ex·pec·ta·tion: a strong belief that something will happen or be the case in the future; a belief that someone will or should achieve something.
A persons expectations can be the key to enjoyment or the riposte to disappointment. If you project your ideas too low then no one gets interested; if you tout too high, no one ever feels quite appeased. It could be said then that managing people’s expectations is one of the principle secrets to success.
You might surmise then that McDonalds has done a great job of it. They’ve demonstrated expertise at branding their burger chain as being the best deal in town, not necessarily the best burger. This despite the fact that their entire identity is built around hamburgers.
What does all this have to do with traveling to Bath, England you say? For starters, I’m writing to you about my personal observations of Bath; Bath through the eyes of Chris. I’m hoping to help you discover things about Bath that go well beyond the scope of what you might expect to find in Bath. So, while others may focus on its most obvious attributes such as the Roman Baths, I wanted to better illuminate Bath’s more obscure but interesting facts, history and architectural features.
The Roman baths are indeed amazingly well-preserved and definitely worthy of explanation; so, I will do my best to describe them for you in as descriptively visual terms as I’m capable. But, when I drove away from that uniquely singular place, my first thoughts were of how challenging it may be, given my limited writing skills, to convince vacationing travelers to look more deeply at Bath, to peel back the layers, and to venture outside the city center to discover its other gems.
A gem in and of itself is the scenic drive into Bath. Bath sits at the southern edge of the Cotswolds, a range of limestone hills and valleys designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The limestone quarried from there is particularly unique and has this creamy honey golden color. The stone is known world-wide as Bath Stone. Every house, cottage, mansion or castle in the vicinity is constructed from this beautifully rich and distinctive stone. While there, I learned that one of the zoning restrictions for all new construction inside the city of Bath requires builders to use this same stone on the façade to ensure that modern buildings pay homage to the city’s 18th century heritage.
Bath has long been an ancient borough with high status. First, with its close proximity to Stonehenge and its Neolithic/early Celtic Briton inhabitants. Afterwards, its Roman occupants constructed spa’s and baths around the first century AD where it became a well-known Roman vacation destination. After the fall of the Roman Empire it remained as a rare gem for the Kingdom of Mercia until the year 878 when it became a royal borough of Alfred the Great when it was ceded to the Kingdom of Wessex. If you’re a King Arthur fan, it is believed that Bath may have been the site of the Battle of Badon (c 500 AD) in which King Arthur is said to have defeated the Anglo-Saxons.
Despite the city name and its historical changing of landlords, Bath continued to be an important place. The Roman baths and impressive stone infrastructures continued to serve whomever claimed it. By the 18th century, Bath evolved into a posh village for Britain’s elite. Its hot mineral baths were advertised as having curative properties so people migrated from far away to find respite for whatever ailments they suffered. If you had any sort of illness from leprosy to acne, and also had money, you were definitely moving to Bath. It all sounds great until you find yourself in a hot bath tub with a leper. But despite my negative thinking, Bath is now one of the best preserved 18th century cities in the world; designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
In fact, the famous 18th century author/novelist Jane Austen lived in Bath for many years. You might have read a few of her famous novels such as Pride and Prejudice, or Sense and Sensibility. If you read them deeply, you will find traces of Bath scattered throughout her writings. An example would be Bath’s Holburne Museum of Art – The impressive creamy gold Bath Stone façade mansion housing today’s museum. The manor and its grounds were a favorite walk for Jane Austen while she lived in Bath, she thus set part of her novel “Northanger Abbey” across from the Holburne Mansion.
Today, the impressive manor home houses the late Sir William Holburne’s collection of fine and decorative arts. Some of the artists represented inside will include Gainsborough, Guardi, Stubbs, Ramsay and Zoffany. The manor home has also been used for filming numerous movies such as Persuasion (1994), The Duchess (2008) staring Keira Knightley, Vanity Fair (2004) with Reese Witherspoon, as well as numerous other foreign films.
By far, one of the most impressive things I visited in Bath was the Royal Crescent. The Crescent is a 500-foot-long row of Georgian styled terraced houses laid out in a sweeping crescent. Designed by the famed architect John Wood-the Younger and built between 1767 and 1774, the Royal Crescent is among the finest examples of Georgian architecture to be found in the United Kingdom. It boasts over one hundred Ionic columns on its first floors with an entablature in a Palladian style above.
