Jane Austen is one of the most well-known and revered British authors of all time. Though she wrote her most famous book Pride and Prejudice more than 100 years ago, there are still movies being made that either retell the story as is or are adaptations with a few tweaks; closer home there is Aishwarya Rai starrer Bride and Prejudice. Jane Austen lived in Bath from 1801 to 1806, as her entire family moved there after her father retired and stayed till he passed away. Jane Austen lived in Bath only for five years though she visited Bath a couple of times prior to that, and if you count the mentions of Bath in her books, it is not surprising that she had great affinity towards the city. Bath is around 185 km from London and is accessible by road via the M4 and also by train; hence, it makes for an easy day trip from London. If you choose to make the trip, do consider this as a gentle warning—in Northanger Abbey written by Jane Austen, Mrs. Allen says while inviting Catherine Morland to Bath, “if adventures will not befall a young lady in her own village, she must seek them abroad”. If you are a fan of Jane Austen or a fan of romance books set in the Regency period like Georgette Heyer, then this tour is an absolute must for you.
[First Published at happytrips.com.]
The Grand Pump Room had a pivotal role to play in Jane Austen’s time as a place to socialise for the upper class. Furthermore, it features in her novels Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, and almost like a tale of fiction coming to life, Persuasion was even filmed here.The building is a designated heritage site. It was begun in 1789 and finished finally in 1799. The facade, with the Corinthian columns, is believed to be based on a Roman temple. The Grand Pump Room was built to replace the previous room that was deemed inadequate in the early 1700s given the growing demand for Bath waters. It was during excavations to build this that the ruins of a Roman temple were found below.Today, you can enjoy a first-class dining experience at the Grand Pump Room though it is most famous for its afternoon tea. If you feel indulgent, then there is luxury tea available in two time slots of 12:15 and 2 pm, but it must be booked at least 7 days in advance. The reason d’etre for this place is to sample the hot water from thermal springs that is believed to have over 42 minerals. There is a small fountain to one side and you can purchase a glass; but do be warned, this famous water has often been described as ‘offensive’! The music that regales you here is often by the Pump Room Trio, which is Europe’s longest established resident ensemble. During summer months, enjoy a memorable dinner on the terrace that offers amazing views of the Great Bath.
In Pride and Prejudice, turning points of the book come through letters either posted or hand-delivered; the two most important being Darcy’s explanation for his actions and behaviour and Lydia’s elopement with Wickham. Estimates say that Jane Austen wrote around 3000 letters in her lifetime and a major understanding of her life has been derived from her letters to her sister Cassandra.Bath played a vital role in the development of Britain’s fine postal system. This was a city of many firsts, the most important of which was the posting of the first stamp, also called a Penny Black, from here in 1840. This museum was founded in 1979 in the basement of Audrey and Harold Swindells’ house and in 1985, it moved to Broad Street. This was the site of Bath’s main post office from 1822 to 1854. Today, however, the museum is at a much smaller premise given rising rents.There are many artefacts and exhibits on display that are worthy of your attention but the most interesting ones for a Jane Austen fan are the quills and ink wells. As you stand there looking at these writing devices in stark contrast to our world of computers and ‘backspace’, you cannot help but wonder how challenging it must have been to write an entire novel with such equipment. Jane Austen is believed to have told her sister in a letter in 1813, “I must get a softer pen. This is harder. I am in agonies… I am going to write nothing but short sentences. There shall be two full stops in every line.” You can also try writing with a quill pen like Jane Austen, though pre-booking is essential.
Jane Austen loved watching theatre, and the main understanding of this comes from her letters to her sister Cassandra in which there are multiple mentions of her enjoyment of theatre. Thehistory of theatre in Bath is one of the multiple buildings being built in succession. In 1705, Bath’s first theatre was built by George Trim. It was a tiny one and was demolished 30 years later to make way for another building. The next one didn’t last many years and in 1750, a new theatre was opened at Orchard Street. The theatre with its superb productions had built the reputation of Bath as a receptive town for theatre which resulted in many top actors from London performing at Bath during season. Given this growing respectability and reputation, a parliament act was passed to give Bath theatre a royal patent and Bath had the first ‘Theatre Royal’ outside of London.In 1804, there were plans to build a bigger, better and improved theatre. The Orchard Street Theatre was closed, and today there is a Masonic Hall. The new building was completed in one year and was opened in 1805 with a performance of Richard III. The building that stands is the same one, though it was refurbished in 2010. There are many quality productions through the year, including some special events like the Summer Season, Shakespeare Unplugged Festival and Family Theatre Festival. There are also special shows for children in the egg theatre. To get a better peep into Jane’s world don’t miss catching a production here.
