Sometimes it’s difficult not to take somewhere for granted, especially when that somewhere has been around for at least 20 centuries. But that’s Bath for you. Stately, formal, solid and considered; staid, even. Nothing riff, or raff, about Bath: even the usual open-topped red tourist double-deckers seem a touch, how shall we say, brash. And yet this is a place that has an excellent claim to be the oldest holiday resort in the world (there’s somewhere in Slovenia, a few places out East, a town on Lake Garda, and Capri, but I wouldn’t let them detain you).
No, Bath is the place, although this stranger couldn’t see it at first when I moved nearby in Somerset 15 years ago. For a Lancastrian arrived via London, that stateliness was a bar: the metropolitan in me wanted more zing; the Northerner, naturally, detected a certain smugness.
Bath didn’t care; how many visitors has it seen in these two thousand years? How many writers and rogues, chancers and charlatans, tourists and trippers? The Romans were a bit sniffy at first, but my, how they relished the warm waters, so magical in chilly Britannia! The Saxons were a bit suspicious at first, although Alfred loved Bath and Edgar was crowned there. The Normans built a great new abbey and the Elizabethans restored it. The Georgians, those haughty hypochondriacs, couldn’t get enough of it, and built their squares and circus and crescent for a stage. And so on until today, UNESCO world heritage status and some six million visitors a year from all over the world.
Bath won’t care, but there were two especial moments that stole and secured my affections. The first was a quiet Sunday morning in the Circus, mist barely risen; then turning into Brook Street to be confronted by a coach and horses, liveried to the nines, moving in jingle and jangle as though the last 200 years hadn’t happened. It was for the inevitable television series, of course, but that didn’t matter as we turned the corner and came suddenly upon the Royal Crescent as if for the first time, a coup de theatre matched only by certain cathedrals and certainly not by any other housing development I know. The second I will tell you later.
As it was, being a journalist and writer by trade, I began to wonder how I could portray all this, this Bath. And conceived of a succession of short stories set throughout its spectacular history, featuring the legendary and real characters who have so distinguished what I like to call The Magic City.
Thus the legendary Bladud, and the story of how he found the hot springs and founded the city; a tale of Roman life with a sting in its tail; Chaucer’s Wife of Bath falls in with his Cook; what could be the true story of the origins of the Bath Bun and Bath Oliver, involving, among others, Beau Nash, John Wood and two Sedan chairmen; and more, including the Emperor Haile Selassie, Horatio Nelson, Dr Johnson, Jane Austen’s Mr Bennet and a failing lifestyle salesman called Clive.
As you might have discerned, there is a certain and currently fashionable mingling of fact and fiction going on. Where I differ from many of our political figures is that each story has an afterword explaining what is true and what is not, thereby building up a history of the city and what to see and where to go.
Oh, and yes, that second and ultimate moment when Bath stole my heart away: standing before the unique west front of the Abbey, with the Pump Room and the Roman baths just there to the right, those awesome embodiments of their deeply different ages in unlikely but wonderfully beguiling harmony; and then to look up at the splendidly homespun angels toiling up and down the stone ladders in silent support of all our struggles. Who could resist? Not you, I hope.