The Royal Crescent, the best known of Bath’s terraces, the Royal Crescent, was built in 1767-1774 by the younger John Wood (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)
Bath is at the end of the Avon Valley, and near the southern edge of the Cotswolds, so that the surrounding hills give the city its steep streets and make its buildings appear to climb the slopes.
More than a million visitors stay in Bath each year, and the city attracts almost four million day visitors annually. Its reputation as a centre for heritage and cultural tourism was boosted over 20 years ago when Bath was recognised as a Unesco World Heritage Site – a status accorded to places such as the Acropolis, Venice, Rome, the Giant’s Causeway, the Skelligs Rocks and the Grand Canyon.
The popularity of Bath as a spa resort in the Georgian period led to a major expansion, giving it a unique architectural heritage. All significant stages of English history are represented here, from the Roman Baths, with their earlier Celtic associations, to Bath Abbey and the Royal Crescent.
With a population of around 84,000, Bath is about the same size as Limerick, Galway or Derry. It is only an hour or two from Dublin, but I sometimes wonder whether it has the popularity it deserves among potential Irish visitors. Bath is easy to get to: it is 156 km west of London, 21 km south-east of Bristol, Bristol International Airport is 30 km away, and there are regular trains from London, Bristol and Cardiff to Bath Spa Railway Station, built by the great Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
Celtic and Roman baths
Bath Abbey seen above the city’s ancient Roman baths (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)
The water bubbling up through the springs into the baths at Bath first fell as rain on the Mendip Hills tens of thousands of years ago. This water then percolated through limestone aquifers to a depth of 2,700 to 4,300 metres, where geothermal energy raises the water temperatures. This heated water rises to the surface, and more than a million litres of water, naturally heated to 46 degrees Centigrade, bubble up every day from three mineral-rich springs into the centre of Bath.
These are Britain’s only naturally occurring hot springs, and Bath owes its origins to a spa resort founded in AD 43 by the Romans, who named it Aquae Sulis (“Waters of Sulis”). The Romans built their baths and a temple around the hot springs, where the Celts had once dedicated a shrine to the goddess Sulis. The Romans identified her with Minerva and built a temple here in 60-70 AD. The Roman complex expanded in the following three centuries, and included the calidarium or hot bath, tepidarium or warm bath, and frigidarium or cold bath.
After the Romans withdrew in the early fifth century, the baths fell into disrepair and silted up. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle notes that Bath fell in 577 to the West Saxons, who named the place Baðum, meaning “at the baths” – the name has remained ever since.
During the reign of Elizabeth I, Bath experienced a revival in popularity as a spa, the baths were improved and Bath was granted city status in 1590.
Thomas Guidott moved there in 1668 to set up a medical practice, attracted by the curative properties of the waters. His books renewed popular interest in the hot mineral waters and once again visitors returned to Bath in large numbers.
Once more, Bath became a fashionable centre in the 18th century. Visitors needed accommodation, and the architect John Wood and his son designed new buildings and laid out new streets, squares, terraces and crescents. During this time, Bath’s Theatre Royal was built, as well as the Royal Crescent, Queen Square, The Circus, Great Pulteney Street and Pulteney Bridge.
Unique architectural legacy
The neo-classical façades of the new Palladian houses gave a palatial scale to Bath. The Bath stone used throughout the city has a characteristic honey-gold colour and was mined nearby at Combe Down and Bathampton Down. But the honey-gold façades conceal the original purpose of most of these buildings. Before the days of luxury hotels, many of these apparently elegant residences were purpose-built lodging houses, where visitors could hire a room, a floor, or even an entire house for their stay.
The best known of Bath’s terraces, the Royal Crescent, was built in 1767-1774 by the younger John Wood. But all is not as it seems: Wood designed the great curved façade of what appears to be 30 terraced houses with Ionic columns on the ground floor, but that was the extent of his input. Each purchaser bought a measured length of the façade, and then employed their own architect to build a house to their own specifications behind it. What appears to be two houses is sometimes one, and while the front of the Royal Crescent is uniform and symmetrical, the rear is a mixture of differing roof heights, juxtapositions and fenestration.
The Circus – 33 houses in three curved terraces forming a circular space – was inspired by the Colosseum in Rome (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)
This “Queen Anne fronts and Mary-Anne backs” architecture occurs repeatedly in Bath.
The Circus consists of 33 houses in three long, curved terraces designed by the elder John Wood to form a circular space or theatre for civic functions and games. Wood was inspired by the Colosseum in Rome, and like the Colosseum the three façades have a different order of architecture on each floor: Doric on the ground level, Ionic on the middle floor, and Corinthian on the upper floor, so that the buildings become progressively more ornate as they rise.
Georgian elegance glimpsed through a window in Bath (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)
Queen Square, one of the first unified classical spaces in a British town, was named after George II’s wife, Queen Caroline. The heart of Georgian Bath was the Grand Pump Room, designed – along with the Lower Assembly Rooms – by Thomas Baldwin. Around 1770, Robert Adam designed Pulteney Bridge, a three-arched bridge over the Avon, using an unused design by Palladio for the Rialto Bridge in Venice.
