Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Day Fourteen: Bath

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Bath Abbey
“The Mayor’s Honorary Society” Tour Of Bath
The Royal Crescent, Bath
Number One Royal Crescent, Bath
The Roman Baths And Pump Room, Bath
“Enjoy” At Theatre Royal, Bath

We plan to leave our hotel at 8:45 a.m. this day and walk to nearby Bath Abbey, which opens for visitors at 9:00 a.m.

Bath Abbey stands in the very center of Bath. A former cathedral, it is a splendid building, one of the finest examples of English Perpendicular architecture in Britain.

A church has occupied the same spot since the 7th Century, but the present structure—a very large and spacious building—dates from the 12th Century and, after an interruption of 400 years, the 16th Century. It is the last of the great medieval churches in Britain, completed only a few short years before The Dissolution Of The Monasteries.

The most prominent features of Bath Abbey are the spectacular fan vaulting, among the most beautiful to be seen anywhere and designed by the same architects who designed the breathtaking fan vaulting in the Henry VII Chapel at Westminster Abbey, and the spectacular stained glass windows. Bath Abbey has 52 windows, occupying over 80% of the wall space, and the windows give the Abbey a lightness and grace rare in a medieval cathedral. The most remarkable window in the Abbey is the giant window at the East end, featuring a window portraying 56 scenes from the life of Christ.

Bath Abbey was erected in cruciform plan, very rare for churches of the time. The giant tower, with ten bells, is placed at the center of the cruciform.

Bath Abbey is filled with memorials and monuments. There are more memorials and monuments in Bath Abbey than any other religious structure in Britain other than Westminster Abbey.

One monument is dedicated to Nancy Storace, the first Susanna in Mozart’s ”The Marriage Of Figaro”. Storace was born in London, but was a member of the Court Opera in Vienna for several years before ending her career back in Britain. While in Vienna, Storace appeared in stage works of Salieri, Mozart and Gluck. In addition to writing Susanna for Storace’s special talents, Mozart also wrote one of his most celebrated concert arias for her.

There are two organs in the Abbey.

We will explore the Abbey’s complete exterior and interior, after which we will visit The Heritage Vaults, located in the crypt. The Heritage Vaults present a history of the Abbey, including models of the various buildings that have occupied the site over the centuries, and include ancient artifacts associated with the Abbey. It is a small but charming museum.

We will complete our visit to the Abbey promptly at 10:30 a.m., because at 10:30 a.m. we will take “The Mayor’s Honorary Society” Tour Of Bath, an extensive guided tour of Bath’s most important buildings, from both historic and architectural perspectives. The tour begins only a few feet from the Abbey’s main entrance. “The Mayor’s Honorary Society” Tour is limited to twelve persons and lasts two hours, sometimes longer. It is supposed to be unmissable.

After the tour, we will have lunch, and then we will return to The Royal Crescent, which we will have visited during “The Mayor’s Honorary Society” Tour.

The Royal Crescent is perhaps the finest example of Georgian architecture anywhere. Erected between 1767 and 1774, The Royal Crescent is a half circle of elegant and imposing town homes, 30 in number, with 114 Ionic columns, designed and erected on the grandest possible scale. The Royal Crescent encircles a large and elegant private park. From the day of its completion, The Royal Crescent has been the most fashionable address in all of Britain outside London.

During World War II, the city of Bath was bombed, and three of the thirty houses of The Royal Crescent were destroyed, not to be rebuilt until well into the 1950’s. Bath, lacking military or industrial installations of significance, was considered to be safe from bombings during the war, and the city actually served as a haven for persons evacuated from London and elsewhere, much as Dresden did for Germany.

Bath was targeted by Germany, however, after Britain bombed the medieval city of Lubeck, ancient cornerstone of the Hanseatic League. The German retaliatory bombings of Bath were part of “The Baedeker Blitz”, a German initiative in which historic and cultural cities of Britain were chosen as bomb targets based upon their significance as set forth in Baedeker Guides—and it was Hitler who personally ordered the destruction of Bath in retaliation for the British destruction of Lubeck.

