World heritage city

The Roman BathsFor almost two millennia, the city of Bath has welcomed visitors of all kinds: the sick, seeking a cure from the healing waters, the wealthy seeking entertainment and today's visitors, drawn by the legacy of that past. This includes some of the most spectacular Roman remains in Britain and a city unique in being almost exclusively Georgian. Bath is one of the best-preserved eighteenth-century cities in the world. Such is its importance that in 1988 the whole city was designated a World Heritage Site.

Bath owes its existence to its hot springs - the only ones in this country. Long before the Roman invasion in AD 43, the Celtic population revered this miracle of nature, seeing in it the power of the Goddess Sulis. But it was Roman technology that created a bathing establishment known throughout Europe. Work began on the baths and temple precinct around the 60s and 70s of the first century. The great complex beneath the present day Pump Room formed the nucleus of the Roman town of Aquae Sulis. Much of this urban development lies hidden forever beneath the later city, but every year new excavations by the Bath Archaeological Trust reveal more about Bath's Roman past.

The Roman town flourished for as long as the great empire of which it was an outpost could support it.Artist's impression of Aquae Sulis by John Ronayne (Bath Archaeological Trust) But by the early fifth century, Aquae Sulis was in decline. With the collapse of Roman rule, the great bathing complex fell into ruin. Emphasis shifted to the foundation of a Saxon monastery. Roman buildings were robbed to their foundations to provide building materials for the growing Christian settlement. It was to become one of the most important monasteries in England. In 973 King Edgar, first king of all England, was crowned in the Abbey Church in the presence of the Archbishops of York and Canterbury. A special service was devised for the occasion and this is still used, little changed, for the coronation of British monarchs.

With the coming of the Normans, Bath gained a new dignity - in 1091 it became a cathedral city. Bishop John of Tours replaced the monastery with a great cathedral priory on the continental model. The Tudor Abbey Church occupies only the nave area of the vast Norman cathedral. Also around this time new baths were built at the three hot springs: the King's, Hot and Cross Baths.

During the Middle Ages, Bath was well-known for its cloth-making. But as the wool trade slumped in the mid-16th century, the hot springs reclaimed their status as the chief attraction of the town. The visit of Queen Elizabeth in 1574 set the seal of royal approval on Bath as a spa. The baths were enlarged and improved and the nobility and gentry flocked to the city. Fine inns and lodging houses sprang up to accommodate them and already in the 17th century, Bath was considered one of the loveliest cities in the country.

As the 18th century dawned a new era opened for Bath. The seasonal influx of a wealthy elite acted as a magnet to the luxury trades. Artists, actors, musicians and gamblers peopled a playground for the aristocracy. Richard Beau Nash, attracted to Bath as a gambler, became the city's Master of Ceremonies. His firm hand welded together polite society in a fashionable round of promenades, assemblies and visits to the Pump Room. Bath was still the hospital of the nation, but the glittering social life of the country's premier resort drew ever more visitors.

The Circus in 1773 (Victoria Art Gallery, Bath)Bath burst out of the cramped confines of its medieval walls in a great spurt of new building. Elegant terraces snaked out across the surrounding hills, capturing between them stretches of countryside that became the city's parks and gardens. John Wood the elder was the visionary architect who led the way. Leasing land outside the city walls, he planned Queen Square, the Parades and the Circus as speculative ventures. Wood designed developments with the grandeur of palaces but the convenience of a row of private houses. Individual plots were sub-leased to building tradesmen, who were left to devise their own interiors, provided they conformed to Wood's splendid designs for the façades.

The Palladian revival was then sweeping through British architecture. This movement aimed to return to pure Classical principals, after a surfeit of the rich curves and heavy ornamentation of the Baroque. Palladianism inspired John Wood and the local builders who followed his example, giving Georgian Bath a remarkable architectural unity. It was the creation of local men using local materials, the golden Bath stone quarried in the surrounding hills.

As the spacious Georgian streets spread out around it, the tightly packed ancient core of the city became a bottleneck. The baths themselves were out of date and Bath's medical fraternity urged improvements. In 1789, The Bath Improvement Act created powers to purchase, demolish and rebuild. The City Surveyor, Thomas Baldwin, drew up plans for a fitting centre to the Georgian city, though not along strictly Palladian lines. His façades are softened by delicate decoration in the style of Robert Adam. A new broad colonnaded Bath Street linked the rebuilt Cross Bath and Grand Pump Room in an impressive ensemble.

But the heyday of the spa had passed; Bath's very popularity had killed it as a fashionable resort. As the middle classes crowded the city in the later 18th century, the glamour of exclusivity was lost. Gradually the lively flow of seasonal visitors, bringing with them a breath of the metropolis, gave way to a staider air. Bath became a favoured retirement home for those seeking an inexpensive gentility. After 1800, seaside resorts gained in popularity and Bath entered a quieter phase. Today the city attracts visitors from all over the globe and the atmosphere sparkles with cosmopolitan life. Some of the world's greatest actors and musicians perform here and even the streets are alive with entertainers. Bath has become an international cultural centre, as well as a world heritage city.

First published in Bath Official Visitor Guide 1993.