Bath Not Bathroom History

PatRice_Shelter_200px Pat Rice here. With any luck, Shelter From the Storm will be re-released in ebook format by the time this blog goes up. As you can see, I've given up on finding historically accurate costumes and gone for half-naked!

Anyway, I've just finished writing a couple of paranormal novels, and I’m finally ready to research the next historical. I want to set this one in Bath, a place I’ve seen once on a very quick visit, so I’ve had to resort to digging into my research books. 

I wish Michener was around to write a complete historical fiction on the hot springs of Bath. The Druidic implications of that steamy dark forest appeals to the imagination. Can’t you just see the conflict of primitive man being drawn to the warmth but fearing the evil spirits? And then later, of course, the pragmatic Romans stomping over field and stream to turn the mineral water into hot baths. Relics of all these ages have turned up in the area, although the Georgian outburst of building probably ruined most archeological sites for all time. (photo at http://visitbath.co.uk/site/things-to-do/attractions/roman-baths-p25681)Bath.co.uk

What I find fascinating looking back from this day and age is just how the community of Bath turned their medieval village into a wealthy tourist destination to rival Vegas. The springs were well known for centuries. Queen Elizabeth had traveled there during her reign, yet the village had stayed just that, a dirty decrepit medieval village, with crumbling Roman baths in the middle. But in 1692, Princess Anne visited and apparently stimulated the public imagination. At the time, the city was operated by a Corporation, and the next time Anne visited—as queen—they produced a stage production to rival any large city. The courtiers, of course, were thrilled and flattered and quite willing to return to the cramped village time after time.

The Corporation, being of a conservative nature, did no more than allow a new tollway to open up the city for travelers after that success. But Beau Nash, traveling in the queen’s retinue, knew precisely what the dingy, deteriorating rural spa needed to attract the beau monde—sophistication, dancing, and Bath Assembly Rooms gambling. Shades of Vegas! For nearly sixty years, he reigned as official or unofficial Master of Ceremonies, choosing which of the select five hundred would be granted permission to join the aristocratic entertainments.  He made the rules, warned away the cheats and wastrels, and commanded a high standard of elegance—the Almack ladies could have learned from him. He also gambled to excess and was buried in a pauper’s grave, and his mistress of the time was so crazed with grief that she moved into a hollowed-out tree. It was obviously an age of excess.

But the court also attracted the gentry hoping to make wealthy connections, and as the medicinal reputation of the springs grew, invalids and the elderly increased the population until the medieval walls threatened to explode. And this is where my modern interest kicks in—the city did nothing. For fifty years, they had untold wealth at their disposal. They had a teeming population of all classes from pickpockets to queens crushed inside ancient barriers, and they sat on their fingers and dithered, 800px-Grosvenor_Square leaving all building projects to private interests. Since the city owned almost all the land within the walls, private interests had to go outside, and so the suburbs were created.

And they were created quite creatively, too. John Woods, a well-known Bath architect, didn’t have the wealth to outright buy lands owned by dukes and bishops. He certainly didn’t have the help of the city. But he could lease fields and develop the infrastructure—and design fabulous facades in the fashion of the Georgian era. In turn, he leased individual lots to developers who would put their own cash into actually building the edifices he drew. And so the resort grew to house new generations. Practical John fared far better than the Beau, and John Wood Jr grew up in his father’s productive footsteps.

It wasn’t until 1750 that Bath’s Corporation finally saw the light and engaged in a building frenzy.  They began by developing undeveloped lots inside the city walls, and once they’d filled those up, they tore down the medieval walls and built outward, while also ripping down the old city center and replacing it with grandeur. The famed Pump Room wasn’t completed until 1796, well after the Prince Regent had discovered the tiny fishing village of Brighton. Royal interest in Bath waned, leaving the newly refurbished town with the elderly and invalids of whom Austen wrote in the Regency era.

Aside from pondering the implications of slow-to-change conservatives losing the opportunity to make a difference, compared to risk-taking idealists who really needed the guidance of their practical counterparts, the story of Bath leaves me with other questions. Do the wealthy really prefer the exclusivity of dowdy dirty settings out of the common path to enduring sparkling spacious elegant resorts filled with the common folk? Since I’ll never be a courtier to find out, I guess we’ll just have to speculate. If you were a princess and her court, would you prefer visiting an exclusive setting in some jungle to the glitter of Monaco? And then would you care to explain why?