Wednesday, 10 June 2015

The devil's in the detail

Too big for the camera so just half of the Royal Crescent
Being in Bath is like walking around a set for a Jane Austen film while surounded by an Aga saga.
Every piece of architecture right down to the local Sainsbury and the public toilets is Georgian or pseudo Georgian while the shops are as resolutely upper-middle class as can be: designer jewellery, designer kitchens, designer clothes, you get the picture.
But, submerged by foreign tourists and surrounded by affluent living, it's easy to retreat to the local Wetherspoons (yes, there is one; even here). Instead we decided to try and get to grips with the city in the best possible way: go for a guided walk.
Fine frontage of Poultney Street Bridge
But look behind the scenes and the other side's a muddle
We've done it in Liverpool and again in York and now here. Those first two were excellent and so was this one. And free. Yes, free you penny conscious boaters. The City Mayor's tour guides are so free they won't even take tips.
Georgian stone and Nick Grimshaw glass thermal baths
What we got was two hours of fascinating insight into the history, characters and architecture of Bath. The hot springs that bubble naturally out of the limestone rock have made the city a place of pilgrimage since before Roman times but they made the first serious city here and a bath house whose remains are now the place's number one tourist atttraction.
But after they left, though folk came to take the waters for centuries, it was the Georgians who turned it from a health cure to a social centre, our guide John explained.
Fine frontage of Bath Abbey
Angels on the stairway to and from heaven
The wealthy Georgians loved flashing the cash and had more to flash than many knew what to do with. They gambled, gamboled with women, ate, drank and generally behaved like people with too much money do even today.
And Bath became the place to do all this thanks to a remarkable character, Beau Nash, who was the city's 'master of ceremonies'. Think of a cross between Simon Cowell, Boris Johnson and Bono. If you can! He was the ultimate p.r. man and networker. He set up parties, brokered introductions and, above all, laid out a whole code of behaviour that ensured the place didn't degenerate into an 18th century Magaluf. He also made himself shed loads of money and ran numerous mistresses.
Anyone who was anyone came to Bath and continued to do so. Every other house seems to have a plaque...Nelson, Dickens, the lot.
Dickens' house and The Old Curiosity Shop
But while Beau ran the show, John Wood built the theatre. He was the man who created the Georgian Bath we see today. His Palladian architecture is everywhere; his classical squares and crescents abound. It was extremely clever; he created squares with magnificent frontages which were actually sub-divided so that a visiting chap might have rented just a room but could still make a show of going in through a huge and imposing shared front doorway.
And these houses – like the Georgians – were all about show, about front. Wood drew up his plans for the front facade of his buildings and then let jobbing builders do what they liked round the back. So, walk round the back and you'll see a hotch-potch of heights and styles. Or look at the flip side of the famous Poultney Bridge and see what an ungainly mess it is.
 Even Bath Abbey has its amusing intricacies. Either side of the front are carved ladders on which angels climb, carrying souls to heaven. Okay, they have wings but they still use ladders apparently. But how do they get down to earth – why there's an angel going head first down again.
Climax of it all was the magnificent Royal Crescent which stands at the high point of the hill that Bath is built on and in its time looked out across farmland to the river below. If you fancy living there, the local estate agent has a two bedroom apartment for just £1.5m. Nice garden – but no parking.
Each floor has different columns but why...
To the casual eye there is a certain sameness to this endless parade of classical columns but as John pointed out, the devil is in the detail. As in The Circus where the columns are different on each floor – Doric, Ionic, Corinthian. Nobody knows why incidentally and there are a host of theories of the Dan Brown fashion to explain. Then there's the house with the odd-one-out Gothic porch on the next street. Oh, and lots more.
Thanks John for a fine tour.

No comments:

Post a Comment