Bath owes its existence to a one-off geological phenomenon.
In a small area of the city centre, just 80 metres by 20 metres in area, three hot springs emerge from the carboniferous limestone on which the city stands. The water, is heated to 45 degrees Celsius by a 2,500 metre journey through the earth’s crust, isand isare utterly unique – no other British spa emerges at such a temperature, warmer than the human body.
This aloneIt is this, and this alone, which has drawn humans to Bath over thousands of years. Unlike the surrounding hills, the site offers no military advantages, the river isn’t navigable and there’s no natural route for a road to take. So, while there was a considerable Iron Age population in the hills and fortified settlement around Bath, it was the Romans who first built anything significant around the spa around 60 A.D., following their conquest of Britain, to enjoy the unmatched benefits of the water.
Roman Bath was neither a huge nor a fortified settlement, and it lay desolate in the post-Roman period, until the English town was founded. Bath Abbey was founded in the 7th century and became a cathedral under the Normans in 1091. It was rebuilt in 1500 but still remains one of the oldest buildings in Bath, thanks to the huge building projects carried out there from the 18th century, when Bath became a resort town for the aristocracy. Royal visitors, including Charles II, had helped to make the resort hugely popular, with a massive increase in both residential and seasonal population.
As Britain industrialised, Bath started to cater for a much wider, middle-class client base; however the city fell from fashion in the latter half of the 19th century. As tastes changed towards seaside resorts and the working classes began to gain time and money for leisure tourism, Bath’s spas catered for a much smaller clientele.
However, the city rallied again in the 20th century, thanks not to the spas themselves but to the outstanding preservation of period Georgian architecture which the spas had helped create. It gained UNESCO World Heritage Status in 1987, the only entire town in the UK to receive this designation, and is now, with a population of just 89,000, the ninth most visited city in the whole of England.
Urban Renaissance – Bath at the centre of English social life
Our review of Bath’s cultural impact starts – unsurprisingly – with its growth as a resort town. The physical rebuilding of the city to a fashionable Georgian ideal, as with other resort towns, was tied inexorably with the growth of such provincial towns as the centre of English cultural life in the 18th century.
During this period, the town (particularly the resort town) became the centre of English society and culture alongside its architectural revival.. Aand this happened most of all in Bath. Peter Borsay has termed this phenomenon the ‘English Urban Renaissance’, and it can be recognised not just in the extravagant rebuilding of the city to fashionable ideals, but in the growing ostentatiousness of sartorial fashions, other forms of conspicuous consumption and the new consumer industries which grew in places like Bath to support this.
Such licentiousness was not universally approved – Charles Wesley, the prolific hymn writer, described Bath as ‘the Sodom of our land’ in 1741. But most were more easily enticed, as Bath’s lure as a resort town outgrew the original medicinal attraction of the spa water – the social scene, the balls, assemblies and productions made it the preeminent centre of leisure and networking first upper-, then middle-classes. We will explore nownow the output of this cultural melange.
Bath has entertained many famous residents; from royalty to artist, many went for short breaks and some stayed longer. But Jane Austen, one of Bath’s most famous residents, has links with the city which transcend her decade-long residence there.
BecauseBecause Bath not only homed Austen in her formative writing years; it gave her a direct view on her subject and infused her work with a lived knowledge of her subject. Austen was a master observer of Georgian society – where better to observe, and to portray, this than in the resort city where it was most conspicuously and knowingly displayed? And Bath as a setting is central to Austen’s novels – it was the centre of Georgian upper class social life and therefore the perfect setting for all the social intricacies and interactions that her novels explored.
Though Austen apparently didn’t like Bath all that much (an 1808 letter, written after she had moved away, conveys her joy at having escaped the city), Austen readily depicted it in her novels. The Grand Pump Room, built in the 1790s, appears in her novels Northanger Abbey and Persuasion as a place where the fashionable would meet, and film adaptations of both novels have been filmed at this location. In Northanger Abbey, the heroine first meets other central characters here. It’s clear from this that the Grand Pump Room (and, by extension, Bath) wasn’t just a place to ‘take the waters’ for medical purposes, but a centre of social interaction for its own sake.
If you’re visiting Bath on the Jane Austen trail, you’ll obviously go to the Grand Pump Room. But I also suggest a visit St Swithin’s Church, where her parents (and, coincidentally, William Wilberforce) were married.
Dickens, Sheridan and Les Miserables – artistic depictions of Bath
Jane Austen wasn’t the only artist to use Bath for creative scenery. Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s play The Rivals, which gave us the wonderful term ‘malapropism’, was set in Bath, at the height of its Georgian vogue. In Charles Dickens’s The Pickwick Papers, Pickwick’s servant describes the taste of the water; ‘a very strong flavour o’ warm flat irons’ (I can confirm from experience that it does indeed taste revolting).
More recently, numerous films have used Bath’s unspoilt architecture as a backdrop for period settings; Jane Austen adaptations as we saw above, plus 2008’s The Duchess and even Les Miserables, in which the dramatic weir below Pulteney Bridge provided the backdrop for Javert’s suicide.
