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That noble hill, whose beautiful verdure and hanging coppice render it so striking an object from almost every opening in Bath” [1](Austen, 1817)

To disregard the City of Bath’s regency styling as a true masterpiece of England’s architectural history is, quintessentially, compromising the significance of the cities contribution concerning the progression of culture, lifestyle and industrious activity, between the 18th and 19th century. While we may readily accept Jane Austen’s adoration towards her residence, both in reality and in her fictitious work, how can a site notorious for its preservation of history remain so successful in a world almost ‘too’ ready for change? On visiting this historic city, the grandeur of its Georgian property somewhat overwhelms the senses. The Bath stone monoliths monopolise the relatively compact and quaint city. However, these are comparatively, some of the most recent instalments to the landscape as R.A.L. Smith recognises in his study and reflection on the spa town. “Bath has known every age in our island story. The Romans set foot here…[and] the Saxons…Bath became the ecclesiastical centre of the medieval world”[2], yet somehow the visionary Georgian town has survived to this day. So much so, that the city achieved UNESCO World Heritage status[3], in 1987, putting it within the same company as The Great Wall of China, the historic centre of Rome and the Acropolis in Athens, Greece. While the honour of such a title evokes the significance and importance of the city, with the title also comes a multitude of restrictions. Planning laws and UNESCO guidelines impose great limitations as to how the city can develop today. On the one hand, the protective measures ensure that we can enjoy the city as a treasure house of British architectural antiquity, on the other, it allows us to consider how the city, and also the nations past, has created an attitude toward what is retrospectively, no more than a mere habitable town in the south west of England.

Smith understands the substantial value of Bath from its place in times past but also its consolidated position for times to come, stating that “she remains to-day in her architecture, her history, and her tradition, a perfect epitome of our national past: a harbinger for an even greater future”[4]. This is, in essence, the stance that UNESCO World Heritage also maintains in relation to the site. Interestingly, it is the organisations recognition of three particular citizens (Nash, Wood and Allen) that ultimately manipulate the way in which we have come to truly accept the historical value and need to protect, by law, this magnificent regency settlement. The city “metropolis of fashion and folly”[5] was ultimately the making of upper class socialite Richard ‘Beau’ Nash. On his arrival, to the town, in 1702 Kenneth Hudson puts, that Nash had “an instinctive understanding of the mixture of health and pleasure, of elegance and temporary asceticism that were required to transform the small spa into a very big business”[6]. This great sense of entrepreneurialism could not have been instigated at a more opportune time. Not only were the upper echelons of society becoming restless in an overcrowding capital city, desperately in need of a sanctuary that could meet their luxurious demands yet remain a haven from bustling London; the migration from the rural community to more urbanised areas meant that Nash had the ability to extract an enthusiastic and fervent workforce to create his vision of a ‘new’ Bath, a movement that we also see today. “He had been an undergraduate [at Oxford], a soldier, a Templar. He knew everyone worth knowing”[7]. The gumption to create an ideological English city is what he strived for, accompanied by architect John Wood the Elder and industrialist Ralph Allen the “Georgian city reflects the[ir] ambitions… particularly social, of the spa city in the 18th Century.”[8]

UNESCO verbosely puts that:

Bath’s grandiose Neo-classical Palladian [features are] demonstration par excellence of the integration of architecture, urban design, and landscape setting, and the deliberate creation of a beautiful city…[the city] reflects two great eras in human history: Roman and Georgian. The Roman Baths and temple complex, make a significant contribution to the understanding and appreciation of Roman social and religious society. The 18th century redevelopment is a unique combination of outstanding urban architecture, spatial arrangement, and social history. Bath exemplifies the main themes of the 18th century neoclassical city; the monumentalisation of ordinary houses, the integration of landscape and town, and the creation and interlinking of urban spaces, designed and developed as a response to the growing popularity of Bath as a society and spa destination”[9]

To suppose that much of the contemporary city we find today is the “redevelopment” of 18th Century design compels two predominant questions. What does the imposition of UNESCO status oblige upon the city to protect this design? And what protection does England and Wales impose upon the city? UNESCO World Heritage procures its methods of protection and rules via the 1972 World Heritage Convention[10]. Article 4 and Article 5 of the convention impose the duty to protect the designated sites. While the convention aims to protect the physicality of the site, section (a) of Article 5 also denotes the retention and maintaining of functionality at the site; a disposition most prominent in the working and still very much inhabited city. The identification of the past and its physical and functional elements is important when considering the protecting legal sanctions that we impose today. Not only can the past dictate how we have arrived at certain stance in law, but also carry with it a sense of how we have attained certain values for protection and why it is necessary to preserve our cultural heritage. Interestingly, article 15 asserts the implication of a trust fund that each member state must contribute a donation that can be used to preserve, conserve and protect the UNESCO sites. The trust is a legal system that has developed from 8th century feudal system origins and it is somewhat charming to suggest that a historic form of property protection is used to care for historic sites such as Bath today. This is largely due to a flexibility it bestows in regards to its relationship with equity. Protecting the city becomes just as much a just and fair ‘right’ today to preserve social an cultural history, as a legal duty.

We take inspiration from our past, our present our potential future and our physical surroundings. The colossal architectural antiquity in Bath has led us to consider the necessary requirements to preserve and protect an age of austerity, social luxury and idealised, upper class, societal living. While the fundamental ideological stance may be somewhat drastically different, than in 18th and 19th century England, anticipating the importance and functionality of the city allows modern day Bath to engorge itself in preserved cultural heritage. We idolise what we can learn from the grandiose lifestyle depicted by “the fine analytical skills of Jane Austen”[11] and gain elation that we may enact a moment of history with our fleeting visit to the city.

Why not check out Toby Mitchell’s book, ‘The Weekender – BATH‘ and take inspiration to go see the city yourself.

[1] J Austen, Northanger Abbey (Standard Novels, London 1848) 84.
[2] R.A.L Smith, Bath (B.T. Batsford Ltd, London 1945) 9
[3] UNESCO ‘City of Bath’ < http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/428> accessed 10 April 2011
[4] R.A.L Smith, Bath (B.T. Batsford Ltd, London 1945) 10
[5] R.A.L Smith, Bath (B.T. Batsford Ltd, London 1945) 9
[6] K. Hudson, Pleasures and People of Bath (Michael Joseph Ltd & Folio Press, London 1977) 12
[7] A.J. King, General History of Bath in Handbook to Bath ed. J.W. Morris (Issac Pitman and Sons 1888) 79
[8] UNESCO ‘City of Bath’ < http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/428> accessed 10 April 2011
[9] UNESCO ‘City of Bath’ < http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/428> accessed 10 April 2011
[10] Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, art. 4, 5,15
[11] L. Gazamian ,The Social Novel in England 1830 – 1850 (Routledge & Kegan Paul, London 1973) 39

Written by

Yorkshireman living in London. Matt can often be found exploring his city (and beyond). He loves architecture, live music and cooking up a storm in the kitchen. Pass him the latest copy of monocle and a flat white and he'll be happy. Often found in a uniform of navy blue.

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