Only a mutilated gateway survives from the medieval city wall which surrounded Bath and the Bishop’s Palace there but in the 18th century Bath became a fashionable spa town thanks to the promotions of Richard ‘Beau’ Nash. The Roman Baths got a nod they hadn’t enjoyed since the Romans invaded in AD 43! The King’s House became a palace and St Lawrence’s bridge was fortified during the medieval period. However, Bath is primarily a Georgian architecture town with historic Roman ruins and remains, presently. It is a pleasure to find that there is more to Bath than first meets the eye but you’ll have to do a bit of exploring to find everything that makes this one of England’s most popular tourist attractions and her most unique city to boot! The entire city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site so you will have plenty to look at and explore.
To start your exploration you may want to begin in the eastern hills overlooking the city in Prior Park at Bathampton (aka Bath Golf Club) where Ralph Allen had Sham Castle built, in 1762, which is a folly in the truest sense of the word. The name and photo says it all because what you’re looking at from below is considered a screen wall with a central pointed arch entrance flanked by 3-storied semi-circular D turrets and wall extensions with 2-storied square towers flanking the ends of the wall. At least, that’s the front facade. The anterior view reveals that it is only a wall, much more blank and obviously a folly. You can see it in illumination at night from below and it appears doubly impressive- what’s more, it was meant to be. Creamy gold Bath stone, a local Cotswold limestone which was used for construction in the city, was obtained from the Combe Down and Bathampton Down Mines, owned by Ralph Allen. His quest to promote the quality of his quarried stone spurred the commission of John Wood to build a country house on his Prior Park estate between the city and the mines. Allen gained his wealth by improving and expanding the postal service in western England and held the contract for more than forty years. Although politics were not Allen’s cup of tea he became involved in civic affairs and became a member of Bath Corporation eventually being elected mayor for a single term in 1742.
At Prior Park landscaped gardens are seated behind the Sham Castle structure along with a serpentine lake and a beautiful bridge, all mid-18th century. Prior Park mansion was also Allen’s new abode built between 1735 and 1750- a classic villa with a Palladian facade with fifteen bays across the entrance and a huge central portico with six columns. The Sham and landscaped gardens were built after the fact “to improve the prospect”. All of it was originally planned by Somerset’s local architect, John Wood the elder, but he and Allen had a falling out so most of the work was carried out by Richard Jones. Chronicler Nikolas Pevsner described Prior Park mansion, which now embodies a college as ‘the most ambitious and the most complete recreation of Palladio’s villas on English soil’. More landscaping work was carried out much later by the poet Alexander Pope and the ever illustrious Capability Brown producing several lakes, a Gothic temple and a grotto named after Mrs. Allen.
Magnificent, small and demure Renaissance Midford Castle is not far away. There are also two towers, one beautiful and the other rather dull: Beckford’s Tower and Brown’s Folly are located in the hills above Bath but Midford is located in the village of Midford, parish of Southstoke, which is three miles outside the southern perimeter of Bath on the north side of Midford Road. Seated in a glen amid twelve acres of forest, Midford’s pride and beauty is a charming trefoil design, best seen from an aerial view, formed by three semi-circular tower facings on a triangular base featuring crenellations. Petite turrets guard the charming little gatehouse entrance with an arched doorway adorned with a balconet above. http://beckfordstower.org.uk/ http://beckfordstower.org.uk/history/beckfords-tower/
Stylistic even by Victorian Gothic standards, Midford was built on a design plan of John Carter’s by order of Henry Disney Roebuck in 1775. Windows on the turrets are delightful with mullioned lights but topped with straight or beautifully arched cornices above. The porch stem was added later as an anecdote, no doubt, with thin curtain walling all around the perimeter punctuated and mirrored by the exterior decoration of the house. A priory built on the estate about 500 yards northeast of the castle has been used as a summer house and tea room and features coursed squared freestone footings along the canted south end. You’ll see what remains of a Georgian Gothic garden which also had a hermitage and is graced with a bridge over a landscaped ravine with numerous walkways. All of this resides on 35 acres of parkland property. The porch, priory and nearby stables were added by the Conollys in 1810 who had purchased the house even though their primary residence is Castletown House in County Kildare in Ireland. They sold Midford outright in 1901. Michael Briggs and his famous wife Isabel Colegate bought the house in 1961 and renovated it extensively and incorporated the chapel with the garden to appear as a picturesque ruin.