In the summer of 2021 a new attraction opened in Bath, the House of Frankenstein. Mary Shelly wrote the trailblazing gothic horror and science fiction novel while lodging adjacent to Bath’s Pump Room. Dr Frankenstein’s Monster was inspired by ghost tales exchanged with Lord Byron while cooped up indoors besides Lake Geneva in 1816 – the Year without a summer when the eruption of Mount Tambora, Indonesia shorded the world in ash and misery.
Thomas Gainsborough, one of Britain’s most celebrated 18th century painters, lived in Bath from 1759-74 – first in Abbey Street and then at number 17, The Circus. Like Ye Olde Guide, Gainsborough was a son of Suffolk and made his name in Ipswich before moving to Bath and benefiting from the city’s resort attraction by painting lucrative portraits for wealthy clients. Though he did express frustration that this kept him from working on landscapes, his reputation grew further while in Bath and he became a founder member of the Royal Academy of Arts in 1769.
Today, several of Gainsborough’s paintings are on display in Bath’s Victoria Art Gallery.
We finish with a diversion from Georgian Bath. The Ruin is an Old English poem from the 8th or 9th century which portrays an ancient ruined city in England, comparing its former grandeur with the decrepit condition it had fallen to.
Expert consensus is that the poem depicts Bath. Set to modern musical adaptations by Peter Hammill and Paul Keenan, among others, the poem is one of the earliest literary depictions of an English city and a striking literary contrast to the rejuvenated architectural masterpiece that the city later became.
Sports Stadia & Football grounds
A quick mention to stadia – because we love stadia at YeOldeGuide. Twerton Park, the home of Bath City football club football ground is possibly the best surviving example of a traditional English terraced stadia, now mostly lost. See it while you can! The Rugby ground, in the heart of the city is large but almost all temporary and , moved into storage in the winter when the cricket team plays there. Two unique stadiums. Means good seats are at a premium and go for lost of money.R
There’s some important stuff here – Bath really has a unique place in popular and literary consciousness for a certain period, and this has come through in the writings of one of our greatest authors. I’m inclined to see it as a bit of a one-trick pony in this category though – aside from Georgian novels, it really acts as a backdrop at best in other eras.
Politics and War
King Edgar the Peaceful and the home of the coronation ceremony
Sad but true – the next coronation of a British monarch, when Elizabeth II dies, is not that far away. When that time comes, her successor as king (we assume for now her son Charles) will the latest to undergo a ritual that stretches back over a millennium. And the blueprintbelueprint for the pomp and pageantry intrinsic to this event was set in Bath in 973, at the coronation of Edgar the Peaceful.
Edgar’s 16-year reign was incredibly successful and stable. As the first recognised monarch of all England, he united the country into one kingdom and should be far better known. And when he was crowned in Bath in 973 AD, 14 years after he ascended the throne, the ceremony as recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle set the basis for the coronation service as it has existed ever since. The choral music at all coronations from then have been set to Biblical texts first chosen for this ceremony; most famously, Zadok the Priest, which derives from the Biblical account of King Solomon’s anointing, exclaiming ‘God Save the King’ and was most memorably set to new music by Handel for George II’s coronation.
The location of the ceremony was rediscovered in 2020, just to the south of the present-day Abbey, between the street level above and Roman remains below.
Battle locations – King Arthur meets Peter Gabriel
Bath has seen some military action over the centuries. It was never a military stronghold for the Romans (legionaries were more likely to go there while on leave than on duty) but, after their departure from Britain, it was certainly fought over by native Britons and the invading Anglo-Saxons. Bath has been suggested as the location of the Battle of Badon around 500 A.D., at which King Arthur was, according to Geoffrey of Monmouth, a participant. In reality, Geoffrey was writing centuries later and there is no actual certainty about the date or location, let alone the mythical participants. This particular link with Bath is therefore quite tenuous, but there is no question the city was fought over during the Dark Ages.
Centuries later, Bath saw action during the Civil War, changing hands more than once during the conflict. Originally garrisoned and fortified by Royalist forces, these surrendered immediately when parliamentary forces appeared on the scene. Bath became royalist again after the Battle of Lansdown, north of Bath, in 1643. The battlefield can be visited today, where a monument marks the place where Royalist Commander Bevil Grenville died.
Bath suffered considerable damage during the Blitz, when over 400 were killed and over 19,000 buildings were damaged. The heaviest raids took place on the nights of 25-26 April 1942, when reprisals were launched on the picturesque but undefended city, in reprisal for Allied attacks on the medieval German city of Lübeck. But many buildings were restored or rebuilt, and it is almost miraculous that the city survived with so little scarring – Bath could so easily have ended up as the Georgian Coventry.
A final mention in this category goes to the Iron Age hill fort atop Solsbury Hill. Forming an easily-distinguishable triangle, the fort was constructed some time between 300 and 100 B.C., enclosed by a rampart with dry stone walls and rubble. Huts were constructed within, but these were burned down, possibly as part of the Belgic invasion of Britain in the 1st century B.C.
