Sunday, May 6th 2012
Today we went with a friend to that elegant watering place, Bath Spa. Our friend, being from abroad, had never visited Bath but knew of it and wanted to see certain parts of the town that she had heard about.
Just for fun, I include a map of our ramble around Bath as produced by my geotagger. The double path without photos in the bottom right corner was made by the geotagger aboard the train, arriving and departing. The “splash” effect in the centre of the map occurred while we were having lunch. If you remain still for any length of time, the geotagger makes these erratic false tracks.
To travel to Bath, we took the Bristol train from Paddington. Despite it being Sunday and a bank holiday weekend – or perhaps because of this - the train was crowded with standing room only on certain sections of the track.
From the station we walked along Pierrepont Road, passing the St John the Evangelist with its slender belfry.
As we approach the city centre, we get our first glimpse of the towers of the Abbey peering over the other buildings.
Approaching the river, we come first to the beautiful Parade Gardens that run down to the water. You have to pay a small fee to enter the gardens and this money no doubt helps keep them so green and pleasant.
Then we arrive at the picturesque Pulteney Bridge, built by Robert Adam in the late 18th century. In front of it is the modern weir which, at times like this when there has been a lot of rain to swell the current, can be quite spectacular.
Once on the bridge, we can see that it is lined with shops as London’s bridges once were. London’s bridges with shops and houses have all been replaced but Pulteney Bridge still keeps the old tradition.
The bridge leads onto Great Pulteney Street where this splendid example of a hexagonal design cast iron Victorian pillar box stands. It is of course a listed building and a very fine place to post your letters.
Great Pulteney Street itself is a broad, straight street of fine, large Georgian town houses. Many bear plaques testifying to the famous people of the past who have lived there, so many, in fact, that I grew tired of listing them. I will cite just one: William Smith, the geologist, who dictated the text of his treatise The Order of the Strata in one of the houses. Facing us at the end of the street you can see the building to which we were heading – the Holburne Museum.
This beautiful house today contains the collection of art works and precious objects started by Sir Thomas William Holburne (1793-1874) and still being expanded (See here for its history). It was built in 1795-6 as the Sydney Hotel. Both the building and the collections within are worth visiting. Admission to the permanent displays is free but there is a charge for the special exhibitions. We were admitted to the current special exhibition, Art of Arrangement, free with our National Art Pass cards. These cards are worth their cost as they save us money on admission charges every year.
Photography is allowed in the permanent collections but not in the special exhibitions. There is a vast range of artifacts, many beautiful, historically interesting or intriguing – or all of these at the same time. I therefore took a lot of photos but will show you just a few of the items that caught my attention, such as the pretty 18th century clock pictured above.
Because the house was planned as a hotel (a place for social gatherings rather than for residence), the rooms are large and suited to exhibiting works of art. The above is an example of a gallery. Note that as well as paintings, it contains musical instruments and a marble group by Giuseppe Plura (d.1756), entitled Diana and Endymion. Arriving in Bath around 1749, Plura produced this piece as his ‘showpiece’ and it was much admired. (For the story of Diana and Endymion, see here.)
The museum extends over several floors with the special exhibition on the top floor. I took my usual stairwell shot even though the low handrail made me feel a little queasy.
The museum has a shop and a cafe. It is set in beautiful grounds and in fine weather the cafe extends into the garden.
As the second son, Thomas William Holburne had started on a naval career but on the unexpected death of his elder brother, inherited the title and the family fortune. Thereafter he lived with his sisters and amassed his collection of art, porcelain and other fine objects. These personal possessions were bequeathed to the people of Bath by Holburne’s sister and formed the nucleus of the Holburne Museum collection.
I was attracted to this pretty creamer, made around 1745, both by its colourful pattern (it may take a moment to notice the goat at the bottom of the jug) and the lifelike modelling of the bee.
I was both attracted and repulsed by a set of creepily lifelike heads, of which the above pair are representatives, which were modelling women’s hats, one of which seemed to be a dead bird of paradise.
This impressive dish, representing the story of Diana and Actaeon (Diana, you may recall, turned Actaeon into a stag whereupon he was torn to pieces by his own hounds) is a very early maiolica dish, probably made in Siena, Italy. Imagine eating your lunchtime sandwiches off that!
This old chemist’s in Argyle Street was attracting some attention from passers-by. The business was established in 1826 though the interior, which has of course been modernized but retains some archaic features, suggests a later Victorian or Edwardian era.
As both the street and the shop were busy (getting clear shots for the outside photos was not easy!), we did not go inside today. The above photo was taken on a previous visit.
We went for lunch upstairs in the Roscoff Deli while planning our next move. Our friend wanted to visit, among other things, the famed Roman Baths. We were happy with this as the Baths are quite a pleasant place to visit and we have 12-month tickets enabling us to go in at no extra cost. However…
… when we reached the Roman Baths, we found the place crowded. There were coach parties, tour guide parties and just parties. And families. And individuals. All were wanting to visit the Baths. There was a queue at the door which wound around the building and down the side, and seemed to be hardly moving. We took a good long look and decided to give up without further ado as our time was limited. Tigger, however, hatched a cunning plan but as this involved the Pump Room which was also crowded, we put off the plan until later, hoping that by then the crowds would have diminished.