Midford is a great fantasy getaway and may be the reason why our own Nicolas Cage bought this castle back in 2007. He fell in love with the city of Bath and bought a townhouse in town and most likely spotted Midford after the fact. He paid no less than £5 million but had to sell it at a loss by October 2009 along with nearly all the properties and estates he owned because the I.R.S. had placed a tax lien on all the real estate he owned. Currently it is protected by English Heritage and is now a grade I listed building.
www.withfriendship.com/user/levis/midford-castle.php interactive page on Midford Castle
When you’re looking out over the city of Bath you’ll soon find that it’s seated in a deep valley. If you want to well orient yourself to the city you’ll want to consult an historical map alongside contemporary orientation. This representation is a Speed map which was made in 1610 and shows that the crenellated city wall and several gates were still very much intact at that time. Throughout the centuries Bath has always made a universal contribution to urban design and no student of architecture should pass over a visit to Bath. As the most cosmopolitan city of England, in the truest sense of the word, it has gained international significance unparalleled by many European cities. Traveling on foot around the sights you get a real sense that you’re literally breathing in ancient history.
Beckford’s Tower is seated on Lansdown road two miles above Bath in the northwest hills and was commissioned by a gentleman who was an antiquarian before his time. Considered England’s wealthiest man, William Thomas Beckford employed Henry Edmund Goodridge to draw up designs for a tower in 1826 with a vision of an Italian torre in mind. This was his second attempt to build a tower in grand style, having tried and failed- ultimately- at his Fonthill estate in Wiltshire. Beckford’s Tower still stands, however and has since the late 19th century. It houses the miraculous Scarlet and Crimson Drawing Rooms, rich and luxurious furnishings, coffered ceilings paneled with oak and colored with scarlet, crimson, purple and gold. Its spiral staircase is 154 carpeted steps to the belvedere at the top- 120 feet high- less than half the height of the failed tower at Fonthill. When he asked that it be made higher it was subsequently crowned with a marvelous octagonal gilded Athenian lantern making the tower look every bit as elegant outside as inside.
In 1844, after the passing of Beckford, the Tower and Gardens were sold to a Bath pub owner. Beckford’s daughter, the Duchess of Hamilton, was horrified to discover that her fathers retreat was being used as a beer garden and promptly bought it back, passing it to the Rector of the Parish of Walcot in Bath becoming a funeral chapel and the garden into a cemetery. In 1971 the late Leslie and Elizabeth Hilliard purchased the tower and established the Beckford Tower Trust which was specific to maintain buildings, features and objects of historical and architectural interest relating to the life of William Beckford for the general public. Since 1993 the tower has been owned by the Bath Preservation Trust and extensive restoration and repairs have been made through the years. From the belvedere on top you can see all the way to Wales.
Because of the Roman Baths people will assume that is the reason for the name of the city but the history of the name goes back further with the legend of Bladud who was the father of King Lear. When he returned from a self-imposed exile of 11 years at Athens he was suffering from leprosy and was banished from court. Because of this he ended up being a swineherder at Swainswick, which is about three miles north of Bath, and when he saw pigs wallowing in hot water for relief from scurf and scabs he followed their example and was cured of his leprosy. With his newfound health and relief he became the ninth king of the Britons in 863 B.C. and named Bath Caer Badon which means city of baths. This is prehistoric legend, of course.
For most visitors the Roman Baths are their first sightseeing destination upon arrival. Among the most famous landmarks in Britain, today, it was comprised of the great Roman temple and the bathing complex with the surrounding sacred hot springs- all built in 63 AD- nearly 2,000 years ago ! Remains of the temple are deemed to be buried under Stall Street but you can view the pediment central head, as it was discovered during the building of The Grand Pump Room in 1790 which overlooks the site. This was once the social heart of Bath and you can even enjoy a glass of spa water drawn from the fountain and live to tell it ! This area is a tourist trap, however, so mind your wallets and save your energy to take in everything that Bath has to offer. You can always return to take in the live music and shop in the gift shop later if you wish.
Some parting interesting stats: the springs are the result of rainwater being trapped beneath the Mendips 10,000 years ago about 2700-4300 meters deep. A fault line in the rock strata emerged beneath Bath which allows the heated water to surface and retain a fairly warm temperature which in turn provides about 240,000 gallons of drinkable water every day. The most interesting coincidental stats are that the Romans invaded Britain in 43 AD, there are 43 minerals in the water and -to reiterate one more point- the water is trapped as much as 4300 meters deep ! Did I mention that the average temperature of the water is about 43 Celsius degrees?