Literary and artistic Bath
Edmund Burke and Oliver Goldsmith both lived in the same house in Bath (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)
Georgian and Regency Bath attracted writers, artists and politicians of the day. The painter Thomas Gainsborough lived here, as did the Irish politician Edmund Burke and the Irish poet Oliver Goldsmith. The Irish playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan set his play The Rivals in Bath and eloped with Elizabeth Linley while he lived here.
Jane Austen lived in Bath from 1801 but never liked the city (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)
Jane Austen lived in Bath from 1801 with her father, mother and sister Cassandra, and the family lived at four successive addresses until 1806. One of those houses was in Gay Street, and the Jane Austen Centre, a few doors away, tells the story of her life in the city.
Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, set largely in the city, feature descriptions of taking the waters, social life, and music recitals. However, she never liked Bath, and after she left she wrote to Cassandra: “It will be two years tomorrow since we left Bath for Clifton, with what happy feelings of escape.”
Abbey or cathedral?
Fan vaulting over the nave of Bath Abbey …made from local Bath stone, this is a Victorian restoration in the 1860s of the roof from 1608 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)
Bath is part of the Diocese of Bath and Wells, but Bath Abbey is not a cathedral – a similar mistake is often made about Westminster Abbey.
Bath Abbey was once known as the “Lantern of the West” because of the impact of light flooding in through its windows. A Benedictine monastery was founded here in 675. King Offa of Mercia rebuilt the monastery in 781, and dedicated it to Saint Peter and Saint Paul. Here Edgar was crowned the first King of England on Whit Sunday, 973.
When John of Tours became Bishop of Wells and Abbot of Bath in 1088, he moved his seat from Wells to Bath, and began planning a much larger church as his cathedral. Bath shared cathedral status with Wells for a time, and when later bishops returned to Wells they continued to be called Bishop of Bath and Wells.
The west end of Bath Abbey illustrates Oliver King’s dream that inspired him to restore the building at the turn of the 15th and 16th centuries (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)
By the 15th century, Bath Abbey was dilapidated. Bishop Oliver King of Bath and Wells decided in 1499 to rebuild the Norman cathedral and church on a smaller scale. The dream that inspired the project is represented on the façade of the west end of the abbey, with angels ascending and descending ladders, and olive trees encircled with crowns and crowned with mitres.
The new church was near completion when Bath Priory was dissolved at the Reformation in 1539. Once again, the abbey church became derelict, but under Elizabeth I, when the city was experiencing a revival as a spa, the restoration of the abbey as the city’s parish church began.
The alabaster effigy and monument of Bishop James Montagu, who restored Bath Abbey in the early 17th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)
The tomb of Bishop James Montagu stands within iron railings near the centre of the abbey. He became Bishop of Bath and Wells in 1608, when the abbey was still largely in ruins, and used his personal fortune to complete the restoration work in 1617.
The abbey has 640 monuments – more than any other church in England apart from Westminster Abbey – and 847 ledgers or gravestones. The monument to Colonel Robert Walsh, who died in 1788, includes a broken column, representing the extinction of his branch of an old Irish family.
An Irish bishop’s mother, fondly remembered in Bath Abbey by her son (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)
Another monument recalls the Marchioness of Ely. She was Jane Myhill, from Killarney, Co Kilkenny, and she married Sir Charles Tottenham Loftus (1738-1806) of Loftus Hall, Co Wexford, who became Marquess of Ely for his support of the Act of Union. The monument was erected by their son, Bishop Robert Ponsonby Tottenham, while he was Bishop of Killaloe, later Bishop of Ferns and then Bishop of Clogher.
Beau Nash’s monument in Bath Abbey … he died aged 87 after a lifetime’s reign over the social life of the city and its spa (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)
Other monuments recall Sir Isaac Pitman the inventor of shorthand writing, Thomas Malthus the economist, and Richard “Beau” Nash, the Georgian Bath socialite – he was the celebrated Master of Ceremonies in Bath for most of the 18th century, presiding over the city’s social life and drawing up a code of behaviour for public entertainments.
The great east window of Bath Abbey is an example of the best Victorian stained glass … it was damaged in the air raids of 1942, but was restored after World War II (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)
In April 1942, Bath suffered three air raids in which over 400 people were killed, and more than 19,000 buildings were damaged, including houses in Royal Crescent, the Circus and the south side of Queen Square, as well as the Assembly Rooms and Bath Abbey. In the 1960s and early 1970s, parts of Bath were redeveloped unsympathetically, with the loss of some 18th and 19th century buildings.
In recent years, Bath has tried to recapture its historical place as the only town in Britain with naturally heated spring waters. But plans have not always gone as expected. In August 2003, the Three Tenors sang at a concert to mark the opening of the Thermae Bath Spa, a new hot water spa. But delays in the project meant the spa only opened three years later – in August 2006.
Controversial recent developments led to a review last year of the status of Bath as a World Heritage Site. Eventually, the city kept its status, but Unesco has insisted on being consulted on future developments, saying Bath must do more to attract world-class architecture to any new work.
But Bath – which has a similar status to Venice – also needs to do more to attract potential visitors from neighbouring Ireland.
The organ case and gallery, glimpsed through some abbey pillars, were designed by Sir Thomas Jackson in 1914 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)
Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This essay was first published in the February editions of the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel and Ossory)