THE WHYS AND WONDERS OF BRITAIN'S GEORGIAN BATH
Dropping into The Avon Valley, Bath unfolds like a Georgian movie set. Could that be a rustle of crinoline? Perhaps a lady hiking up her tresses to step daintily into a waiting horse-drawn carriage - off to another social gathering? Bath can play tricks with your mind.
Terraced houses, built of honey-coloured limestone, surround grassy squares and circles, neatly connected by broad treed avenues. Row upon row of chimney pots crowd roof ridges, each attached to a fireplace once attended by a bevy of scurrying maids. Apart from the River Avon which carves the city in half, nothing spoils the geometric pattern.
In 1987 the entire city became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Only Venice shares the same honour. The Romans came first in around AD 60. They built baths to capture the million litres of hot water that spout daily from the ground. Edgar was crowned King of The English at Bath Abbey nine hundred years later. For a while merchants grew rich from the cloth trade, harnessing the river's power to drive their mills.
The fun stuff began in Georgian times. Ralph Allen, a wealthy quarry owner, had both the stone and the cash and to get things started. Architect John Wood produced the design. Beau Nash, a penniless gambler and entrepreneur used his snake-oil charm to push the curative powers of the waters with promises such as:
'Get rid of your rheumatism, palsies, convulsions, lameness, colic, consumption, asthma, jaundice, scurvy, the itch, scab, leprosy, scrofula, gravel as well as coldness and pain in the head, epilepsies, most diseases of the eyes, deafness and noise in the ears, running of the ears, palpitation of the heart, sharpness of urine, wounds, ulcers, piles, numbness in any part, and all the special diseases of women, including infertility."
The threesome were a winning combination. Bath soon became a fashionable place to "do" the season. Suitable accommodation was needed to house aristocratic visitors and their entourage of servants.
John Wood Jnr completed his father's work on The Circus (a full circle of townhouses) in 1760 and designed The Royal Crescent with 30 magnificent 5 storey townhouses (they now run a cool 3 Million Pounds) in 1774.
Wealthy people suffering from port induced gout and other maladies brought-on by over-indulgence, flocked to the place in droves. Got a daughter to marry off? There must be a well?heeled suitor at the gaming tables.
The Pump Room opened with much fanfare in 1706 - much to the delight of ladies who discovered that hot baths wreaked havoc with a well-coiffed hairdo. Life took on a strict routine. Days began with a visit to the Pump Room to take the regulation three glasses of water and of course "to see and be seen." Church was attended at mid day, dinner at three, then an afternoon nap before card playing, dancing and socialising began in the evening.
Taking the water is still a ritual. The elegant Pump Room offers glasses of the stuff to wash down expensive clotted cream teas accompanied by The Pump Room Trio! But book ahead it's popular!
In 1801, Jane Austen and her family moved to a sociably acceptable house at #4 Sydney Street before the death of her father. Lack of cash eventually drove them to the lower ranked #25 Gay Street, a busy spot filled with carriages and sedan chairs for hire. Neither she nor her sister married. Perhaps their new digs were too downmarket to attract the right type of chap?!
Today, just 100 miles (160Kms) from London, Bath is a bustling city of 83000 including 14000 students who keep the nightlife and coffee bars hopping. Stars such as Johnny Depp and Nicholas Gage call this place home.
There is a lot to do. Hop-on-Hop-off buses. A Jane Austen tour. The excellent museum at #1 The Royal Crescent gives an insight into Georgian aristocratic life. There is even a free 2 hour walking tour beginning at The Abbey. Of course a visit to The Roman Baths tops the list. Oh and if you are feeling energetic, try walking or biking the 14 kilometre towpath along the historic Kennet and Avon Canal to historic Bradford-on-Avon, stopping for a pub lunch along the way? It's flat and worth the effort. Feeling lazy? Rent a boat and meander through the unspoilt countryside in style.
If you bore with being a tourist just hang over the wall above The River Avon. Take in the Pultney Bridge, one of only 4 in the world with shops built into the span. Admire colourful barges moored by the horseshoe-shaped weir and dream of days gone by!
If you want to be really pampered, spend a night or two at The Royal Crescent Hotel. There's no sign but the doorman standing outside #15 is a dead giveaway. Rates run from $300 to $1250 which includes breakfast!
IF YOU GO: Bath is at the Southerly point of The Cotswolds and a great place to start exploring this famous part of Britain.