Home > Culture, History, Travel > A Sojourn in Britain: Thoughts on Bath

A Sojourn in Britain: Thoughts on Bath

Romans and Georgian British alike agreed that Bath was a charming place to relax in, and modern travelers can see the wisdom in the opinion. The ages-old resort town in West Somerset has some natural advantages of landscape, nestled in the verdant valley of the River Avon, with its course winding through the town. But what might otherwise have developed as a quaint riverside country town instead became a sought-after retreat for centuries due to another natural advantage: the hot springs that bubble to the surface in the area.

Visiting Bath today puts the continuity of its function as a northern oasis through multiple ages of history into sharp relief. The remarkable archaeological site and interpretive museum erected around the excavated ruins of the Roman Baths of Aquae Sulis testifies to the city’s role in the Roman-ruled Britain of the mid-1st Century AD: not merely a centre of comfort and physical relaxation, but a focal point of pagan worship in connection with the sacred spring.

The museum displays and archaeological pits laid open for visitors are amazing enough, but next to the Great Bath itself, standing on the Roman paving stones with the much later terrace and neo-classical statues above, a different impression reigns. A past both dead and living drifts with the steam off of the heated waters there, a history utilitarian and recreational, physical and spiritual. From certain views, the white stone Bath Abbey (standing on the spot where the first King of all England was crowned in the 10th Century) rises above the entire scene, adding a whole other dimension of history and aesthetic effect to the scene.

Elsewhere, the legacy of the town’s status as a preferred retreat for the monied invalids and hypochondriacs of the Georgian and Regency eras is felt more strongly, particularly in John Wood the Younger’s residential architectural icons from the period, the Royal Crescent and the Circus. Jane Austen is the most renowned of these transplanted residents, though not during her own lifetime, and she was famously quite miserable in Bath. “Who can ever be tired of Bath?”, a line from Catherine Morland, her lead character in Northanger Abbey, is often attributed to Austen herself and stripped of the biting sarcasm with which she clearly meant it. “Taking the waters” of Bath’s spa was a catch-all prescription to cure various ills in the pre-bacterial medical prognoses of the day. This meant both immersion in and consumption of the spring-fed liquid, despite the astronomically high bacterial content (ironic, really) and the odd taste of the water. Still, no small number of comfortable gentlemen and ladies made the city their semi-permanent convalescent home in this time, and the attendant wealth has never really decamped.

It’s this legacy of luxury that predominates in the city today, and not only in its historic Georgian architectural tradition, either. The streets of central Bath, like those of any other popular travel destination, are now dotted with corporate chain shops, expensive local boutiques, and gourmet dining; the SouthGate area near the train station has even been redeveloped into a spotless open-air shopping mall, its scrubbed new three-story white-gold Bath Stone facades approximating the older edifices in the old town. As much as the conscientious class warrior feels compelled to bemoan such consumerist penetration, it’s more appropriate in Bath than most such developments in historic places. Its heritage is one of bourgeois consumption, after all, back to the Georgians and even to the Romans, to some extent. Continued consumption can’t honestly be considered anything but valid, from this point of view at least.

All of this background sets Bath up as a playground for the rich with a few historic sites to draw in the masses, and it’s hardly merely that. Like most of the country, Bath holds onto a stolid English charm despite the onslaught of corporate consumerism, and refuses to relinquish the gentility and ease that retreating visitors have sought there for centuries. Spanish guitar notes in a square, afternoon tea down on a quiet street, and a stroll along a flowing river all have an eternal appeal to a weary vacationing soul. It helps if the weather holds, too, and if it does then Bath can offer the above as well as the deep historical roots of its more famed diversions. Whatever those diversions and that history may be, they mean little if the current incarnation of the place fails to envelop the visitor in the same way. But Bath still has the power to enrapture, and who as long as it does, who indeed can ever be tired of it?

Categories: Culture, History, Travel
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