Purveyor of Bollocks to the Crowned Heads of Europe
Saturday, 16 November 2013
A short, dry and dusty essay on old Bath
Bath has been a flippant and hedonistic town ever since the Romans used it for a little R & R a couple of thousand years ago, but it has only looked like it does now since about 1720.
It took over three hundred years after the fall of Rome for the stranded Roman citizens in Britain to finally melt in with the indigenous population and, after that, the monks briefly took over.
The oldest known poem in the Anglo Saxon language of the Dark Ages was written by an early tourist to Bath, who describes the crumbling ruins of the once magnificent baths complex, and even then - before almost entirely silting over in hot mud - they were a depressing and melancholy reminder of how the mighty inevitably fall.
Mention Bath to anyone and they will immediately think of stone - the 'honey-coloured' stone of fair-faced Georgian architecture. Bath stone does not start out honey-coloured, it just oxidises like that as the iron content is exposed to the weather.
You can thank young Ralph Allen for Bath's association with the local stone - he decided to make the same sort of money from raw materials as Sir Christopher Wren did from Portland stone, following the Great Fire of London and subsequent rebuilding. Ralph Allen managed to get quite a bit of Bath stone into London, but it could not compete with Portland in terms of durability, so he teamed up with the architect John Wood (the Elder) just at a time when Bath was getting a make-over to make it more attractive to Londoners, who came here to take the waters, gamble and fornicate in fashion.
In the very early 1700s, Bath was not a blank canvas on which to paint the elegant vision of Georgian gentility, so almost all of the medieval architecture had to be demolished to make way for spacious promenades fronted by neo-classical terraces and mansions. At the time this transformation was taking place, John Wood - despite mimicking the might and grandeur of ancient Rome in his town houses - made himself busy in his spare time by writing lengthy treatises to discredit the Roman portrayal of ancient Britons as painted savages, and came up with some very complimentary theories on the sophistication and cosmopolitan, pre-Roman culture of the Druids. Maybe that stemmed from a pang of guilt inherited from his ancestors who had - eventually - learned to live under the umbrella of Pax Romana.
The big thing about Bath's historical culture and its architecture is its skin-deep facade - both in society and the very stone it was built with. Like I say, Bath has always been a flippant town, and is only called a 'city' because of the monks and the Abbey. I know many people who have tried to live here, having moved from London and elsewhere, but just could not tolerate the shallowness of the place. Samuel Johnson, for instance, hated Bath.
So rather than demolish all four walls of the old town, Wood and his assistants often kept three, but stuck a six-inch face in place of the fourth, in the same way that an old, 18th century dowager would virtually trowel white, lead-based make-up on hers before presenting herself to society.
The medieval Bath buildings did use stone in conjunction with wood, but the stone they used - though exactly the same as we use today - was roughly pulled out in the form of rubble, and rubble of varying sizes at that. Ralph Allen trained masons to cut the stone into fair-faced blocks, strictly governed in size to certain exact dimensions, hence the term 'dimension stone'.
Even in medieval times and right up to the late 17th century, the masons just didn't trust the softness of Bath stone that was not brash, and imported a much harder, white lias from as far away as 30 miles to use in the rubble infills of wood frames, side walls and foundations. The Georgian builders - if they did not demolish these walls - simply stuck other stuff against them, and if they did demolish them, they reincorporated the old materials into the new walls. They were, after all, hardly likely to go to the trouble of taking the white and blue lias all the way back to where it had been quarried.
This is how you can safely assume that an old coaching inn (like The Bell, where the above photo was taken) which has previously been dated to no earlier than about 1740 is - in all probability - at least 35 years older, or at least it stands on the site of a building which is even older than that.
Right, you can go back to whatever you were doing before I started this ramble.