Edgar, the peaceful, was crowned King of England in 959 at Bath Abbey, a Norman church which was built on earlier monastery foundations. Seated right next to the Roman Baths in the heart of the old city between the Orange Grove and Sally Lunn’s House (Bath’s oldest surviving house), an even earlier stone Roman building was its predecessor. However, the present structure dates from early 16th century and shows a grand late Perpendicular style lit by 52 windows and flourished with flying buttresses, pinnacles with decorative crockets and crenellated parapets with brattice holes. Such fortifications and military architecture for ecclesiastical buildings became routinely licensed under Edward I becoming quite common throughout the 13th and into the 14th century. A delightful ornamental feature here is the depiction of stone angels climbing Jacob’s Ladder on the facade. Bath Abbey’s interior is every bit as magnificent as the arches and towers suggest. Choir and transepts have fan vaulting created by Robert and William Vertue and the 19th century nave was given a matching vault. Abbey Church Yard T-01225 477785
Nearby18th century Pulteney Bridge was designed for William Johnstone’s wife, Frances née Pulteney by Robert Adam in 1770 in the Palladian style. Constructed to gain access to Bathwick across the River Avon, the entire scene is surreal as something out of an Italian movie. Frances Pulteney became a wealthy landowner in Bathwick through inheritances and it was the custom of the day to change your name for an inheritance so they both adopted the name of Pulteney- or readopted in her case. A wealthy Scots lawyer and member of Parliament, Johnstone planned to build a suburban area at Bathwick but only the bridge itself, Great Pulteney Street, the Sydney Hotel and Pleasure Gardens were completed. Supported by three beautifully proportioned arches the bridge is lined with stores and shops on both sides and links with the magnificent Great Pulteney Street. You’ll want to keep your eye out for the rare Victorian pillar-box on the east bank while you happily shop the only bridge in England still lined with shops! As a matter of fact, there are only three other bridges like it in the world. Twenty years after it was built it had been flooded so many times that the entire bridge had to be rebuilt but very close to the first design. The original drawings are preserved in Sir John Soane’s Museum in London. Alterations and reconstructions have gone on throughout the years since the end of the 18th century but the view from the south remains quite beautiful with its relatively modern weir. A view from the north side may stun most sightseers, as it looks nothing like the magnificence of the southern view.
As you commence eastward on Great Pulteney Street you’ll find The Holburne Museum of Art which was once the Georgian Sydney Hotel. Seated opposite Jane Austen’s former home at 4 Sydney Place, the treasures collected by Thomas Holburne of Menstrie (1793-1874) are on display with superb English and continental silver, porcelain, majolica, glass and Renaissance bronzes. The Picture Gallery contains works by Turner, Guardi and Stubbs and includes Gainsborough portraits of Bath society. There are special exhibitions here throughout the year which garner national attention. You can call to find out more or go to the web site: www.bath.ac.uk/holburne
T- 01225 466669
If you wish to use Bath as an anchor town while you go a-castling all over Somerset, I recommend that you stay at Bath City Breaks located on Argyle Street at number 6. They rent out flat 1 as an easy stay to see most of Bath’s sights and as a matter of fact, it overlooks Pulteney Bridge. Most of the well-known sights are less than a five minute walk within the city center. www.touruk.co.uk/hotel.htm?boo=1102657
Back in the center of town the Museum of Costume and Assembly Rooms on Bennett Street (adjacent to The Circus and Royal Crescent) houses one of the finest historic collections of fashionable dress in England. The collection is displayed in a series of rooms which includes a Ball Room, Tea Room and Card Room connected by two fine octagonal rooms. Extensive displays cover the history of fashion from the late 16th century au courant, narrated with free-lent personal audio guides. Open to the public daily, with the exceptions or restrictions of special functions, admission is also free. You can call ahead to find out the schedules for dinners, dances, concerts and conferences. The museum is managed by Bath and North East Somerset Council., which runs a full conference service. An onsite gift shop sells noted publications as well as gifts.
