In the city of Bath, the “layers of history” are as much a physical remnant as a metaphorical one. Near Bath Abbey the ground level has been raised by up to five metres above the flood plain and, within that accumulated depth, lies an archaeological trace of every phase of the city’s development, decay and renewal. Over the years I’ve lived here, understanding what these layers contain has become a particular pre-occupation.
Nearly a million visitors every year visit the impressive and deservedly renowned Roman Baths and Temple Precinct, the worn pavements of which now lie some four metres below the streets of the famous Georgian city above. However, what happened in those intervening 13 centuries has, largely, vanished into obscurity. It is not the reason that millions of visitors arrive every year, and is referred to only fleetingly in UNESCO’s Statement of Significance of the city as a World Heritage Site.
Bath did not spring up from an empty landscape in the eighteenth century although, at the time, almost nothing was known of the Roman city of Aquae Sulis buried beneath it. Instead, it grew incrementally outward from the cramped confines of its medieval core. All the increasingly ambitious formal set-pieces of urban expansion – Queen Square, the Circus, the Royal Crescent, Great Pulteney Street – were built in the open expanse beyond the walls. Within, the buildings of Bath were transformed, but much less so the pattern of streets, courts and public spaces around which they were organised. Change within this territory was opportunistic and, although lacking the sheer audacity and scale of developments in the “new town”, the effect today is one of enjoyable “changefulness” and juxtaposition – both planned and incidental (fortunately, John Wood’s plan to clear away Abbey Church Yard and create a much larger and more impressive open space never came to fruition).
The builders of Georgian Bath were ruthlessly unsentimental in rebuilding the city as an emblem of enlightened values, but they were also pragmatic. That’s why it’s interesting to see what remains of the city they inherited, a small Somerset town built largely on the wool trade and of no great importance. You don’t have to look very far below the surface; sometimes, the transformation is only skin deep. Go around the side of a building with an imposing, neoclassical facade and you might find a stone-mullioned window that would look more at home in a Cotswold village. It looks ancient by contrast, but it may not actually be much older.
My drawing of the city of Bath shows the outline of the city wall and, although almost nothing of the structure itself remains visible above ground level, the degree to which the heart of the city conforms to its pre-Georgian outline is immediately clear. It’s fitting that the centre of Bath is dominated not by an eighteenth century edifice or forum, but by the soaring Gothic masonry of the medieval abbey.