Friday, June 15, 2012

Regency Holiday: Bath

Summertime, and the living is easy....

Here in the northern hemisphere, the warmth of June has turned many a mind to visions of the seaside, mountains, open country, islands, campfires, and drinks with umbrellas. As summer progresses, we'll evacuate cities en masse and escape to less densely populated climes. We're going on holiday. Finally.

The denizens of Regency England loved going on holiday, too. In fact, the idea of tourism really hit its stride during the Regency, as improvements in transportation (both roads and conveyances) made travel easier and more accessible to a wider portion of the population. The haut ton had been gallivanting all over Britain and the Continent for ages, of course, but during the Regency, even the less wealthy gentlefolk were smitten with the notion of holidays and tours.

A sea horse. Oh, those Romans and their
visual puns!
Today, we're traveling to Bath, a city located in Somerset, in southwest England. Set in the valley of the River Avon (of Stratford-upon-Avon fame), Bath is famed for its hot mineral springs, which have drawn visitors since ancient times. The Romans officially established Bath as a city (then called Aquae Sulis) in AD 43. Romans had been building bathing establishments all over the Empire for centuries, so it was only natural that they should plunk a bath house right on top of the only hot spring in England.

Bath's mineral waters had long been thought to hold healing properties. For centuries, it was a destination for those afflicted with every sort of physical complaint. In the eighteenth century, a gentleman by the name of Beau Nash acted as Master of Ceremonies for Bath, and worked to establish Bath as the premier spa resort in England. He was seemingly everywhere in town, greeting new arrivals, warning tourists away from medical charlatans and card-sharks, escorting ladies to balls, and even matchmaking. Nash encouraged a more casual social scene in Bath, wherein the classes mingled more easily than they did in London. By the Regency, Bath's popularity with the aristocracy was on the wane, but it remained a favored spot for those who had visited during Nash's time, as well as with invalids come to "take the waters" for their curative effect.

The Grand Pump Room, not to be confused with the
Mediocre Pump Room.
A typical day in Bath started fairly early. At 8:00, patrons could go to the Pump Room to drink their daily dose of mineral water. It tasted revolting, but one's medicine must be consumed, so down the hatch it went. After that, those seeking healing would head to the baths themselves. People with open wounds sat in the same water as patients afflicted with infectious diseases and gout. The resulting stew probably did more harm than good, but I'm sure it felt nice. A great number of physicians, surgeons, and apothecaries set up shop in Bath to cater to sick tourists.

That water looks delicious.
For those not convalescing, Bath offered a wide array of diversions. There was fine dining, the Theater Royal, concerts, shopping, and a promenade. Open country lay just outside town limits for the horse enthusiast to enjoy a good ride. The Bath Assembly Rooms boasted a card room, a tea room, and a ballroom called the Octagon.

Jane Austen lived in Bath for nearly a decade. Two of her novels, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion are set in and around Bath. She was not overly fond of the town, finding the society there to be rather superficial. However, when her brother Edward's gout required he take the cure, she was confident in the water's ability. She wrote in a letter to her sister:

'He was better yesterday than he had been for two or three days before...He drinks at the Hetling to bathe tomorrow.' And... 'Edward has been pretty well this last week, and as the waters have never disagreed with him in any respect, we are inclined to hope he will derive advantage from them in the end'.

I hope you've enjoyed our brief jaunt to Bath! Throughout the summer, I'll be blogging about more Regency holiday destinations, so check back soon to see where our travels take us next.


  1. I loved this! Thanks for the trip to Bath on a wet summer morning (at least where I live).

  2. I always thought it was funny that people were going out of there way to drink Bath water :D But seriously. It IS a beautiful town, but the water is, ummm, un-tasty. Perhaps it tasted better back then? hmmmmm

    1. No, it definitely did not taste better back then. It's always been sulfurous. I found this wonderful excerpt from the journal of Celia Finnes, written in 1678:

      "the Queen’s bath is a degree hotter than the Cross bath, and the King’s bath much hotter; these have all gallery’s round and the pump is in one of these galleryes at the Kings bath which the Company drinks of; its very hot and tastes like the water that boyles eggs, has such a smell, but the nearer the pumpe you drinke it the hotter and less offencive and more spiriteous."

      Mmmm, hot boiled egg water.