(Old) Bath; Or: The Ha-Ha Wall which Lead to a Private Literary Tour

(Originally posted on February 20, 2012)

A little over three years after my 18th Birthday (and the adventures in Bath on that historic day), I set out to return to the city. Little did I know the delights the city had in store this time.

After very nearly missing my train (the doors were shut when I ran up–luckily some businessmen got the guy to open the doors again for us), I set out for what I hoped would be a relaxing outing. I arrived at the city, and was pleasantly surprised by how familiar it was–how much of it I remembered. As an aside, Bath, I think, remains my favorite city in Europe (out of the ones I have visited), though it is a close tie between Bath, Rome and Venice. There are a handful of busy streets, but most of the time it’s pedestrian only or the speed limits are so slow cars don’t roar by. It’s so full of history everywhere you turn, and has beautiful alleys, views and gardens. I don’t know why exactly, but it’s always had a special place in my heart, and walking around today I kept thinking how very much I would love to stay there.

But on to my story.

I dropped in at the TI to grab a map, then sat down and marked out my route. I was hoping to see a couple of the sights I’d missed last time, before taking a walk into the country side to view Prior Park Garden. Accordingly I decided to go to the Royal Crescent and Circus first, at the very north of the city, and then work my way past the Assembly Rooms, back to the Jane Austen Centre (which I’ve been there before, but two words: gift shop), then all the way south to the footpaths.

After making a fool of myself by nearly getting hit in an intersection, I arrived at the Circus. I wandered, then went on uphill to the Crescent. As I was poking around, admiring the view, a fellow in costume (including cape and top hat) approached me and made some remarks about the houses. We started talking, me asking questions and him explaining th significance of the history and architecture of the Crescent and Circus (to follow). I told him I was in an 18th century literature class presently, hoping to write on the role of fiction in women’s education during that time period. He got very excited and gave me some recommendations for research. As the conversation began to wind down, I remarked on the ha-ha wall in the grassy area before the Crescent.

“Oh yes!” he said. “People used to get so drunk, they would forget it was there and then fall down and hurt themselves! They actually had an act passed in Parliament that forbade the grass near the wall from being mowed, so they’d have a bit of a warning.” I laughed. He looked at me very closely and chuckled. “You know, you’re one of the very, very few people who I’ve met who know what a ha-ha wall is!”

I explained that I used to live near Mt. Vernon, George Washington’s estate. For those who don’t know, a ha-ha wall is a wall created by making a sort of ditch in the ground. (See here.) It’s practically invisible when viewed from above, which makes it ideal for landscaping–and for tripping up unwary walkers (thus the name). I told the fellow that I used to take my friends out to Mt. Vernon, I’d tell them to wait and then I’d run and jump down the ha-ha walls and disappear. He found this quite amusing.

We discussed a bit of the Revolution. Apparently a lot of people were actually in support of America leaving. They had Australia to deal with, and the Americas were just a bit too much trouble to bother with. We joked about this a bit.

He said he had about forty-five minutes before his next tour, and asked if I’d be interested in having him show me around the literary sites of the city for twenty pounds. Um, yes please!

I honestly don’t know how much of this will interest anyone else so I’ll just cover the highlights. (Note after finishing: Yes, these are just the highlights.)

We started out talking about the Blue Stocking Club, which was a women’s reading club (he insisted it was absolutely necessary to study if I’m going to write on women’s education/fiction). Apparently it was only for the richest women (Jane Austen had no hope of getting in), and it was women only. This concerned many men in Bath, while others thought it harmless because women didn’t have any power.

He went on to talk in great detail about the Crescent and the Circus (which is his area of study/research). They were designed by a father-son set of architects. Only the very richest could afford to rent rooms here. But what was most fascinating was all the hidden paganism in the design. The Circus itself is on the site of an old pagan sun temple. If you stand in the center on the solstice, the sun will rise perfectly (he said something more specific but I can’t remember the phrase–it’s like it will rise right over you). The Circus is for the sun. The Royal Crescent is the moon, on the site of an old moon temple. The number nine (pagan perfect number) is very prominent in the design of both (numbers of windows, columns, etc). The king wanted to call the Circus the Royal Circus, but the architect flat out refused (“the Circus” = 9 letters). If you look at a map, the Crescent and the Circus form a question mark. Follow that down to Queen Square, and it’s a symbol from the Masons (both father and son were Masons). Weird stuff! I asked if people objected to all the paganism, but Thomas (my guide) said that people knew nothing about it until much later. The Circus took 15 years to build, but the Royal Crescent took only six (or nine–I can’t remember, but it was less than ten). Remarkable considering they didn’t have any electric tools.

One thing I’d never heard before was that there are different social seasons in the regency world. (For those that don’t know, the social season was husband-hunting, get-together, balls-and-theater time.) I’ve always heard of the Season, and always assumed there was only one, which you would preferably spend in London. But actually there are three! The spring season is spent in London, the summer season is for the grand tour, and the winter season is in Bath.

