- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 1, 2005

Speculators throw up buildings in a rush to make a profit and to house pleasure-seeking tourists. Gamblers and cardsharps find ever more ingenious ways around the gaming laws. Nubile women are pursued by scribblers intent on either publicizing their charms or trashing them without mercy. Marriage is a thriving business in a city devoted to entertainment. Anyone who is anyone finds a way, somehow or other, of obtaining the best places at the best concerts.

If you have been fortunate enough to visit Bath, Roman city and sometime home to Jane Austen, you can be forgiven for assuming that it has always been sedate and regal and the perfect retirement home for a maiden aunt. Not so. I have never been to Las Vegas, but reading John Eglin’s new study “The Imaginary Autocrat,” I could not help thinking of how Bugsy Siegel created a metropolis in the middle of the desert. Bath’s evolution may have been somewhat less hurried — the legend of Bladud, discoverer of the hot springs, goes back to the ninth century AD, while the first king of England, Edgar, was crowned in the city’s old Abbey in 973. Yet the reinvention of the city as a Georgian centre of leisure generated something of the frenetic atmosphere of the Gold Rush. Bath was not the only spa town in England — Tunbridge Wells was a competitor, at least in the early Georgian era. Suddenly, however, there was only one place to be.

It comes as a shock to be reminded of all this, even if — like me — you grew up in the city. We think of Bath’s architecture as timeless and harmonious, with not a terrace, not a cornice, out of place. The Royal Crescent and The Circus remain among the most select addresses in the whole of Britain. Hardly a month seems to go by without a film and television crew setting up their equipment to shoot yet another costume drama. This is the beating heart of the Austen industry. To the visitors who crowd the Abbey Churchyard and the Pump Room every summer, the vistas of tawny stone present a glimpse of another, more serene world.

But nothing is as it seems. Just as the pillars and statues surrounding the Roman Baths are Victorian imposters, so our image of the city is in part mythological. In the heyday of Beau Nash, the courtly master of ceremonies who is the subject of Mr. Eglin’s book, fashionable types — members of Nash’s so-called “Company” of subscription revelers — paid homage to the cult of the new.

I have a postcard — bought at the Science Museum in London — of a 1750s engraving of Prior Park, the newly-built Palladian home of one of the city’s driving spirits, the entrepreneur Ralph Allen. The mansion and its grounds dominate the upper half of the picture. The foreground, on the other hand, is devoted to the rails and trucks (part of one of the world’s earliest railways) built to carry Allen’s precious Bath stone from his quarries. Fashionable ladies watch the carts pass with demure eyes. The old, Arcadian world rubs shoulders with the industrial future. As Mr. Eglin writes of the city as a whole:

“Bath was a building site where finely dressed visitors in brocaded coats, hoop petticoats and sack-back dresses shared the narrow streets with sweaty labourers in leather aprons, and silk stockings in shoes with jewelled buckles stepped gingerly around piles of masonry. Wealthy visitors in the best rooms of the newest lodging houses might still be awakened at five in the morning by roofers ‘covering in’ a still newer house across the courtyard… . [M]embers of the Company were fascinated by the city-in-progress, down to the raw materials of bricks, mortar and quarried stone … . We forget that this architecture, as it rose and displaced its Elizabethan and Jacobean antecedents, was to Bath’s visitors the architecture of a brilliant and exciting future.”

Ironically enough, when I was a schoolboy, in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, all the talk among the local worthies was of another brilliant and exciting future. This particular one, sadly, was made of inferior stuff, all concrete and glass. Whole swathes of the city succumbed to the bulldozer around this time. Having suffered at the hands of the German’s “Baedeker” air raids in World War II, Bath suffered the trauma of modern redevelopment. My walk to primary school took me past one demolition truck after another. All that remains of the houses now are the drawings assembled by one of my secondary school art teachers, who published a series of elegiac notebooks entitled “Vanishing Bath.” To browse through them now and see how many fine homes have been lost — from town houses to artisan cottages — is heartbreaking.

Virtually all the buildings erected in their place were dreary. (Locals always joked that the soulless, rectangular Hilton hotel which cuts across the view of the Abbey was commissioned by accident, after the architect left his cigarette lighter on the plans.) The anonymous modern homes built to replace the terraced housing near my old school began to look weatherbeaten after just a few years. Now, they are an eyesore. The old complex of shops that dominated the southern end of the town, near the train station, was pretty undistinguished, I suppose, although I don’t recall people complaining about it. Its replacement, hailed (by the architectural establishment, anyway) as a triumph of modernist architecture — turned out to be a hundred times worse. Home to the kind of chain stores you find in any high street anywhere in the country, it seems to attract only listless teenagers. The good news is that it is due to be demolished soon.

Even more of the old architecture would have been lost if conservationists had not mounted an impassioned campaign, supported by sympathetic VIPs, the late poet laureate John Betjeman among them. I have to admit that I took no interest in any of this at the time. Living on a council estate on the edge of the city, far off the tourist track, I never paid much attention to local aesthetics. Events such as the Bath Festival, renowned as one of the best arts events in Europe, passed me and my family by completely.

I didn’t begin to appreciate the place until I left to go to university. Today, I feel a pang whenever I go back. Compared with most British cities, Bath is still a jewel. But the damage inflicted by its own planners remains oppressive. Step off the train, as I did a few days ago, and you immediately come face to face with a grim, decaying bus station. The equally dismal shopping center looms beyond it. Hardly any vista is without its ‘60s carbuncle, and a much-heralded and expensive new spa center and museum — designed with the luxury “lifestyle” market in mind — has been mired in structural and budget crises that have delayed its opening by nearly three years.

Why does it have to be this way? Travel to any similar French city, Annecy, for instance, or Angouleme, and you are instantly struck by the amount of municipal pride on display. In Britain we prefer to muddle along. High streets which once had a distinct character grow more and more homogenous, and at night town are abandoned to binge-drinking youths. (How the government’s plans for 24-hour drinking licenses will help solve that problem remains to be seen.) British commentators like to complain about the blandness of American cities. Often they have a point. Still, if you stroll through Bath, or Oxford or Maidenhead, or Birmingham, to name just a few, you will realize that this country should be wary of handing out advice to colonials. Very wary.

Clive Davis writes for the London Times, and keeps a weblog at www.clivedavis-on-line.com.

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