Architect John Wood-the Elder, father of the Crescent’s architect, had earlier designed the Bath Circus in 1754 which is also regarded as a preeminent example of Georgian architecture. The name comes from the Latin word ‘circus’ which means a ring, oval or circle. The Circus is essentially an incredibly fancy roundabout divided into three segments of equal length with a lawn in the center and Georgian styled buildings at its perimeters. Each of the three building segments faces one of the three entrances to the roundabout, ensuring a classical façade is always presented straight ahead. After my left-handed, standard shift, two-day drive in Wales, I decided that I don’t particularly like roundabouts anymore, but this one is very special.
The senior Wood, as its architect, was convinced that Bath was historically the principle center of Druid activity in Britain so he studied nearby Stonehenge to ensure that his Circus design would pay homage to what most people believed to be an ancient Druid ceremonial ground (There are some different ideas about Stonehenge today). Three classical orders (Doric, Roman/Composite, and Corinthian) are used, one above the other, in the elegant curved facades. The frieze of the Doric entablature is decorated with altering triglyphs and pictorial emblems. One very interesting fact is that when viewed from the air, the Circus, along with Queens Square and the adjoining Gay Street, form a key shape, which is a masonic symbol found frequently in many of Wood’s other building designs.
My wife and I particularly enjoy visiting impressive cathedrals and abbey’s when traveling and Bath Abbey was one of those sites on my bucket list. Particularly because of its unique vaulted ceiling. Founded in the 7th century, reorganized in the 10th century and rebuilt in the 12th and 16th centuries, Bath Abbey is one of the largest examples of Perpendicular Gothic architecture in the West. It’s most unique feature, in my opinion, is its notable fan vaulting. We actually know that brothers Robert and William Vertue, architects and stone masons for King Henry VII, were the designers and builders of this particular fan vault. They not only built Bath Abbey’s fan vault, they also built the vaulted ceilings inside the Tower of London, King’s College Chapel in Cambridge and Henry VII’s chapel at Westminster.
Our hotel in Bath, the Hilton Bath City, was located just a block from the extraordinary Pulteney Bridge. This interesting bridge crossing the river Avon, is reminiscent of the Ponte Vecchio Bridge we saw while traveling in Florence, Italy. I say this essentially because it is a bridge with shops built across its full span on both sides. The bridge was built in 1774 in the Palladian style by Robert Adam. My wife, my sister and I not only walked along the bridge visiting the shops but we also found a stone path and stairway that led us to the river’s edge so that we could snap a few glamor shots of the bridge from below.
Something I hadn’t mentioned before is that I had accidently forgotten my razor when packing for the trip. That led to the obvious annoyances to both Emily and I, but alas, my stroll to the Pulteney Bridge allowed me to discover a cool little barber shop along the way called New Saville Row. I made the proper arrangements with the gentleman who told me that although they were about to close, that I could return in 30 minutes and he’d give me a shave. Thirty minutes later I was comfortably laid back in an old style barber chair with a hot towel on my face about to embark on my very first professional straight razor shave. I had no idea what I’d been missing all these years. These guys were unbelievably courteous to stay open for me and it was an experience I won’t soon forget.
Jane Austen wrote, in her 1811 novel Sense and Sensibility, “I come here with no expectations, only to profess, now that I am at liberty to do so, that my heart is and always will be yours.” Bath is certainly much more than it was when Jane Austen lived there. Although it is now a very modern city with both a professional Rugby team and Football club, two universities and nearly one hundred-thousand people, it is still very much still trapped in the wrinkled skin of its 18th century past. In my book, its a hard act to follow, even for a very cool and mostly intact two thousand year old Roman bath.
I can’t say for sure what my expectations actually were when I arrived in Bath but what I can say without any pause is that Bath exceeded, no a better word might be trounced, any notion of what I had first imagined it to be. The name is Bath and of course there are Roman baths there so I guess that was where my mind was initially. But Bath is far more than just its namesake. If you decide to be one of the three million annual visitors of Bath in the near future, and I hope you are, don’t just tour the baths and the abbey and leave. Bath is far more than that. If you stay long enough, you might even start pronouncing it Baath.