Sunday 17 November 2013

Bath Assembly Rooms

I had one of those days today. One of those days where every single thing goes wrong and you end up having to talk to yourself quietly on the train: "Don't worry, when you get home you can have a nice glass of wine. Except it's November and you've decided not to drink for a month rather than grow a moustache, as you're a girl. OK. Nice and calm now. How about a big bag of chips on the way back from the station? The chip shop has gone. OH WHAT'S THE POINT." etc.

I knew it was going to be a tough mission today. I had chosen Bath Assembly Rooms specifically because I'd had such a great time at Flatford earlier in the week. It was always going to be impossible for anywhere to follow that and so I needed to go somewhere that wouldn't care if I didn't rave about it. 

And I mean that in a nice way. Bath is a World Heritage Site, a magnet for lovers of Jane Austen, AND it has a branch of kitchenware crack-den Lakeland, which means it must get GAZILLIONS of visitors every day. They wouldn't mind if one little sconophile wasn't enjoying herself.

So what went wrong? Firstly, most of the Rooms were shut for a function. It was for a Mozart concert though and if you've read Persuasion by Jane Austen you'll know that that's what the Assembly Rooms were for - concerts. So I tried not to let it bother me. Who needs a tour after all? I could buy a guide book and read it myself. 

The Octagon room was open - this is where you could gamble away your baronetcy and then try to save yourself from penury by ensnaring an unsuspecting Austen heroine - so I wandered around there picking up a few factoids from my guide book:

Bath Assembly Rooms National Trust

1. Bath has had two major heydays - one during the Roman Empire and one during the Georgian era.

2. During its Georgian heyday, there were originally two Assembly Rooms in the lower part of town.

3. The Upper Assembly Rooms were built in 1769 because the Lower Assembly Rooms were too small to hold all of the people that came to Bath for social mingling during the season.

4. The upper part of town had also started to become more fashionable than the lower area - work had started on the Circus in 1754 and the first house on the very magnificent Royal Crescent was completed in 1769. 

5. The Upper Assembly Rooms, like all of the other buildings mentioned above, were created by John Wood the Elder and his son John Wood the Younger, who are responsible for the architectural style for which Bath is famous.

6. Fascinating factoid: John Wood the Younger financed the building of the Upper Assembly Rooms using a 'tontine' subscription. This way of raising funds asks all of the subscribers to pay a certain amount into the scheme and then receive an annuity every year. However, as each subscriber dies, their shares are added to the holdings of the survivors, who receive a larger annuity until the last shareholder is standing. Can you imagine that? Imagine walking through Bath every morning, tipping your hat to a fellow shareholder while thinking 'ooh he's looking a bit peaky today. The annuity is due next month, it'd be quite handy if were to shuffle off this mortal coil and bag me an extra hundred pounds.'? 

7. The Upper Assembly Rooms contained a ballroom for 800 dancers, a tea-room, a card room, and the Octagon for gambling.

8. Bath's social scene had been run for many years by Richard 'Beau' Nash. He died in 1761 but his influence was great - it was he who would meet new arrivals in Bath and decide whether they were suitable to join his 'Company' of ball-goers and gamblers.

9. As Nash's influence waned, people started going out less frequently and the Assembly Rooms fell in popularity, ending up as a cinema in 1921 and then being badly damaged during the Blitz before being restored.

10. Even more fascinating although not strictly relevant to the Assembly Rooms factoid: according to Wikipedia, Nash had a mistress called Juliana Popjoy and when he died she was so distraught that she spent the majority of her remaining days living in a large hollowed out tree. 

The Bath Assembly Rooms scone
So, having cheered myself up with some factoids about women mourning their boyfriends in trees, I trotted off to the tearoom where the second disaster of the day was waiting for me: no scones. None. At all. Not even a cheese scone. Again, I tried to channel my inner Anne Elliot and not her horrible sister Elizabeth and calmly asked for a piece of Victoria sponge cake. It was fine.

National Trust Cake Bath Assembly Rooms

And then I went into Lakeland and couldn't find any palette knives so I came out empty-handed (WHO EVER COMES OUT OF A LAKELAND SHOP EMPTY-HANDED? IT'S JUST NOT POSSIBLE). And then I had to wait for over an hour in the freezing cold for a train. But you know what, Bath remains one of my favourite places in the world and if you haven't been, you must go immediately, although avoid South West Trains.

Scones: 0 out of 5 (there weren't any)
Bath Assembly Rooms: 3 out of 5 (it was mostly shut)
Bath: 5 out of 5 (it's amazing)

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