previously been a Georgian house. Various plans for its use have been proposed though its future seems in doubt, especially as it is not listed.
Our destination was the Assembly Rooms. Built in 1771, they replaced earlier assembly rooms in another part of town. Such establishments performed an important function in polite Georgian society: people would gather, or “assemble”, to dance, converse, take tea, meet and be seen. The building is still open to the public though its rooms can also be hired for private functions. However, one part always remains open, namely the Fashion Museum. This was what we had come to see.
There is an admission charge (see the Fashion Museum site, click on “Visiting”) but we got in free with our Art Fund membership cards. Note that photography is allowed and people were clicking away all around me because, apart from the exhibits, the building itself is also worth seeing for its own sake.
The ground floor exhibition was of costumes designed for cinema costume dramas. Above is the armour worn by Julius Caesar’s personal guard in the 1959 American production of Ben-Hur.
This group of costumes was designed by Michael O’Connor for the 2008 production of The Duchess, based on the life of Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, wife of the 5th Duke. Some of the scenes were filmed in the Assembly Rooms.
While films enthusiasts seemed to enjoy these costumes, they interested me relatively little because, no matter how accurate their design and fabrication, they are not real, but are artificial modern creations. I am much more interested in genuine historical artifacts.
Fortunately, there is a good selection of these in the lower-floor exhibition. Above is a rare dress dating from 1660, called the Silver Tissue Dress because it is made of silk woven with silver thread and parchment lace. Made to fit quite a small person, the dress is thought to have been worn for a debut attendance at court in the presence of Charles II. (The picture is not as sharp as I would like because these rare and valuable exhibits are understandably kept behind glass which causes problems for the photographer.)
Gloves somehow seem more personal than some other items of dress and this collection of raised hands looks rather dramatic. I was only partially successful in minimizing reflections but I at least managed to keep myself out of the picture!
There was a section on dress, for men and women, from the second half of the 20th century. While these made a vivid contrast with the garments of earlier periods, they were just too familiar and I took no photos of them. I’ll go back in a 100 years for another look when they will perhaps seem more interesting.
When the Assembly Rooms were the gathering place of the 18th century glitterati, riding in a sedan chair was the stylish way to arrive. Carried by two “chair men”, they were probably the easiest way to get about town, other than actually walking (perish the thought!). But the sedan was not to have things all its own way…
If you thought that the Bath Chair was invented in Bath, you were right. If, like me, you thought is was only for transporting the sick and infirm, you were wrong. The Bath Chair, running on wheels and steered by the passenger, was invented in the mid-18th century and soon rivalled – and eventually replaced – the sedan chair.
For lunch we went to the pub. Not just any old pub, of course, but The Porter, described as Bath’s only fully vegetarian pub. Such an establishment must be pretty rare even outside Bath, I think. It offers a wide range of meals, all very tasty and all very vegetarian (plenty are also vegan).
After lunch we continued our rambles and saw many interesting sights. We eventually reached the Victoria Art Gallery.
The foundation stone informs us that it was laid in the 60th year of Victoria’s reign, on October 18th 1897. The statue of the Queen over the door has beneath it an inscription telling us that it was “ERECTED IN LOYALTY AND LOVE BY THE WOMEN OF BATH 1901”, possibly as a post mortem tribute. It is interesting, though, that it was an initiative by women in a city so obviously – if beautifully – designed by men.
As is usual, the rules of engagement prohibit photography of the art works but allow the building itself to be photographed. The above picture of the domed ceiling in the entrance hall will give some idea of its quality.
We walked from there to the Pulteney Bridge, the justly famous bridge built across the Avon in 1773. It is a very handsome structure and while we were there was attracting a lot of attention from tourists.
The bridge is also a good place to observe gulls and, if you are lucky, photograph them in flight. The side of the bridge shown in the above two photos is the most usual view but other aspects of the bridge are also of interest.
Another view of the bridge is as a road bridge – called Bridge Street, reasonably enough – which is lined with shops and cafes, a charming alternative to the more conventional picture.
At one end of the bridge is this little coffee shop and tea room. We managed to find a table and ordered two cream teas.
The view of the bridge from the other side is not one tourists usually bother with but I find it has a fascination of its own.
This cliff-like building is the Empire Hotel. The foundation stone (invisible below street level) was laid in 1899 and the hotel completed at the very end of the Victorian era, in 1901. In style and in name, it is a late blossom of the Victorian spirit.
Naturally, we took a turn around Bath’s covered market. Markets vary in size and quality across the country but in a good one, like that in Bath, there is always plenty to see with colourful goods on display and colourful characters selling them. You may pick up a bargain too, especially at the end of the day.
Already in a charter of 1371, Bath was said to have had a market “since time immemorial”. Originally, the market was covered only by the sky but in more recent times, several buildings in several different locations have been dedicated to the purpose. The present market building dates from 1861.
We sat for a while in the gardens at Orange Grove, near the Abbey. When the supposed curative waters of the spa were at the height of their popularity, the rich and famous came to partake of them. Among them was the King, William of Orange, after whom the Grove was named. Richard Beau Nash raised this obelisk in honour of the King in 1734, though it had to be rebuilt in 1834, having by then fallen into a state of disrepair.
We made our way slowly back to the station where we met the station gull. Explaining that we were not supposed to feed the gulls failed to impress him as he was convinced that we had something for him. Actually, it turned out that he was right.
We had reserved seats on the train but they were far apart so we preferred to compete for unreserved ones. The train was quite full but we managed to get seats one in front of the other. At Swindon a lot of people got out and we were able to blag a couple of seats together.
Although we had been to Bath many times before, we hadn’t visited the Fashion Museum or the Victoria Art Gallery, so they were new pleasures for us. Bath is a pretty and a fascinating city with historic traces from many periods and with its collection of irreplaceable buildings, an architectural treasure house.