The Ibiza of Georgian England

Trip Start Apr 28, 2007
Trip End Apr 28, 2008

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Saturday, September 22, 2007

The nights are now chill and even the days have been looking more dim as time has progressed further into autumn but the start of the weekend dawned brilliantly with a sparkly sun and enough pizazz to match my excitement at finally getting to see one city that everyone seems to rave about - Bath.

The whole day seemed that little bit magic - I even saw a fox wandering down the rail line as I sat waiting for the train to whisk me off to the west country for the last time (at least, the last time before I leave for Italy in October). I had caught a glimpst of Bath on my way to Bristol a few weeks back and disembarking off the train this time I saw the same beauty I had been so impressed by before.

Bath is surrounded by green, green hills, groves of trees and meandering riverways. From the very point you enter the city from the station you are met with smooth Georgian facades and grandeur. The city is so pretty like many English regional capitals, but it manages to venture out to the realms of magnificence as well, especially the higher up the slopes you go. Funnily enough, it's not an easy place to photograph - but it does lend itself perfectly to wandering around the streets, window shopping and just generally drinking up the atmostphere.

There was a Jane Austen festival on this weekend (which was my main reason for coming when I did) and Bath was bursting at the seams - there was a huge line outside the Roman Baths and so I quickly crossed that off my list of things to do in the short term! Everywhere I turned I heard American accents, which is a novelty as I haven't really come across that much so far. One thing I will always remember about Bath was its soundtrack - the main square which the Roman baths, Abbey Church and information centre all surround was often occupied by a vibraphone playing busker belting out Chopin, Mozart or Beethoven - it was enough to make me feel as if I was in a music box!

Scared off by the crowds, I took refuge in the Abbey church - the heart of Medieval Bath and originally the centre of a monastery and nunnery. The church is made from the same light coloured limestone as most of the buildings in the city centre - it's such a magical substance and manages to make hefty buildings look almost as light as a feather. Coupled with English Gothic tree-branch ceilings and glorious stained glass, the Abbey church sings with light.

The stone floors and walls are a patchwork of memorials and burial stones from ages past, covering several hundreds of years of Bath's history. One particularly moving one was for Sophia Louisa Gomm, who died in 1817 at the age of 29 years old. 'But to none could her merits be so well known as to her support, her comfort, and the advisor of her old age, and whose grief at her early removal must be as lasting as breath and recollection remain.' Underneath Sophia's stone was one for that very same Aunt, Jane Gomm who died half a decade later at the age of 69. Despite having waited on Princesses and being the sister of a Countess, Jane's stone still makes space to mention her grief at loosing Sophia - their affection must have been very strong :(

Interestingly enough, an Australian flag hangs in the church - a memorial to Governor Phillip, the colony's first head of state. It turns out that after finishing his tenure he came to Bath to retire. By the time he lived here, Bath's heyday had passed and the plentiful, good quality but cheap accomodation gave the city a second popularity as the retirement home of the middle class of the time ;)

I spent most of the remainder of the afternoon wandering the streets. I pretty much came upon Bath's two most famous residential streets by accident - the Circus and Royal Avenue. The first is a circlet of Georgian town houses, the first of its kind in England and forerunner to Picadilly circus in London and other such streets around the country. Three magnificent trees grow in the centre round and are close enough together that at first they appear to be one huge tree.

Royal Avenue has the same grandeur but instead forms an open semi-circle overlooking parkland and then the surrounding hills. Instead of being aware of the status of others around you, it appears more like a country house that just happens to be situated in the middle of a city. The two streets were the jewels in Bath's crown and they sparkled so much that they are often seen as the city's sun and moon.

One thing I can strongly recommend to anyone who visits Bath is to check out No. 1 Royal Avenue. This townhouse has been furnished in the Georgian style and opened to the public as a museum. I have a weakness for such things and love to imagine the people that lived in such houses, but I was surprised at the friendly and truely informative nature of the guides which stood in each room.

While originally Bath was the destination for the elderly and the infirm who came here to sample the healing powers of the hot mineral water that wells up here, once the Queen and her daughters began to visit the city took a fashionable turn. It got to the point where people would live half the year in London for the 'season' there then move to rented accomodation in Bath for the remainder where it was warmer and the sitation was deliberately geared towards meeting people and socialising. The young and the young at heart would decend on the city to splash their money around, attend as many parties as possible and either make their fortune (it was a great place to find a husband) or loose them (card games were extremely popular).

That night I went on the free walking tour they offer here. There's one in the morning and every afternoon but over the warmer months they also provide at guide at 7pm. We saw a lot of the supposedly well known parts of Bath and learnt their histories (I say supposedly because my knowledge of Bath was very slight before this trip!) but the walk took on an extra special quality by lamplight.
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