Now, we are cheating slightly to get Solisbury Hill in here. But we’ll indulge ourselves in order to mention the excellent 1977 folk pop song of the same name by Peter Gabriel – the one that’s been in your head since you saw those peculiar Nespresso adverts with George Clooney. Great song, dreadful coffee.
The coronation ceremony is the standout political legacy here – but aside from this, Bath is distinctly lacking in political and military highlights. Even what military action there is took place mostly near the city, rather than in it.; Tthis isn’t especially surprising for a resort town built in an indefensible location, but on the political side, we might have expected a major centre of Georgian social networking to have been a nucleus of soft political power. On the contrary, it’s hard to find much of genuine political significance that really happened there.
Science and industry
Uranus – discovered in a Bath back-garden
William Herschell lived with his sister Caroline in Bath in the late 18th century. It was here that, observing the sky in 1781, he discovered a new planet Uranus.
Herschell was described by Patrick Moore as ‘possibly the greatest observer who ever lived’ and this really was an almost unique event in human history. This was the first time ever that a planet had been discovered (the inner planets being known and observed since prehistoric times) and only once since has another planet – Neptune – been newly detected in our solar system. Herschell originally named the planet ‘George’s Star’ after the reigning king George III, arguing that a planet’s name should reflect the culture and times of its discovery. This term was not popular outside Britain and eventually the alternative classical continuation of Uranus was adopted universally.
The house where Herschell discovered Uranus is now open as a museum, devoted to him and his sister Caroline with whom he collaborated, where you can see a replica of the telescope Herschell used to discover Uranus.
The Wife of Bath – Bath’s cloth trade and the Canterbury Tales
Bath, as with many small cities, had a fairly successful medieval cloth trade. But there’s an interesting literary legacy from this trade, inasmuch as it was a key inspiration for the character of the ‘Wife of Bath’ in the Canterbury Tales.
One of Chaucer’s best-developed and most intriguing characters, the Wife of Bath could have come from any town. But she was given the hometown of Bath to emphasise the fact that she was a wealthy, independent cloth-merchant, from an increasingly prosperous city. Rooting her in Bath rounded out The Wife’s character in a way that Chaucer’s audience would readily understand.
There’s really not much to say on manufacturing or heavy production in Bath itself. There have been some successful businesses devoted to furniture production, plasticine and brass, plus dye works and quarries nearby, but since the Industrial Revolution, Bath has mainly sustained its wealth and growth through tourism and cultural pursuits.
However, there is something to be said for this growth in itself – in Bath’s pioneering role in service industries. These are the backbone of the British economy today, employing around 80% of the country and contributing a similar proportion of GDP. And in Bath’s role as a resort town, you can see a similarly service-dominated economy from the outset of its industrial-era rebirth as a resort town. From ostentatious clothing to temporary accommodation and social events, Georgian Bath was a town where consumption itself overtook bare subsistence as the primary form of work.
Georgian service industries are memorialised in Bath today, not merely through the remarkable preservation of its Georgian resort buildings but also in the Fashion Museum, set in the Assembly Rooms.
Of course, a direct parallel is difficult to make, and we have to be very careful about terminology – we can’t exactly draw a historical line between Bath’s wig makers and today’s financial services. But there’s no doubt that industrialisation and increased wealth yielded different forms of occupation and production in Britain, which were most prevalent and pioneered in Bath.
Industry – an intangible contribution?
There is also potentially something to say for the impact of this kind of service economy on industry more generally. Bath was, after all, a meeting place of ideas. As a resort town, it was built upon – and facilitated leisure time for – the growing industrial and middle classes. And as Francis Pryor observes, it is possible, through our famous literary depictions, to get the impression that Bath was a centre of trivial concepts, like holidays, gossip, love and marriage. But, as Pryor points out, the famous Pump Room itself was a networking centre as much as a leisure retreat.
They say today that business is really done on the golf course, and the notion that fashionable resorts like Bath helped grease the wheels of industry in a similar way is fascinating. Perhaps there’s a future Ph.D. project here when Ye Olde Guide gets back into the academics.
One significant challenge for Bath is to point out the tangible inputs and outputs in its contribution to science and industry. The idea of Bath as a centre of business networking is intriguing, but it’s hard to point to any measurable economic output of this.
WOn the input side; while Herschell’s discovery of Uranus is monumental, Bath didn’t exactly provide the training and education Herschell required to make his observations through any great academic institutions (indeed, it could have happened anywhere). There were various commercial public lectures, along with philosophical and scientific institutions, but none seems to have set the world alight. Ultimately, Bath was more a place for relaxing than working.
But we risk setting the bar too high here. The key tangible elements of Bath’s scientific and industrial past – its progressive service industry and the monumental discovery of Uranus – are both preserved today in the city’s physical environment. This commitment to heritage really is unique to Bath.