T- 01225 477789
No visit to Bath would be quite complete without checking out Royal Crescent, the 18th century architectural first for Britain. Number 1 is a museum which gives the visitor a good idea of what it is like to live in one of the units of this architectural orchestra taking in views of the green hills that surround the city. Considered the most majestic street in Britain, the uniqueness of the arc design of thirty houses in unison is quite unique. The Georgian architecture is the masterpiece of John Wood the Younger who installed no less than 114 ionic columns to great effect. Royal Crescent looks out upon the esplanade arch of parkland lawn, Royal Victoria Park, the city’s largest fenced-in green space. It is easy to spot when you’re looking down from the surrounding hills despite the current size of the city.
Just across the expanse of Brock Street the enclosed effect of The Circus built by John Wood the Elder (1705-1754) is quite different and not at all in typical Georgian style. Thomas Gainsborough once lived at number 17. To finance their building programs the Woods leased land for speculative building from freeholders then subleased to other builders for work done behind the frontages. Those builders were then financed by tenancy agreements for long leases and in turn, agreements could be borrowed from as security. Such complicated arrangements proved to be sound investments simply on the principal of supply and demand and here, demand always exceeded supply. It also helped that their tenants were quite wealthy and these were often second homes.
From The Circus a walk down Gay Street in a southerly direction will bring you to Queen Square where, at number 13, Jane Austen stayed on one of several visits to Bath when very young. If you keep your eyes open you’ll see many houses which bear plaques citing the famous people who have resided at various locations in Bath. A few more hops and skips from Barton Street, headed east, will bring you to the fashionable shopping area on Milsom and New Bond Streets.
The American Museum in Britain is housed at Claverton Manor, a house designed by Sir Jeffry Wyattville and built in the 1820s. Just two miles southeast of Bath, it is a Grade I listed building founded as the American Museum in 1961, and was a serious attempt to deepen mutual understanding between Britain and America. As the first American museum to be established in Britain, Claverton’s rooms are decorated in many styles, from the first rudimentary dwellings of settlers to opulent 19th century homes. There are special sections on Shaker furniture, quilts and Native American art. In 1981 the entire town was recognized as being of special architectural and historic interest and thereafter, starting in November, it was designated as a conservation area. Of peculiar interest is the sight of Ralph Allen’s tomb which is another folly-in-appearance but this time in the form of a mausoleum. The choice for its site couldn’t be more out of place with a church nearby with a Norman tower which has six bells- three of which date from 1637.
When this Regency mansion was built it was to the orders of John Vivian in a strict classical style with the courtyard in the back and two bow windows facing the frontage on the other side. The exterior has remained very much the same as in its inception with the garden facade in refined Palladian style but the interior was transformed in 1961 by two American enthusiasts, Dallas Pratt and John Judkyn, for cultural relations between our two countries. All of the rooms have been transported from America, yet this fact is often hard to believe, given the stylistic proximity of the two sides of the Atlantic in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Jacobean Keeping Room, the Lee Room, the Deming Parlor and Conkey’s Tavern appear to be from southern England, apparently. Only the portraiture is clearly colonial as are the American rooms- respectfully-the Shaker and Mexican-Indian rooms. Somebody forgot the Alamo ! The New Orleans Bedroom, heavily classical in style, has the suspicious feature of a mosquito net! Surrounding grounds here are wonderful, with a colonial herb garden, ca. 1785, a portion of which was copied from George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate outside Washington, D.C. !
Of peculiar interest at Claverton is the sight of Ralph Allen’s tomb (which is another folly-in-appearance but this time in the form of a mausoleum). The choice for its site couldn’t be more out of place in an early medieval churchyard with a Norman tower. The tower has six bells- three of which date from 1637. All are authentic except for Ralph Allen’s architectural intrusion.
Further afield in N. East Somerset and ten miles west of Bath (but south of Bristol) you’ll find Sutton Court near the villages of Bishop Sutton, Stowey and Chew Magna in the Chew Valley. At one time referred to as Stowey Court it’s essentially a fortified house built around a 14th century castle tower and built of squared and coursed sandstone rubble, freestone with ashlar dressings and eaves featuring Welsh slate gabled roofs. A low curtain wall, obviously revamped, with central arches stretches along the outside of the north side where the central three-storey pele tower is seated. These are the only surviving features of the original castle commissioned by William de Sutton for Elizabeth (Bess) of Hardwick. Eventually she owned quite a bit of property all over England, with Sutton Court as yet another acquisition which she retained for the remainder of her life. A circular stair turret and two-storey ranges flank the building and annex to later mid-16th century additions along with a parlor and chapel, very much like Clevedon Court on the north west Somerset coast. These additions were built circa 1558 including an extensive three-storied servants’ wing and a four bay exterior, added by Hardwick and her third husband Sir William St. Loe. The pele tower was revamped with modern windows during the 15th century and the doorway to the tower dates from 1858-60 when Thomas Henry Wyatt was commissioned to carry out the wishes of Sir Edward Strachey, the 19th century owner.