People generally came to Bath for one of three purposes: To take the waters (for healing), to gamble, or to catch a husband. The gambling part was new to me! Apparently the Assembly Rooms were quite the spot for gambling, and one rich woman actually gambled away her Circus rooms. Women were just as notorious for gambling as men. Also interesting is that the Assembly Rooms have windows placed far too high for poor people to look in. To get into the Rooms, you’d pay a seasonal fee (I asked how much, but Thomas couldn’t remember, which made him quite puzzled and he told me several times he was going to have to look it up). While the fee wasn’t terribly much, you’d be paying fees left and right while you were in Bath–for your church pew, for the theater, for the Assembly Rooms, for your rented rooms, etc. The costs added up quickly.

One thing that has puzzled Nicole and I while we were here last time was the number of chimney stacks on the houses. One small townhouse had 16! But now I have the answer to this mystery. People would put extra (and ornate) chimney stacks to try to look wealthy!

We talked a great deal about pamphlets and the government’s attempt to control all forms of media and free speech. I didn’t know the Stamp Act was enacted across all of Britain’s territories (rather than just the Americas). Puts a new perspective on the colonies pitching a fit–and that it was repealed! Anyway, because of the Stamp Act a circulating library was formed in Bath, which is a bit like a rotating public library.

As we strolled past a pub dedicated to Dickens and talked about England freaking out during the French Revolution, we came to an open area by the main road. Apparently this was the designated dueling area–the only place in Bath where people could have sword fights. That’s why Jane Austen remarks about the dress swords in Northanger Abbey–men wore swords pretty much everywhere, but dress swords were blunt. Who knew! This is definitely going into one of my books someday.

Apparently coffee houses in those days were separated by political parties (Whigs/Tories). Woe to you if you went to the wrong coffee house!

“Society back then was basically like Facebook now!” Thomas told me. “Everyone knew everything about everyone else.”

Thomas took me down to the Theatre Royal. He said people never go to see it, but it was one of the most influential places of the time–especially for Jane Austen. Her family had a box there, and one of her best friends (Sarah Siddons, I think) was an actress. It’s actually believed that she took the plots for her novels from some of the plays she saw.

Speaking of the theater: Apparently in that time actresses were forbidden to play women. So all the actresses were in the men’s roles, and men had to be the girls! I asked, and Thomas said the cross dressing really wasn’t a problem back then. Apparently one reason masquerades was so popular was because with the mask on you couldn’t tell someone’s gender. So men would come dressed and women, which was an outlet for homosexuality. Very interesting. Can’t help thinking of Phantom of the Opera’s masquerade song.

“Bath is a stage,” Thomas told me. People came to perform, to be seen. The whole point of coming was to make sure everyone knew you were here.

Jane Austen unwillingly got herself a patron in the Prince Regent for Emma, which I didn’t know. Her dedication in the first edition sounds very sarcastic. I would love to get my hands on some original manuscripts to see if she had to alter the text after he became her sponsor!

We went by the block where most writers lived (including Wordsworth, Burke, and Goldsmith, among others). I haven’t read much/anything by most of these writers, but it was still really cool.

And finally, Bath in those days (according to Thomas, who did his thesis on this) was made up of three different classes: The rich (living in the Circus and Crescent), the writers, merchants and slave traders, and the poor.

We had some other interesting conversations, but then it was time to part ways. Here’s a picture we had a reluctant guy take of us together:

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Thomas gave me his card and told me to contact him if I need any recommendations whatsoever for my paper. I was quite blown away! I left with my face aching from smiling so much.

The rest of the day was fairly laid back in comparison. I had lunch at the Dickens pub, decided I didn’t have time to walk to the Prior Park Garden, so wandered aimlessly into several bookshops, and ended up at the Jane Austen Centre. The girl in the shop was quite sweet, and we discussed books and the center a bit. A fellow in costume came in after finishing up a tour, and was also quite friendly. I ended up buying a copy of an independently published Pride and Prejudice graphic novel (not the Marvel one, which is frankly quite ugly on some pages and almost an exact copy of the 2005 movie). I also grabbed two pins: I ❤ Darcy and I ❤ Tilney. As I was checking out, the girl was like, “Ahhh. Darcy and Tilney.” Then she asked me if I collect graphic novels, and I laughed. “Not really, but I collect different copies of Pride and Prejudice!” She laughed too and said she does the same for Wuthering Heights. I kept thinking in my head, “I want to work here and wear a costume and be with geeky people who love literature and Jane Austen! Please take me with you to your world of delight and history and literary abandon!” But I did not say this and made a graceful exit.

I explored the river walk (lovely!) and dropped into a few more shops, including the ancient bookshop I had visited last time I was here. This time I got to go downstairs, where I drooled over old leather copies of classics. But I kept my self-control and left without buying the £20 Don Quixote or £15 Great Expectations. I was feeling quite proud of myself for not buying armfuls of books in the various bookshops I’d been in that day, until I realized besides the graphic novel I’d also purchased Fashion in the Time of Jane Austen (it has pictures!). Not to mention the shirt or the buttons or the postcards…

I returned to the train station in due time, and safely made my way back to Reading.

And since I didn’t get to see Prior Park this time, I have excuse to go again.

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