With apologies to a friend from whom I stole this line we have just finished entertaining a friend from Sydney who was in Europe to visit her family and able to make a side trip into this sceptred isle for the first time. This gave us the opportunity to show off Bath and surrounds as if we were locals and to re-visit some of the classic tourist attractions of the city. Accompanying someone who is seeing these for the first helps one to re-experience them through fresh eyes.
The last time we had been to the Roman Baths was nearly ten years ago when we took Tom. Although the baths are essentially as they were a lot of work has been done on the presentation of the history of the baths and also of the history of the presentation and interpretation of the archaeology itself. It was relaxing not to be feverishly photographing everything in sight.
On the other hand it meant that I took pictures of things that I was seeing from a different perspective. For some reason I had never looked straight down George Street in quite the way as below.
At the end of the Paragon on the north side of the road there is an interesting looking piece of street furniture which has been restored and freshly painted but the function of which I am not sure of. Actually some elderly tourists happened to stop me recently as I was passing it and asked me what it was for. I can only think that it was a post box of some kind.
Just opposite the Assembly Rooms in Alfred Street we noticed a house called Alfred House that had a bust of said King of Wessex and England over its front door spotted these interesting accoutrements on its front railings: a winch and some horn-shaped objects the use of which I again cannot fathom.
There is a park overlooking Bath from the south called Alexandra Park. It affords some of the best views of the city from the south and is an ideal way to orient a visitor who is new to the city. When you are down amongst all the narrow streets and lanes it is sometimes hard to remember where things are in relation to everything else. Below is a short video of the view:
Further round to the east stands a folly built by Ralph Allen in 1762 who was also responsible for Prior Park. Just as the latter was built to be visible from much of the city below so the Sham Castle, “to improve the prospect” from Allen’s town house in Bath, still commands an excellent view of the city through a clearing maintained in the woods below.
We had a quick spin through the city’s two main galleries, The Holbourne Museum and the Victoria Gallery for some cultural activity and threw in a play in the evening at the Theatre Royal, “She Stoops to Conquer” by Oliver Goldsmith – an 18th century play updated in this production to the 1920’s where it still worked very well.
Outside of Bath we had a whiz around my parents’ town of Tetbury and then repaired to the historic town of Malmsbury nearby, where we were able to see inside the Abbey for the first time owing to an outreach event by the Abbey aimed at local schoolchildren, before enjoying a very civilized lunch in the Old Bell Hotel, reputedly the oldest hotel in England owing to the Abbey being a pilgrim destination. The Abbey was founded as a Benedictine monastery in 675 and by the 11th century it contained the second largest library in Europe and was considered one of the leading European seats of learning. The pictures here of the entrance illustrate the very early architectural heritage of the building.
This was all very small beer, however, compared to Blenheim Palace. We were not new to the birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill but for someone making not only their first visit to the country, let alone to a grand English Mansion house, it certainly can be an overwhelming experience. It was built as a gift to the first Duke of Marlborough, John Churchill, from Queen Anne for beating those damn Frenchies at the Battle of Blenheim and was intended as much as a monument to that victory as a gift to the Duke.
As we were entertaining a visitor we actually joined one of the guided tours of the State Rooms and although the old codger leading the tour ended up taking nearly twice as long as he should have I did learn one very important fact: one of the two architects was John Hawksmoor, a contemporary of Wren and Vanbrugh, who was the other main designer of Blenheim. Our friend made an interesting comment about the towers on the palace looking as if they were added later or that they didn’t really seem to fit the building below them. I had to agree but then reflecting on the fact that they were almost certainly by Hawksmoor they made much more sense when I thought of the churches he designed for London after the great fire.
What is more our guide pointed out that Vanbrugh was not actually an architect at all but was originally a theatre set designer. It was Hawksmoor who then turned his ideas into practical architecture. The courtyard had always looked a bit strange to me and if I had to characterize it I would say that it looks like an early 18th century attempt at a Cecil B. de Mille film set for something like Cleopatra. You have a weird mixture of Egyptian, Greco-Roman and Medieval styles all tricked up for the English aristocracy and bordering on the kitsch.
On the last day of hosting we spent the morning wandering around the Fashion museum in the Assembly Rooms where once Beau Nash had orchestrated the various marriage market events that were a highlight of Bath society life in the city’s heyday. The Fashion Museum has a very extensive collection and one of its highlights is the “Dress of the Year”. The museum’s own web site says: “From Mary Quant in 1963 to Christopher Kane in 2013, this display showcases the inventiveness of the top names of fashion in the last 50 years. Each year the Fashion Museum asks a different fashion expert to choose the ensemble from the international fashion collections that they feel is the most exciting, or directional, or simply sums up the year in fashion.” That being the case I am not at all sure what this choice for 2014 is trying to tell us about the current zeitgeist despite the gushing and breathless nonsense from Katie Grand, Editor-in-chief of LOVE magazine who chose it. She says:
As a last look at the English country house we stopped off at Dyrham Park on the way to the M4 and Heathrow. Once again we have visited this house before a few months ago at which time the National Trust had just begun erecting a massive scaffolding structure over the whole house in order to completely replace the roof. The scaffolding now has a walkway open to the public to allow an up-close view of the roof and the work in progress. It is quite spectacular. This one picture will have to suffice. A further unexpected benefit of the walkway is a viewing platform at the front of the house over the gardens and the countryside beyond, a view that would not otherwise have been possible. I will finish this rather lengthy post with a sumptuous vista of this green and pleasant land: