Bath's lost era
The enthusiasm of Bath's Georgian redevelopers made a clean sweep of the past. Not only did they wipe out almost all trace of the earlier city, but they scorned its memory.
The Stuart city was worthy of nothing but contempt in 18th century eyes. Georgian writers were great propagandists for the architecture of their own era; the old held no charm for them. If we took their word for it, we might picture 17th century Bath as a collection of hovels. But the reaction of Stuart visitors gives us quite a different view. For them Bath was a pearl of a city, 'without doubt the prettiest of the Kingdom'. Gilmore's plan of Bath in 1694 bears them out. He shows one house after another to compare with the finest of the period.
The pride of the Georgians in their own age extended to rewriting history. The myth was created that Bath only became a fashionable resort under the guidance of Beau Nash. Nothing could be further from the truth. The aristocracy flocked to Bath after the visit of Queen Elizabeth gave the spa the seal of royal approval in 1574. The list of visitors reads like a roll-call of the Elizabethan Court. The Queen's favourite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, came four times. Sir Walter Raleigh could scarcely keep away and urged his friends to meet him here time and again.
Bath was soon building lodging houses fit for the noblest in the land. The only survivor is the Abbey Church House in Westgate Buildings. Houses around the baths were much sought after by Elizabethan physicians competing for wealthy patients. The Abbey Church House had a particular asset - a private bath drawn from the Hot Bath. Built by Dr Robert Baker around 1590, this was one of the city's grandest houses. It was so badly hit in the Bath Blitz that the whole west front is a post-war restoration, but the great chamber of his house is still there, with its Elizabethan panelling and elaborate chimney-piece. Dr Baker did not enjoy his new house for long. In November 1596, he was buried in Bath Abbey.
His widow then married another physician, Dr Reuben Sherwood, who settled into the house in the Spring of 1598. Among his first visitors was the Marchioness of Northampton, the Queen's leading lady-in-waiting. Helena Ulfsdotter Snakenborg came to England as a maid-of-honour to Princess Cecilia of Sweden. Only 16, she captivated the much older William Parr, Marquess of Northampton. By the time of her visit to Bath, she had long outlived him and no doubt developed the aches and pains of middle age. Perhaps the Bath waters did her good, for she came again at least seven times.
Beyond the North Gate lay Bath's more workaday northern suburb. Here were homes built for comfort, not show. Turn into the court of the Moon and Sixpence in Broad Street and you will see the timber wall of Casa Fina, a reminder that the city once had many timber-framed houses. Inside you will find more centuries-old carpentry: decorated ceiling beams and an original staircase.
The row of houses built along what is now North Parade Passage shortly after 1622 were probably all timber-framed. Those taking up the building leases included two carpenters and a sawyer. Now only Sally Lunn's House retains some of its timber walls. Like other old Bath houses, it has seen some changes. The stone front with its sash windows is perhaps early 18th century and the bow window later. This Regency favourite adds greatly to the charm and character of the house. The human scale of Sally Lunn's, with its low ceilings and panelling in the small squares of the Jacobean period, gives it a delightful intimacy and warmth.
Surprises can lurk behind Georgian facades. Several Bath houses are really Stuart, but given a fashionable new front in the 18th century. 'The Bunch of Grapes' in Westgate Street is particularly intriguing. In the 17th and 18th centuries, this and 15 Westgate Street next door were one house. Around 1720 it was given a rather grand face-lift, but the conversion was skin-deep. The first floor drawing room has the only Jacobean plasterwork ceiling in Bath [apart from that in the Jacobean vestry of Bath Abbey]. Some Jacobean panelling has survived on the floor above. The substantial four-storey house was probably built by Richard Gay, three times Mayor, and M.P. for Bath in 1625. He was the lessee from 1620. In the mid-17th century it was the home of Dr John Ostendorph. The fame of the Bath waters had spread through Europe by this time. It drew both the suffering sick and those hoping to cure them. Dr Ostendorph had migrated to Bath from Germany. He was so successful that he settled here, marrying the sister of a Bath painter. Abbey Green is another secretly Stuart corner of Bath.
In the Autumn of 1698, three building leases were granted in Abbey Green. All three houses are still there, heavily disguised. A casual glance at 2 Abbey Green and you would think it mid-Georgian. But a renovation uncovered stone mullioned windows in the side wall. Inside, in The Cutting Edge and Abbey Green Gifts, you can see shell-headed buffets like the one from 15 Westgate Street, but in wood. At least the Georgians left us a few mementos of the lovely city they aimed to surpass.
First published in Bath City Life Summer 1992.
Jean Manco 'Bath and the Great Rebuilding', Bath History vol. 4 (Bath 1992).