"Roman and Georgian Bath"

Talk by Bryan Amesbury

I seldom if ever ask questions of the speaker at the end of his talk, not because I lack the questions but because I prefer to research them myself thro' books or now the Internet. Speakers like Bryan are capable of opening up completely new vistas for further knowledge.

This was Bryan Amesbury's second talk to us - I still cannot now walk through St.Johns Arch in Bristol without seeing the scratch marks on the walls and visualising Bryan's explanation of these on his first visit to us - The importation of goods into the walled city on sledges which scraped against against the side walls. So my expectations were high and justifiably so. The following screed is a summary of what I picked up from the talk and consequent researches

Legendary Bath

Bladud, son of Ludhudibras the 8th King of Britons, spent eleven years at Athens and returned home a leper. Because of his illness he was confined but escaped in disguise from his father's court and came to a place called Swainswick where he was employed as a swineherd. In cold weather he saw his pigs wallowing in a mire. He found that the mud was warm and the pigs enjoyed the heat. Noticing that the pigs which bathed in the mire were free of scurf and scabs, and reasoning that he might benefit in the same way, he too bathed in the waters and was duly cured of leprosy. He revealed his identity to his master and returned to has father's court where he was recognised and restored to his inheritance.Celtic Diety He succeeded to the throne on his father's death, whereupon he founded the City of Bath around the hot springs and built the baths so that others might benefit as he had done. He learnt to fly with feathered wings and but fell on the Temple of Apollo at New Troy and broke his neck having ruled for 20 years. His son was King Lear of Shakespearean fame.

Roman Aquae Sulis

Within 30 to 40 years after the Roman invasion in AD43 the springs were controlled and walled in, Mediterranean style stone buildings rose out of the former morass, using the beautiful honey-coloured stone from the surrounding hills, and lead from the Mendip mines for pipes and the reservoir and to make the Great Bath. They built temples and theatres and palaces and villas. The city became the Holiday Camp for the legions and the roman administrators. Here they could relax from the power politics and every day stresses of the Roman Empire displayed so admirably by the 30 beheaded corpses excavated recently in York and shown in a "Timewatch" program.

It all lasted for some 400 prosperous years. Then, with the dissolution of the Empire and foreign invasions, it sank back into the mud, lying now some 10 to 15 feet below the present city, and in the fullness of time other cities were built over it. The remains of the Roman Baths, dedicated to the goddess Sul Minerva, are unsurpassed in this country. The Romans amalgamated Minerva with the local Briton goddess, Sul, and it is from Sul that Aquae Sulis took its name.

Medieval Bath

A Norman doctor turned churchman, John de Villula, bought the ruined city of Bath in 1088 for 500 pounds of silver. Instituted as the Bishop of Bath, Villula started building a great new cathedral on the burned Saxon abbey's ruins. With typical Norman ambition, the huge 100m-long cathedral was to be one of the largest in Europe. The present abbey occupies only its nave. Villula also extended the monastery, whose collegiate school was widely renowned for its scholarship. But most important was his interest in the therapeutic quality of Bath's hot springs. He ordered the baths to be refitted and built several treatment centres in the city. The wool trade and cloth-making maintained Bath's wealth. Although badly hit by the plague, Bath continued to prosper and the old city walls were rebuilt. Yet Villula's enormous cathedral was near ruined by neglect. Not until the 1499 was a new rebuilding started to a smaller scale as the last great medieval church built in this country. The Victorians have added false flying buttresses to the original perpendicular style of the church.

The great 16th century traveller John Leland was inspired by Bath's Roman ruins but not at all impressed by the hot water which 'rikketh like a sething potte', apparently. The waters fed four baths to cater for the many afflicted who came to Bath for their cures. King's Bath, built above the Great Bath of Roman times served the gentry once the cathedral and monastery were ruined. The Cross Bath on the other hand was foul. Contemporary accounts recoil in horror at the thought of diseased men and women bathing naked together while onlookers jeered and threw animals into the bath.

The baths themselves began to lose their glory; many complained that only the sick now came to enjoy the waters. The streets themselves were far from elegant. According to Bath's famous architect John Wood: 'Soil of all sorts, and even carrion, were cast and laid in the streets, and the pigs turned out by day to feed and rout among it; butchers killed and dressed their cattle at their own doors; people washed every kind of thing they had to make clean at the common conduits in the open streets ....'

Georgian Bath

Bath's population multiplied itself by well over ten times during the course of the 18th century. From a still small classic medieval city of just 2,000 souls, with its market place and many mangers and defensive walls, Bath was transformed into a fashionable metropolis of nearly 30,000 citizens in just 100 years.

Queen Anne's visit to Bath in 1702 provided the seed for the change. Amongst others Beau Nash, best described at this time as a gambler, saw his chance to make a fortune and set about transforming Bath into the kind of fashionable resort in which his gambling skills would thrive. Within just three years he had raised a considerable sum of money for the repair of Bath's woeful roads. Beau Nash and his great new city of pleasure and social elegance grew side by side. As Nash's influence increased, so Bath with its splendid new public buildings, orchestras and balls, began to rival London as the place to be seen and be seen in. Nash facilitated the Entertainment and Life of the new City but the infrastructure was provided by its Architect John Wood

John Wood the elder, born 1704 in Yorkshire, had a strong, almost mystical vision for Bath's future. On December 10, 1728, the foundations were dug for his impressive Queen Square and he went on to develop the simple magnificence of what are now known as the North and South Parades. With the city centre within easy walking distance, and yet another Assembly Room design by Wood in 1739, the development of the old Abbey Orchard catered for everything the visitor should need. His final masterpiece was the Circus, once again built on Barton Fields outside the medieval city walls after being rejected by the corporation. He demonstrated how a row of town houses could be dignified, almost palatial, by the use of uniform facades and rhythmic proportions. His classical principles of square unerring symmetry were followed throughout the Georgian city.His son, John Wood the Younger (1728-82), designed the Royal Crescent and the Assembly Rooms, and completed the building work on the Circus after his fathers death in 1754.

I hope this review does some justice to Bryan Amesbury's presentation.

Marcus Palmén