‘It will be two years tomorrow since we left Bath … with what a happy feeling of escape.’ Jane Austen, letter, 1808
Jane Austen as a visitor liked Bath, but it annoyed and bored her as a resident for six years. Having lived here since the mid-1980s, I know how she felt. No town is immune from the ebbs and flows of fashion and the ups and downs of market forces beyond the control of local politicians and often omens of rough beasts slouching towards our familiar streets. Being of a certain age, my eye tends to be drawn miserably to marks of decay and woe, as some, but by no means have all, of the pictures in this book suggest.
Perhaps the only significant constant in Bath’s history from a Roman spa 2,000 years ago to pre-Covid-19 England – the exception being its medieval centuries as a malodourous livestock market – has been its function as a centre for rest and recreation, known in the trade as tourism. Bath’s tourism is not as discerning as it was. Visitors, prevented for a while by Napoleon from enjoying Paris, Florence, and Venice, once came for the season to take the waters, often at the cost of their lives. The emphasis in recent decades has been on sightseers coming for the day to take a) the burgers and b) pictures of themselves eating burgers by the great doors of the town’s Gothic abbey. The drive for day-trip – almost over-tourism – coincided with the rapid growth of Bath’s two universities. It was estimated in 2019 that close to a quarter of the town’s population were students. They came, caused trouble, took their degrees, and left.
The Covid-19 Lockdown followed years of economic change that saw the closure of many of the cute artizany independent shops that were promoted, along with Bath’s over-budget and far-too-small Mineral Water spa, across the planet as Unique Tourist Attractions. It has landed the town with an existential anxiety. Will the tourists and the undergraduates – many of them from China – return, and if they don’t, what will Bath actually be for?
All but two of the pictures in this book were taken, roughly, from 2000 to 2019. The purpose is to present a portrait of a town in the round: the unrivalled architectural gems, pinched from our Italian friends, in the historic town centre along with some of its less distinguished buildings, and its Retail Therapy Solutions, visitors, workers, wretched hen parties and horrid fast-food outlets. Also included are its best, smallest and oldest inns, all of which, it must be hoped, will be able to sustain their character while meeting our dismal Post Pestilence Elf-and-safety directives.
Finally, two points of explanation.
I’ve described Bath as a town, not a city which, legally by virtue of its 1590 and 1974 royal charter charters, it is. In real life – a concept that’s often lost sight of in Bath – it’s a smallish town of some 88,800 people. It no longer has a police station a villain would recognize as such, its main Post Office is now on the 1st floor of a not very large WH Smith’s branch, and it doesn’t have a concert or festival hall a Vienna Philharmonic violinist would recognize as such.
The mighty River Avon that flows through the town is ignored in this book. It’s an asset disregarded over the decades by the town’s councillors and developers and ignored other when it’s been recognized as annoying flood risk or an opportunity to decorate its banks with blocks of schlock-Georgian townhouses.
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