Friday, February 25, 2011

Exploring the Building of Bath
by Guest Blogger Louise Allen

Thank you so much for inviting me to your blog. I thought your readers might be interested in a visit I have just paid to Bath.

I love Bath, and I’m sure anyone with an interest in the 18th and early 19thc does too if they’ve been there. Ravishing golden stone, elegant buildings,wonderful views and the ghosts of so many real and fictional characters–-how can it fail to enthrall?

One wonderful little museum is the Building of Bath Museum in the old Countess of Huntingdon’s Connection chapel. (The first photograph shows the lovely curve of the Paragon Buildings on the right. The Chapel is just a little further along.

The countess, determined to root out sin and debauchery by the application of sound Methodist principles, had the chapel built in 1765 to try and improve the morals of Bath. By all accounts she failed-–it was a tough job--but the chapel remains as the only surviving Gothic revival building of the 18thc in the city.

Dr Amy Frost of the Bath Preservation Trust gave a fascinating lecture at the chapel this week on the development of the city, especially the work of John Wood the Elder who was responsible for the explosion of Palladian-style buildings which so characterise 18thc Bath, the period when it was a highly fashionable spa town and High Society poured in there to take the waters, gamble, eat too much, take more of the waters in an attempt at a cure for their digestions and then gamble some more.

John Wood was, to be honest, a trifle odd. Actually, more than a trifle. He was convinced that architecture was invented by the builders of Solomon’s temple and that the Greeks and Romans stole the Classical orders (Doric, Ionic and Corinthian) from them and corrupted this sacred design. He maintained that Bladud, the mythical founder of Bath (an ancient prince who contracted a nasty skin disease, was thrown out of court, became a swineherd and who was cured when his swine found the Bath hot springs) was present at the building of the temple and then came back to Britain and passed on the secrets to the Druids who built Stonehenge as a result. This would make Bladud 500 years old, but Wood was not going to let such trifles stand in the way of a good story.

He was not a very sound structural architect-–he rapidly learned to design the frontages and then employ people who knew how to make drains work and walls stand up to do the rest. The exploding privies for the Duke of Chandos were, apparently, a major learning point for him. The duke was not amused.

But Wood was an inspired salesman (and copyist, cheerfully lifting the designs of such successful architects as Colin Campbell) and was soon responsible for virtually every major building in the city from the 1720s to his death in 1754 as he was building the Circus. The photograph shows part of the circle of buildings of the Circus. And, of course, being inspired by the temple of Solomon and the Druids, the Circus is built on arcane mathematical principles meant to reflect the second temple and Stonehenge itself. The location of the Circus, he believed (on no evidence whatsoever), was an ancient British temple to the sun.

The work was finished by his son, John Wood the Younger. By all accounts John Jnr was a much better practical architect – the wonderful Royal Crescent is his construction. His father had already picked out the site as the location of a temple to the crescent moon, of course.

Yet however odd Wood’s theories might have been, and however shaky his grasp of plumbing, he was an inspired town planner and the Bath we so enjoy today is very much down to him.

But by the end of the 18thc and the beginning of the 19thc Bath was changing. In 1793 the Bath banks suffered a collapse. High Society was heading for Brighton in droves and instead of the aristocracy the middle classes moved in. Bath was the perfect city for them with shops, refreshment rooms and libraries. Glancing up as I walked along I found the ghost of one of those–-a “circulating library and reading room.

Elegant villas took over from fashionable terraces and Bath was no longer a hotbed of scandal and gaming, more a genteel resort for Regency visitors, a good place to live for the professional classes and the ideal place to reside if one was wanting to make ends meet in elegant surroundings as Jane Austin’s family was.

Tragically much of the building of the late 18th and early 19thc, especially the “artisan” dwellings, fell victim to the most violent programmes of demolition during the 1960s and 70s – licensed vandalism that helped create the conservation movement that finally put an end to such thoughtless destruction. But the core of the city that Jane Austen, Beau Nash, and so many grand dames, rou├ęs, rakes and scoundrels knew, remains.

We had a behind the scenes peek at an exhibition of maps of Bath “Putting Bath on the Map” 19 February – 28th November ( and heard about the amazing digital archive Bath In Time ( which is well worth exploring.

I love walking old towns and cities – my Walks through Regency London is out now (£8.50 in the Uk. Email me for details – and Bath, so compact, is a perfect city to explore on foot.

Also this month I’ve got Regency Pleasures out with HMB – two of my favourite books from 2005 (The Model Debutante and The Marriage Debt) in one lovely volume. There are extracts and details of all my books at

Have you visited Bath? Did you love it as much as I did I wonder!



Anne Gallagher said...

Thanks so much for this. I've just watched Persuasion again and love the buildings and architecture. If I ever get across the pond, it will be one of the first places I go.

Louisa Cornell said...

Thanks for such fascinating information and links! I visited Bath when I was ten years old. We were stationed in England for three years and Bath was on the tour set up for American Air Force children. As it was an "educational" tour I think we spent most of our time at the Roman baths and really didn't explore much of the rest of the city.

I hope to return one day and visit it as an adult! The Bath you describe is far more interesting to my Regency-fanatic self!

And Louise, I LOVE your books!

Unknown said...

Louise! Thank you so much for this wonderful post...I visited Bath last November and adored it!!
Thank you also for the information about your Book about "Regency London"...I shall be ordering my copy immediately!!
Best wishes,

Louise Allen said...

Thanks! ald it proved interesting