Within the past decade, the extended castle has been undergoing restoration even on portions dating back to the time of Edward III. Bess’s portion of the house can be distinguished by looking for the chamfered mullioned windows, two-storied structures and diagonal offset buttresses which look decidedly Tudor. The battlements on the pele tower were added some time during the 18th century, oddly enough, by Wyatt. If the pele tower seems a bit out-of-place in the south of England remember that Hardwick was ‘north of England’, very much like Lady Anne Clifford. Such architecture would only have been expected and quite possibly, preferred. Bishop Hosper and John Locke became frequent guests of John Strachey and may have even taken up secret residence during the times of catholic suppression. In 1987 Sutton Court was converted over to apartments. Fortunately, life at Sutton Court in more recent times, has been described according to John St. Loe Strachey in his autobiographical book The Adventure of Living published in 1922.
Other features of the estate are single storey gate lodge, gate and gate piers most of which were built ca. 1820. The stone of the lodge mirrors the house in matching sandstone and freestone dressings and even slate roofs but the gate is older, perhaps original, to the beginnings of the estate with sandstone piers, all set at an angle to the approach. The porch leading to the drive up is of modern stone.
St. Loe Strachey, John (1922) The Adventure of Living A Subjective Autobiography (1860-1922). ISBN 1-4043-5656-8. http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/6567.
Not far away, Chew Court Palace,the Bishops of Bath and Wells property from 1062 to 1548 was built by the Chew Episcopi next to St. Andrews Church which was once visited by Henry III in 1250. Gisa was the first Bishop in residence. Presently, the manor is what remains of a much larger edifice including an adjacent well. The earliest portion may be the gatehouse which now is reduced and has modern plain tile roofs. The room over the gatehouse is said to have been used as a court-room, with the turrets used for holding prisoners. The palace was built circa late 12th century and continued to be occupied on a regular basis until its use fell out of favor mid-14th century. Episcopalian clergy took up residence in the latter part of the 15th century and the edifice was rebuilt in 1656 to grander standards. Unfortunately, much of that has been removed but if you can tour the inside you’ll find vestiges from that period in the form of an Elizabethan doorway with Doric pilasters.
Possession of the property was restored to the Duke of Somerset through a land sale and restoration took place during the 17th century, because the windows date from that period.
South of the village, medieval Tun Bridge dates from late 15th century with a Grade II listing. It features three pointed arches including double arch rings built in two orders and spans sixty feet over the river and is approached along the raised high pavements. This area is also a scheduled ancient monument.
A possible second choice for staying over is Hunstrete House Hotel which stands in a classical English landscape on the edge of the Mendip Hills, surrounded by lovely gardens, lake and woodlands. The large house is 19th century, although the history of the estate goes back to 963 AD according to the owners. In September of 2007 the Time Team people swooped down on the current house to explore the possibilities of a previous grand mansion which was never finished by Francis Popham, a descendant of Sir John of the same name who started construction of a 17-bay frontage. By Francis death in 1780 construction was abandoned and by 1830 it was demolished leaving behind only the arches and much of that was used in the restoration of Prior Park!
The investigation by the Time Team were excavations with the aim of determining if a previous medieval or Tudor manor house ever existed on the site. A program aired in England on February 17, 2008 revealing only that the 1780 mansion was an addition of a new exterior to a previous structure. What remains is quite fabulous in any case and is a great base for traveling around Somerset if you want peace and quiet when you sleep while you gallivant all over Somerset.
Hunstrete offers a terrace dining room with a cook who serves light, elegant dishes using produce from the extensive garden, including substantial use of organic meat and vegetables. The menu changes on a regular basis and the hotel has an excellent reputation for the quality of its wine list. In a sheltered corner of the walled garden there is a heated swimming pool for guests and riding stables in the village, a short walk away.
From Bath take the A4 toward Bristol and then the A368 toward Wells.