By Tom Merchant
Bath is a stunning city with so much to discover that any single walk can only scratch the surface. I’ve blazed this trail to salute the architects, engineers and entrepreneurs who, over the centuries, have created a place that is such a delight to explore.
So come with me on my trail and explore the extraordinarily rich heritage of this magnificent city. See how you get on with the sprinkling of trivia questions – answers at the end.
Let’s set out from the Abbey Church Yard, alongside the Roman Baths. In 1987 Bath was awarded World Heritage status, one of very few entire cities to be recognised in this way.
The restorative waters of the natural hot springs have been enjoyed from the earliest times. The Celts built a shrine to their goddess Sulis here and the Romans named their settlement Aquae Sulis and used their technology to develop the baths.
Bath’s popularity as a Spa town soared in the Georgian era, when social life here was presided over by the dandy and leader of fashion, Beau Nash, who was named the Master of Ceremonies.
Bath Abbey, right next to the baths, was founded in the 7th century and rebuilt twice. The first King of England was crowned in an earlier church on this site in a service which set the precedent for the coronation of all future monarchs, including Queen Elizabeth II.
The beautiful building that you see today was built by Bishop Oliver King in 1499. The carvings on the front depict a dream that he had of angels climbing a ladder to heaven. They include an olive tree and a crown which reflect the bishop’s name.
Halfway along the Churchyard, the Great Pump Room was built in the 1790s for the convenience of people who came to drink the waters. Through the tall glass French doors you can see tables laid invitingly for tea and you’re able to taste the waters at the pump inside.
Here’s the first trivia question: How does the Pump Room management team describe the taste of the water? a) Absolutely splendid b) An acquired taste c) Rather unusual
Walk through the colonnade and turn right up Stall Street and on to Upper Borough Walls. Here is the Royal Mineral Water Hospital, designed by John Wood in 1738 and paid for by subscribers including King George II. This followed an act of Parliament back in 1597 which allowed the “diseased and poor of England” to use the Baths for free. Today this NHS Trust has an international reputation for Rheumatology.
Our trail continues up Old Bond Street with its beautiful bowed shop fronts, into the charmingly named Quiet Street and along to Queen Square.
In the early 1700s John Wood, an architect and early entrepreneur, came up with an ambitious plan to restore Bath to its ancient glory. Queen Square was his first speculative development. He teamed up with Robert Gay, a barber surgeon, who owned fields here, and established Bath’s architectural style, the principles of which were copied throughout the town.
- The Square is named after the wife of George II. What was her name? Queen… a) Caroline b) Charlotte c) Elizabeth
Gay Street, designed by John Wood in 1735 links Queen Square to The Circus. It was completed by his son, John Wood the Younger, who lived at No 41 on the corner of the square.
The Jane Austen Centre at 40 Gay Street is a popular spot for visitors. The annual Jane Austen Festival in September draws thousands of her fans from around the world. It opens with the Grand Regency Costumed Promenade, with over 500 people all in Regency costume processing through the City past landmarks with Jane Austen connections. The ten-day festival includes readings, concerts, workshops, re-enactments, dances and a summer ball in the Guildhall. Tempted? More details on the Festival Website: http://www.janeaustenfestivalbath.co.uk/
Just up the hill, at Queen’s Parade Place, sedan chairs were housed, conveniently near the well-to-do part of town. Many of those attending the Spa had limited mobility and found the chairs a convenient mode of transport. They were replaced in the mid-19th century by Bath Chairs, a small three wheeled vehicle pushed by hand.
If you head up Gravel Walk near the end of Queen’s Parade Place, you’ll find a small Georgian Garden. It was recreated using original plans of c1760 and verified by excavations by the Bath Archaeological Trust. Plants known to have grown in town gardens of the era have been used making this restored retreat the first of its kind in Britain.
Continuing along Gravel Walk we soon come to The Royal Crescent, one of the greatest examples of Georgian architecture in the country. It comprises 30 houses designed by John Wood the Younger and built between 1767 and 1774.
Number 1 was built first as a model for others to follow and each house had to conform strictly to the architect’s plans. Numbers 15 and 16 are combined to form a hotel, one of the finest in the UK.
From here let’s head down Brock Street with its delightfully irregular set of mid-Georgian buildings, which contrast with the perfect symmetry of the Royal Crescent at one end and the Circus at the other.
- This street is said to run along the line of…a) A Roman Road b) Psychic energy c) 52 degrees north
The Circus, with magnificent trees dominating the centre is Britain’s first circular street, designed by John Wood the Elder. It represents the sun with the Royal Crescent the moon and was completed by his son in 1754. There are three entrances and a frieze of 528 different symbols running around the terraces.
John Wood the Younger became an architect under his famous father’s tutelage and continued his vision, pioneering Neo-classicism which you can see in the Assembly Rooms, just around the corner from the Circus. When completed in 1771 they soon became the centre for Georgian high society. You can visit the magnificent 18th century ballrooms and iconic Octagon room. The building also houses a world-renowned fashion museum, with exhibitions and fun activities – youngsters can even try on replica Victorian and Georgian clothes!