The bombings of Bath shocked the residents of the city, who were accustomed to seeing and hearing German bombers pass over the city on their way to Bristol, a major industrial city targeted by the Germans heavily and often. The people of Bath ignored the sirens warning them of approaching planes, assuming that the planes were headed to Bristol, and only began to seek shelter after bombs began exploding in their midsts.

The first wave of bombers dropped mostly incendiary bombs on the city. The real destruction and loss of life occurred during a second wave of bombers, whose attacks began just as people began emerging from their shelters after the first wave had ended. The second wave of bombers succeeded in inflicting major damage on the city, and was responsible for most of the loss of life.

Another series of bombings occurred the following night. One of the odd results of the second night of bombings was that the city’s hastily-assembled mass morgue, holding the victims of the previous night’s bombings, suffered a direct hit, rendering almost all of the victims unrecognizable. The second night’s bombings also destroyed two separate bomb shelters, both of which received direct hits, killing unknown numbers of persons.

Over 19,000 buildings in Bath were destroyed during “The Baedeker Blitz”, but all significant buildings were rebuilt after the war.

We will spend some time walking The Royal Crescent and its park. When we have seen what we want to see at our leisure, we will visit Number One Royal Crescent, the only one of the thirty grand town homes open to the public.

George III’s second son, The Duke Of York, was the first tenant of Number One Royal Crescent. Number One Royal Crescent is now fully restored to late 18th-Century glory. All of the wall coverings, ceilings, cornices, floors, doors, windows and window dressings are original or faithful reconstructions, as is the array of fine furniture that fills the many rooms. The design is pure Georgian—elegant, colorful, stately but under-stated. The interiors are palatial, but also warm and inviting. This grand town home is well worth a visit.

From Number One Royal Crescent, we will return to the center of Bath and visit The Roman Baths And Pump Room.

We have deliberately saved this attraction for the end of the day because we plan to have a formal and lavish afternoon tea in the glorious Pump Room at the conclusion of our visit.

The thermal bath facilities in Bath were erected by the Romans, who occupied much of Britain for four hundred years. The Romans built an elaborate complex over the thermal springs, which included not only bathing and social facilities but a temple, too. Much of what the Romans built remains, and may be visited as part of a tour of the baths.

The Roman facilities were amazingly complicated. The Romans created an entire series of bathing rooms, offering waters of different temperatures, from the very hottest waters that human beings could endure to the very coldest waters, as well as hot rooms where bathers could prepare themselves for their progressions through the bathing rooms. These rooms were elaborately decorated, a reflection of the fact that public bathing was an integral part of Roman social life.

A dozen of the bathing chambers may be visited, including the magnificent central public bath, with its columns and courtyard. Along the way, there are Roman artifacts on display, as well as exhibits tracing the Roman history of Bath. The Roman Baths are an attraction well worth visiting.

Once we have completed our tour of the baths, we will go upstairs to The Pump Room, part of the Georgian buildings erected over the ancient Roman Baths below, and have an elaborate English afternoon tea, complete with sandwiches, scones, and cakes. The Pump Room is a magnificent example of Georgian splendor, and one of the best settings imaginable for a lavish afternoon tea.

Our tea will serve as our dinner, because after we leave The Pump Room we will walk to Theatre Royal, Bath, to attend a performance of Alan Bennett’s 1980 comedy, “Enjoy”, a satire about a local council’s intrusion into the life of a married couple approaching late middle age.

“Enjoy” is seldom revived, but the play itself is not our primary attraction—the primary attraction is the theater itself, often cited as the finest and most beautiful theater interior in the British Isles.

The theater’s exterior was built in 1720, but the interior dates from 1805, the height of Georgian splendor, and the auditorium is the finest Georgian theater ever erected. Its 900-seat auditorium is a red-and-guilt treasure, with tiers of ornate plasterwork, a trompe l’oeil ceiling and a magnificent central chandelier. The auditorium was totally refurbished in 1982 and again in 1999, and is magnificently maintained.

Theater Royal, Bath, is one of the most important theaters outside London. It is home to The Peter Hall Company as well as host to touring productions from London and elsewhere. “Enjoy” is a presentation of The Peter Hall Company.

After the performance, we will find a restaurant to have a light supper before we return to our hotel.

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