In the meantime we set out to visit some of Bath’s beautiful and elegant streets and squares of houses built in the famous Bath stone. One of these is called simply The Circus and was erected between 1754 and 1769 by two men named John Wood, father and son, respectively.
Another well known and even more prestigious landmark is the curvaceous Royal Crescent, which our friend had heard of and was anxious to see for herself. Built by John Wood Junior, on his own this time, between 1767 and 1765, it is certainly impressive though I shudder to think how much it would cost to buy or rent accommodation there.
As everywhere today, there were crowds of sightseers and getting clear shots without bobbing heads or view-blocking bodies took care and a lot of patience.
We also passed by the house of Beau Nash which is today occupied by a branch of an Italian restaurant chain. Born Richard Nash, Beau, who lived from 1674 to 1761, was a famous dandy and “fashionista”, as we would now say. He was widely regarded as an arbiter of taste and took it upon himself to regulate the social life of 18th-century Bath, considering all newcomers to the town in order to filter out the unworthy and admit the more suitable to his clique. He famously confronted John Wesley when the latter visited the town, trying to discountenance him by claiming that his meeting was illegal. Nash seems to have lost that particular contest but stands as a powerful if eccentric figure in the history of Bath.
Now was time to put Tigger’s cunning plan into action. It was as simple as it was ingenious and pleasurable: we would go to the Pump Room for afternoon tea! I will explain why shortly. The city of Bath is properly known as Bath Spa because of the mineral-bearing waters that occur naturally there. In times past there was a vogue for “taking the waters” which were advertised as a curative for a whole range of illnesses. The Pump Room was the principle place where such imbibing of the unpleasant-tasting but supposedly ameliorative waters was conducted. I believe they can still be drunk, but elsewhere. Today, the Pump Room has been turned into an elegant tea room, complete with live music (Classical, of course). We still had to queue, despite the relatively late hour, but not for very long. Once seated in admittedly somewhat cramped conditions, we ordered cream teas.
This is the payoff from Tigger’s plan: once inside the Pump Room, you can go into an adjoining room where a balcony overlooks the so-called King’s Bath, thus visiting one of the Roman baths, free of charge! And not just any old Roman bath: the King’s Bath is the hot spring from which all the baths are supplied. In Roman times, a building was erected over it and it was considered so sacred that no one actually bathed in it, though offerings to the gods were thrown into it. By the 6th century, the building had collapsed but it is thought that the spring might have been used for bathing by the Anglo-Saxon monastery. In the 12th century the waters were considered curative and the King’s Bath was constructed and named after King Henry I. Looking down from the balcony, one is surveying a fair dollop of history as well as that which gave Roman Aquae Sulis its modern name.
After tea, we found that the crowds had diminished somewhat and it was now possible to obtain an unobstructed view of the Abbey doorway, something that had been impossible earlier.
We could also get a clear view of the Temperance Fountain, also known as the Rebecca Fountain. This was donated to the people of Bath in 1861 by the Temperance Society. The figure on top is the Biblical Rebecca whom Eliezer chose as a wife for Isaac in view of her generous nature which was shown by her offering to draw water from the well not only for Eliezer and his men but also for their camels.
The spout is decorated with a modern plate (dated 1986) and has the peculiarity that the man, or possibly angel – are those wings he is sporting? –, by his soppy smile and abandoned posture looks to me as though he has been drinking something stronger than the waters of Sulis. Does this make a mockery of the motto below that reads “TAKE FREELY OF THE WATER OF LIFE” or is the image meant ironically?
We began making our way back to the station but progress was slow. In a city like Bath, there is so much to see and enquire into, and intriguing objects pop into view at every turn. As we were passing through what is known as Orange Grove, named after King William of Orange, we encountered the obelisk sited on what is now a traffic island but named Alkmaar Gardens, these latter set up to commemorate the bond of friendship between Bath and the Netherlands city of Alkmaar. The obelisk is much older and was erected in 1734 (and repaired in 1834) by Beau Nash to commemorate a visit of William of Orange to Bath for the purpose of taking the curative waters.
Or, again, there is the house of Sally Lunn, she who invented the eponymous bun. This is billed as Bath’s oldest building, having been put together in 1482, though the famous purveyor of cakes and buns did not arrive until nearly 200 years later in 1680.
Despite these and other distractions and the failing light, we eventually reached Bath Spa station. Though not looking its best currently, owing to the barriers of building works obstructing the view, the station itself is not without interest, having been built in 1840, the work of the famous Victorian engineer I.K. Brunel. It is of course listed.
Thus ended our trip the Aquae Sulis, the City of Bath Spa, but we shall return again, I am sure, because you can never see the whole of it in one day and its beauties and points of interest, both historic and aesthetic, will always call you back again.