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Jo'Burg Days: The Amusements Of Bath

Barbara Durlacher turns a spotlights on some of the delights of Bath, the English spa town.

Picture if you will one of England’s most beautiful spa towns in the heart of fertile countryside set amongst steep hills and watered by the swiftly flowing Avon River. The beautiful city is enhanced with gracious Regency architecture and the centuries-old Roman baths, and if your imagination is well trained, you may also – in the absence of photographs and television documentaries - envision a city with an ancient abbey and stylish crescents of elegant townhouses.

Visualise the famous Roman Baths, once named Aquae Sulis, then the largest and most spectacular baths in the ancient world. Here you will see exhibits covering 2000 years of history; the eternal spring gushing forth 240,000 gallons of 46°C water daily and change rooms, saunas and exhibits from Roman times recovered during past restoration. Entering the complex one of the most impressive views is of the large hot pool bordered by a gracious colonnade of statues of important men, and filled with the steaming spring water as it emerges from underground.

In another part of the town, some of England’s finest 18th century architecture of the mid 1700s was built by the brilliant father and son of the Messrs John Wood who created the long stretch of 30 houses forming the Royal Crescent an echo their earlier construction of the Circus at the opposite end of Brookes Street; this ‘sun-moon’ grouping is one of the symbols of the Masonic creed. Other fine buildings in the Georgian style were also built, such as the fashionable Pump and the Assembly Rooms and later the Royal Theatre which produced a gracious and stylish city much favoured by Royalty and the aristocracy.

If, however, you have had the pleasure of visiting Bath during the fine summer months or gasped at the beauty of the Abbey Square with its magnificent carving and envied the graceful crescents of elegant Georgian townhouses then perhaps you were tempted to pay a visit to the recently introduced Thermae Bath Spa in the centre of the city. Perhaps you spent a few hours swimming in the mineral-rich hot water in the open roof-top pool with its 90 degree views of the surrounding hills, or slipped into the large indoor pool and frolicked in its splashing cascades. Alternatively, you may have indulged in delicious pampering in the scented steam rooms, enjoyed a healthy lunch in the comfortable restaurant or ended your visit with a massage or beauty treatment. Then, having smoothed away all stress, you emerged energised and invigorated, to explore for an hour or two the ancient Roman Baths.

Take your time, and the excellent audio commentary will tell you how the Romans utilised the abundant source of sulphurous waters gushing from the earth to provide one of the earliest forms of aqua-therapy and relaxation. Here, over the course of several hundred years, they built the hot baths and the massage and steam rooms so essential to their culture, and as you pinch yourself back to reality you will realise that what you see in front of you in this ancient museum is the early prototype of the modern spa you have just left.

Should your stay in Bath last longer than a day, you may wish to visit the elegant Theatre Royal which has been successfully mounting top-quality productions for over 200 years. There you can enjoy an evening out watching the finest British actors, their names and faces famous from television and the movies, strut their stuff in plays which frequently extend their season to London’s West End.

Stroll along the banks of the River Avon and watch the agile canoeists surfing the rushing waters of the Pulteney Weir before you look up to admire the gracious elegance of Robert Adam’s bridge, one of the most perfect Palladian structures in Britain. Scheduled as a national monument in 1936, it suffered later damage, until in 1975 the Georgian Group partially restored the southern street facade to mark European Architectural Heritage Year. Now the fully restored bridge is a delight to photographers and one of the enduring images of Bath that visitors take away with them.

Maybe you decide on a visit to the Costume Museum with its wonderful collection of period costumes from the reign of Queen Elizabeth I to modern fashions and spectacular ball dresses. If you value the historic significance of these garments you cannot fail to carry away images of rare and beautiful creations, ancient and modern.

It is also important to mention the famous Pump Rooms which have been the social heart of Bath for more than two centuries. In earlier times, social activities centred on the striking neo-classical salon where those of ‘the ton’ would gather daily to sip glasses of hot Spa water while slowly circulating through the rooms. It was important that Bath society acknowledge your presence and engage in conversation, as a contact made here could result in an introduction to a desirable heiress or a wealthy eldest son anxious to marry.

The four main function rooms in this large building comprised a 100 ft ballroom — the largest Georgian interior in Bath; the tea room; the card room, and the octagon and these elegant rooms were the focus of fashionable Georgian society in the city. Here society gathered for balls and other public functions, or to play cards. Mothers and chaperones brought their daughters to Bath for the social season hoping to marry them off to suitable husbands, and such events provided the perfect venue to meet the eligible men currently in town.

Made famous by ‘Beau’ Nash, patronised by politicians and ambitious careerists as well as the Prince Regent and his court, the dances and gambling that took place in the Pump Rooms and Bath’s other elegant social centre the Assembly Rooms, could make or break reputations. Here, with a spin of the dice or a flick or the cards, fortunes were made or lost, and plunge a player from the exhilaration to the very depths of despair.
Scenes such as this feature in the novels of Jane Austen who lived in Bath with her parents and sister from 1801 to 1805, and also the letters of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. Georgiana tells how she, her husband and Lady Elizabeth Foster spent several seasons in Bath ‘retiring from the world’ while recovering from the excesses of their London existence. Famous throughout the land, this vibrant society and its activities; the scandals, and the love affairs and the disasters provided fertile material for the books of William Thackeray, Charles Dickens and the frothy Regency romances of popular Georgette Heyer.

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