Down the hill, Milsom Street with its original Georgian town houses dates from the 1760s and is mentioned in Jane Austen’s novels. It’s recently been voted “Britain’s Best Fashion Street”. It has long been a shopping street – Jolly and Son was founded in 1831 and recently restored to its former glory.
- In the 1940’s Queen Mary appointed Jolly & Sons as “…. to Her Majesty”. Was it… a) Habadashers b) Perfumerers c) Silk Mercers
Turn left into Green Street and you’ll find St Michael’s Without, the first church to be built outside the city walls. Nearby, the Saracen’s Head with its fine pub sign is one of the oldest pubs in Bath, dating from 1713, predating the Georgian development of the city.
Continue on, past the alley known as Slippery Lane, typical of this part of town in medieval times. Bridge Street takes you down the hill past the Art Gallery to Pulteney Bridge leading to Great Pulteney Street.
The bridge could be mistaken for a row of shops but, looking through the flower shop, for example, you can see the river beyond. This is one of only four bridges in the world with shops along its length such as the Ponte Vecchio in Florence – see the QuizTrail post last week!
In the late 1700s the City Fathers wanted Bath to expand and Great Pulteney Street was designed: 1,000 feet long and 100 feet wide. Private owners and developers built a variety of buildings, from homes to hotels, but were obliged to use the prescribed design for the facades. Further development this side of the river did not take place due to a financial downturn in 1797, triggered by the bursting of the real estate bubble in the US, which spread here.
- Does this sound familiar? This one was called… a) The Panic b) The Crash of 97 c) The Slump
Famous residents include William Smith, the ‘Father of English Geology’ and the anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce, who stayed at No 36 in 1802 and 1805.
Jane Austen, who lived nearby for a time at 4 Sydney Place, set part of Northanger Abbey in Great Pulteney Street. The street was used in the filming of Persuasion in 1994. She died in July 1817 and Northanger Abbey was published posthumously in December that year, along with another previously unpublished novel.
- Which one? a) Sense and Sensibility b) Persuasion c) Pride and Prejudice
The fine mansion at the end of the street was originally the Stanley Hotel, built in 1796. It became Bath’s first public art gallery, based upon the extensive collections of Sir William Holburne, comprising mainly fine and decorative arts. Now known as the Holburne Museum, it contains a superb collection of art. Behind the building, Sydney Gardens were laid out for the Georgians in 1795 and were a favourite walk for Jane Austen.
In 1833 the civil engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, was appointed Engineer to the Great Western Railway (GWR) which would link London and Bristol. Like the Wood father and son architects, Brunel started his career as an apprentice to his engineer father. The new railway cut the popular Sydney Gardens in two and Brunel, who was involved in every detail of the project, ensured that the railway structures became a picturesque addition to the gardens. These included a cast iron footbridge which Network Rail has recently refurbished. When the first trains ran through here in 1841, spectators gathered to watch.
- How old was Brunel when he was appointed to build the railway? a) 33 b) 27 c) 41
A little further up the hill you’ll find the Kennet and Avon Canal, which connects London and Bristol by navigable river and canal. The idea of a canal was conceived in Elizabethan times, with the plan to link the rivers Thames and Avon, only 3 miles apart, as an alternative to the hazardous sea route. However, local gentry and farmers objected because of the loss of turnpike fees.
The objections to building the canal were eventually overcome and an Act of Parliament was passed in 1794. An engineering feat, 105 locks were built along the route and within a few years 60-ton barges were plying the canal, mostly carrying coal and stone and predating the GWR by 31 years.
However, the newer technology of the railway soon put the canal out of business and it fell into disuse. It was eventually restored for leisure use between 1960 and 1990, providing opportunities for boating, fishing, cycling and walking.
There are some brilliant sites along the canal, including this tunnel underneath Cleveland House, the former canal company headquarters.
- How did the company clerks pass paperwork from Cleveland House to the bargees? a) Trapdoor in tunnel roof b) Basket at tunnel entrance c) Children on pit ponies
There is a lovely walk back to the Abbey and Roman Baths along the canal towpath, past Brunel’s Bath Spa railway station and up the hill.
Bath’s hot springs were discovered centuries before the Romans came to Britain. The mineral-rich water emerges from three hot springs in what is now the centre of the city.
This really is what Bath is famous for! The Abbey is brilliant, the Royal Crescent is magnificent, Pulteney Bridge is a classic, but none of this would have been built here without the hot springs. The Romans immortalised the town with their baths, one of the best preserved Roman remains in the world. The word ‘Spa’ is said to come from the Latin Salus Per Aquam: health through water.
If you need tea rather than water after your walk, it’s not far from here to Sally Lunn’s. This world-famous tea shop occupies one of the oldest houses in Bath (1482) and is home to the famous Sally Lunn Bun, which they are at pains to point out is vastly superior to a Bath Bun.
I trust that you’ve enjoyed the trail and learnt a little about this wonderful city with its incredibly rich heritage. As you probably realise, we’ve only scratched the surface: there are over 5,000 listed buildings in the city! I hope I’ve inspired you to visit Bath to discover more about its rich history.
Here are the trivia answers: 1c 2a 3b 4c 5a 6b 7b 8a