I had not been to Bath for over twenty five years and was looking to explore this unique and architecturally stunning city with new eyes. Bath was named by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 1987. World Heritage Sites are ‘places of outstanding universal value to the whole of humanity’ like The Taj Mahal, Pyramids of Giza, the Great Wall of China and the Grand Canyon, so this City is something very special! As a child in an English school, I learnt all about the Roman presence in Britain between AD 43 to AD 410, the high-quality straight roads, the mosaics, the aqueducts, clean drinking water & of course the Roman Baths, to name just a few. Bath has them all! I had visited the Roman Baths on my previous visit to the city, so this time I was looking to explore further.
The walk across the city from my hotel on Queen Square was breath taking, there are so many beautiful buildings on every corner. The widespread use of local limestone and the uniform scale and height of the buildings contributes to the beauty of the city. I passed through a beautiful covered market, stopping to buy a Peaky Blinders style cap, then walked across to the iconic Pulteney Bridge, one of only four bridges in the world to have shops across its full span on both sides. I was surprised to find that when I was standing on the bridge that it was very difficult to see that I was still on a bridge! I could not see the river! It was only when I looked right through the small shops to the windows on the other side that I could see the river below. The bridge is named after Frances Pulteney, wife of William Johnstone Pulteney. William was an important man in Georgian Bath, owning a lot of land in the surrounding area. He wanted a spectacular bridge built which would be spoken about by everyone. The architecture of the bridge, designed in 1769 by Robert Adam, is classical, with pediments, pilasters and tiny leaded domes at either end, helped achieve Williams aim! We are still very much talking about it and tourists are taking hundreds of pictures of the bridge every day.
My walk up Great Pulteney street was stunning with fine tall Georgian terraces on both sides clamouring for my attention. The big bold solid wooden doors at the top of a short series of wide stone steps at many of the properties were simply awesome. Some of the properties also had extremely beautiful and delicate iron balconies or arches around their doors or entrances. The house numbers were painted above each door, white paint on a black background in two distinct styles of sign writing, one a thin art deco style and the other a thicker more 1930’s cursive. They looked stunning!
At over 1,000 feet long and 100 feet wide, Great Pulteney Street is the widest, grandest thoroughfare in Bath, flanked on either side by beautiful Georgian properties. In all major dimensions there is considerable conformity, the width and height of buildings and the size and spacing of windows all fixed to a similar pattern. I was told by someone coming out of a house on the street that while the whole of the street looks very similar on the outside, the buildings look very different on the inside, because some were designed as private houses but others as hotels. This beautiful street, completed in 1789, was commissioned by Sir William Pulteney and designed by Georgian architect Thomas Baldwin. Apparently when first built, the street was lined with many trees, which in autumn caused some problems with leaf litter. When asked to solve this problem by residents, the town council simply opted to cut most of the trees down!
At one end of the street was Laura Place, with its pretty fountain at the centre whilst at the other end stands the magnificent Holburne Museum, the city’s first public art gallery, and Sydney Gardens, the only remaining eighteenth-century pleasure gardens in the country. I didn’t know what a pleasure garden was so I looked it up! Pleasure gardens differ from public gardens by serving as venues for entertainment, variously featuring such attractions as concert halls, bandstands, amusement rides, zoos, and menageries.
Down the back of these terraces, I got a glimpse of Bath Rugby Club and more surprisingly street signs to the Bath Croquet Club. Only in Bath have I seen a croquet club so prominently advertised. The only time I see croquet being played is at hotels I have stayed at for the amusement & recreation of guests. I have led a sheltered life!
Holburne Museum was a striking and beautiful end to my short walk across this historic city. Before entering the main building, I took a pleasant walk up to the Avon & Kennett Canal after crossing a railway bridge through part of the Sydney Pleasure Gardens. There appeared to be a lot of work going on in the gardens at the time, to repair & maintain the gardens, but it did not me distract from my walk.
‘Revitalise Sydney Gardens as a beautiful Pleasure Garden with peaceful and tranquil spaces, that achieves a renaissance as a unique, fun and restorative environment, for all ages; — its remarkable built and natural heritage, people and events, told and experienced in witty and eclectic ways.’Sydney Gardens Project
The Museum has been housed in the former Sydney Hotel since 1916. There is a bookshop and a café terrace with a covered marquee, around the back which opens out onto the Gardens.
The city’s first public art gallery, the Grade I listed building is home to fine collection of decorative arts built around the collection of Sir William Holburne. Artists in the collection include Gainsborough, Guardi, Stubbs, Ramsay and Zoffany. The ballroom which housed, The Golden Age of British painting appeared quite small and compact but it contained over forty incredible works of Art, including works produced by some of the biggest British artists of that period. I particularly enjoyed the Gainsborough’s. I felt that many of the paintings looked so fresh that they could have been painted yesterday. There was an incredible collection of miniatures, of both paintings & objects and the works of Pieter Bruegel the Younger was full of activity, there was so much going on in his paintings. The museum also has an extensive programme of temporary exhibitions, music performances, creative workshops, family events, talks and lectures throughout the year.
The Holburne stood in for the Devonshire villa in the 2008 film The Duchess starring Keira Knightley, and for Steyne’s mansion in Vanity Fair, the 2004 adaption of William Thackeray’s novel, starring Reese Witherspoon. The museum had reopened in May 2011 after extensive restoration and a much maligned extension, which at the time was met with some opposition from local residents, local councillors and conservationists. The historic front does contrast wildly with the modern rear addition, which when I visited was partly obscured by a large, covered marquee across the terrace.
The three-storey block of glass is vertically furrowed by a series of ceramic strips or ‘fins’ glazed in blue and green. The bottom third of the extension is transparent, the middle third layered and semi-transparent, and the top is a solid ceramic box. The three new floors double the museum’s exhibition and public space. The intermediate floors in the extension provide a ‘cabinet of curiosities’ display of previously stored items from the Holburne’s collection. The day-lit top floor provides a temporary gallery. A secondary staircase, lift and service spaces creates a connection between old and new buildings.
Jane Austen is one of the most beloved writers in English literature, responsible for classics such as Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility and has a significant presence in Bath & Holburne House. The Gardens provided a favourite walk for the young writer who had set part of her novel Northanger Abbey across the road in Great Pulteney Street. Austen had also lived in Sydney Place, just off Great Pulteney Street for three years, which was also used in the filming of Persuasion (1994).
On my visit I was able to view the only widely accepted depiction of Jane Austen (1775–1817) a sketch by her sister Cassandra which had been loaned out to the Holburne Museum by the National Portrait Gallery for the Jane Austen Festival. The sketch by Cassandra is the only surviving memento of Austen’s features and the sole widely accepted depiction of her appearance. Although the drawing is undated and unrecorded in the correspondence between the sisters, the sitter’s age and attire suggest a date of around 1810.
In the late 19th century, the sketch was turned into an engraving that, according to Austen’s niece Caroline, depicted a ‘pleasing countenance’, ‘though the general resemblance is not strong’. This representation became the accepted image of the author and today provides the basis for the image on our £10 note. Holburne has also been shown in the Netflix drama Bridgerton recently so there is an added interest for fans of the drama, which included Lady Danbury`s Dining Terrace!
I simply loved Holburne House and would recommend a visit to lovers of fine architecture, art or stopping for a break. The House is simply beautiful & the works of Art within its walls incredible. I spent a good few hours browsing the galleries and had a nice cup of coffee and a cake at the end of my visit in the pleasant terrace café.