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BATH: A GEORGIAN VALLEY OF PLEASURE WHERE WATER IS BEST.

JK GILLON

THE CITY OF BATH

The City of Bath is situated by the winding valley of the River Avon in a natural wooded amphitheatre at the southern tip of the Cotswolds. The archaeological record of the City dates back to around 5000 B.C. with the discovery of Mesolithic flints and other debris in the area of the hot mineral springs to which Bath owes its existence. The springs still gush forth 250,000 gallons of water a day at a constant temperature of 120 degrees.

Legend ascribes the foundation of Bath to the 9th century B.C. when the Celtic Prince Bladud, the father of Shakespeare's King Lear, stumbled upon the healing properties of the springs. Prince Bladud had contracted leprosy and left the royal court to take up occupation as a swineherd. He was unlucky enough to be in charge of pigs that suffered from a skin disease. This was cured when they wallowed in a pool formed by the springs. Prince Bladud plunged into the pool himself and was cured of his leprosy. He established a spa on the site of this miracle, dedicating the springs to the Celtic god Sul. Whatever the truth of this story, it is known that the springs were a sacred shrine in Celtic times.

The thermal springs at Bath and its strategic location on a river crossing at a crucial point in their early frontier system attracted the Roman conquerors soon after their invasion of Britain in A.D. 43. The Romans knew Bath as Aquae Sulis, the local deity Sul being the equivalent of Minerva, the Roman goddess of healing, and by the end of the 3rd century their buildings covered 25 acres. Successive excavations have revealed a remarkable series of relics from this period, with the remains of the magnificent collonaded baths, which were rediscovered in 1755, being among the most striking Roman antiquities in Western Europe.

Bath again rose to prominence as an important religious centre in the 9th century, with its abbey as the focal point. Edgar, the first king of all England, was crowned there in 973 in a ceremony which was to become the basis of all coronations. The present abbey church of St Peter and St Paul occupies the site of the earlier Saxon and Norman churches and dates from the 16th century incorporating parts of the cathedral the Normans built into its design. The construction of the abbey was ordered, in 1499, by Oliver King, Bishop of Bath and Wells, who was inspired by a dream in which angels climbed and descended between heaven and earth. The dream was later brought to life in stone on the flanking turrets of the west end of the abbey in which carved angels ascend and descend on Jacob's Ladder. The present cruciform building, is a particularly pure and ornate example of Late Perpendicular Gothic work. It is known as the >>Lantern of the West<< from its vast number of windows.

After a period of neglect, Bath's transformation in the 18th century into a fashionable resort and supreme example of urban planning and architecture is linked with the work of three men, John Wood senior who conceived and developed plans to rebuild and extend Bath into a spacious Georgian City, Ralph Allen who provided the financial expertise, patronage and stone from his local quarries, and Richard (Beau) Nash who, as Master of Ceremonies, initiated a programme of social activities which turned the City from a small scale spa into a place of the utmost fashion and elegance. A >>Vallley of pleasure<< the leading centre of English high society outside London, in which >>to beauty of site was added beauty of plan and architecture, perfectly fitted to the nature of the life that was led there<<. The united society which Nash sought to create was expressed in the integrated design of terraces, squares and crescents which acted as a backcloth to its activities.

Wood's finest monuments are Queen Square and the Circus which, with its Tuscan, Ionic and Corinthian columns, is like the Colosseum in Rome turned inside out. After Wood's death in 1754, his work was continued by his son, also John, who >>consummately brought art and nature together<< in the glorious Royal Crescent, the first ever crescent to be built in England. Many other architects added their work to the Georgian city, including Robert Adam, who designed the picturesque Pulteney Bridge over the River Avon taking his inspiration from the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, and Thomas Baldwin, the City Architect, who created Great Pulteney Street, one of the most impressive streets in the city, and The Pump Room which gives access to the Roman Baths and has the inscription 'Water is Best' carved over its entrance.

The life and times of Bath in its Georgian heyday are graphically depicted in the literary works of Tobias Smollett, Sheridan and Jane Austen and the paintings of Thomas Gainsborough.

Bath is one of the most elegant and architecturally distinguished of British cities and is unique on the World Heritage list in that the whole city is inscribed as a World Heritage Site. This reflects the fact that the distinction and splendour of Bath lies less in its individual triumphs of architecture than in the total effect of the overall wealth of elegantly sophisticated terraces and crescents with their Palladian facades which cover Bath and its steep valley sides.



Bath Abbey

Bath: Roman Baths

Bath: Roman Baths

Beau Nash

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