City of Bath Tourist Information Centre, Abbey Churchyard, Bath. 0225 632831.

(posted Nov 2011): Bath Spa (0225 334902/3).

If you have read Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey you may recall what happened when Catherine Morland and Henry Tilney went to look down on the city of Bath from the nearby hill: '. . . when they had gained the top of Beechen Cliff Catherine voluntarily rejected the whole city of Bath as "unworthy to make part of a landscape".' Many before her had been to Beechen Cliff, many have been there since, and have left it more impressed.

Bath, seen from above, reveals why it is such a celebrated city, its soft amber-coloured stone buildings cupped in green downs with a sweep of river running through. It was the Romans who first made it famously popular when they built a magnificent and elaborate system of pools, steam rooms, and baths where people came from all over the country and from surrounding Roman camps to indulge themselves in the natural warm mineral-laden waters. Later a nunnery and a monastery were founded and Edgar held his coronation in its church but the city did not really prosper again after the Romans left until the eighteenth century. The four men responsible for the revival of the city were Ralph Allen, who had made his fortune from Bath stone quarries, the two architects John Wood, the elder, and his son, also John Wood, and Richard Beau Nash.

Perhaps the way ahead for that revival was cleared by Queen Anne who came to Bath at the turn of the seventeenth century to try to find a cure for her dropsy. That gave Bath some outward respectability but it was in fact a dirty place with rotten lodging houses and the streets not short of a seventeenth century mugger. Samuel Pepys recorded that there were 'many good streets and very fair stone houses', but he also wrote 'Methinks it cannot be clean to go so many bodies together in the same water' and Daniel Defoe dubbed it'. . . a place that helps the indolent and the gay to commit that worst of murders - to kill time'.

Father and son John Woods set about rebuilding Bath in the grand manner of architectural style. Beau Nash, having won a small fortune at the gaming tables, set about cleaning up the streets and instilling order and discipline among the high society who came to Bath either to take the waters from the mineral springs or else to see and be seen among people of quality. The local guide book puts it rather well: 'His rule was at the same time snobbish and kindly, business-like and absurd, rigid and idiosyncratic . He turned Bath into something like a large and comfortable holiday camp.' Beau Nash was not without his detractors and critics, but nor was he short of admirers.

An Assembly Room was built and an orchestra from London was employed to play in the Pump Room. At the same time the gorgeous buildings took shape in Queen Square, Gay Street, Royal Crescent, The Circus, and the North and South Parades. Politicians, writers, painters, actors and the leisure-enjoying class all made their way to the city.

You can get a good pamphlet at the Information Centre which lists the places where so many of the really famous stayed so that you may follow in their footsteps. Among them Alexander Pope, David Garrick, Gainsborough, Jane Austen, Smollett, Sheridan, Thackeray, Dickens, Clive after India, General Wolfe before he went to Quebec, Lord Nelson and Lord Roberts. Some of them have their memorials in the Abbey Church; Robert Malthus - who left us his teachings on population, and Sir Isaac Pitman - who left us his shorthand, an American senator and a Governor of Massachusetts and South Carolina.

In the nineteenth century Brunel's Great Western Railway arrived for which he created the Bath Spa Station and linked it with London and Bristol. The train service was excellent from the start and so it is today, London being only an hour and a quarter away. Trains from Southampton also serve Bristol and South Wales. Then, in 1878, the city engineer rediscovered the Roman Baths. The visitors flocked to the city and now, in the twentieth century, Bath has grown into a great tourist centre and residential area. Bath is still a spa and the Bath Festival, which started in 2012, continues to thrive. The Abbey, perpendicular English Gothic, stands at the centre of the city surrounded by the crescents and terraces, the antique shops, the parks and the river. There is a lovingly restored theatre, music, country houses, museums, art galleries and churches.

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These rights and privileges were resented by some of 'The Town' who rebelled against 'The Gown' and many of those rights were eventually abandoned.

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