Tea had found its way to England in the17th century, but it was rather expensive and considered a great luxury at that time, something that only the royalty had. But as all traditions do, this one too trickled down to the masses, and soon the demand began to grow and tea was smuggled into England. It was only in the 19th century that the concept of ‘afternoon tea’ began.The Regency Tearoom is on the second floor of a Georgian townhouse and just above the Jane Austen Centre. It is well-maintained, beautifully decorated and is yet another place to sink into the spirit and character of the Georgian period. They offer around 15 varieties of tea to choose from, fresh coffee, delicious cream tea and the famous ‘Champagne Tea with Mr. Darcy’. It is somewhat heartening that they used the image of Collin Firth as Mr. Darcy from the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice as for most people he is the ideal Mr. Darcy. The menu has many links to Pride and Prejudice, so you could enjoy ‘Tea with the Austens’ or go a notch above with ‘Lady Catherine’s Proper Cream Tea’ and if you wish to eat then try out Mr. Bennet’s Rich Tasty Toasty’s or Crawford’s crumpets. If you have had enough of Pride and Prejudice and Jane Austen by now, you can simply settle for ‘A Lady’s Afternoon Tea’.
Bath is famous for its thermal or hot springs that have naturally warm and mineral-rich water. There is archaeological evidence that suggests there was human activity around these hot springs as early as 8000 BC. People from London and all over Europe came here to ‘take water’, which was seen as a cure for many ailments. Jane Austen’s brother Edward with suspected gout came here too. In a letter to her sister Cassandra, she wrote “he was better yesterday than he had been for two or three days before…He drinks at the Hetling pump…is to bathe tomorrow.'”There are three hot springs in Bath—the King’s Spring feeds the Roman Baths, and the Hetling and the Cross Springs supply water to the Thermae Bath Spa. The Thermae Bath Spa lets you experience Bath in all its ancient glory and experience what Romans did more than 2000 years ago. The spa session starts at £32 and this gives you access to the indoor Minerva Bath, the open-air rooftop pool that offers great views of the city of Bath, and the aroma steam rooms.Spa might not be what everyone wishes to do and there are other water activities to indulge in. One can hire a canal boat and enjoy a trip down the River Avon or even try out a wild swimmingspot.
The Assembly Rooms are a symbol of all the romance that this period offered—the painful wait for the gentleman to ask for your hand for the dance, then standing facing each other before the dance, and later hoping that he would ask your father for your hand in marriage. As Ms. Bingley says in Pride and Prejudice, “a lady’s imagination is very rapid; it jumps from admiration to love, from love to matrimony in a moment.” Jane Austen herself frequented these Assembly Rooms when she lived here. As she said, “to be fond of dancing was a certain step towards falling in love.” And dancing played a pivotal role in her novels in depicting the society of those times and furthering the romance of her characters. These Assembly Rooms were opened in the late 18th century and were the pulse of entertainment in Bath.There are four main rooms here—Ball Room, Tea Room, Octagon Room and Card Room. The largest is the 100-feet-long ballroom where dance balls would take place around twice a week and could hold around 800-1200 guests at a time. There are nine Whitefriars crystal chandeliers in the building that are considered to be the finest to have survived from the 18th century. The chandeliers were put into safe storage during the Second World War and thus escaped destruction during the bombing of the Assembly Rooms. The rooms are elegantly decorated and it is not surprising that these Assembly Rooms were said to be “the most noble and elegant of any in the kingdom.” The Bath Assembly Rooms can be seen when not in use for a function or conference. There is a Fashion Museum in the basement.
Jane Austen wrote six novels of which two are set in Bath—ironically, her first to be completed but last to be published, Northanger Abbey, and her final book Persuasion, both of which were published posthumously. The Jane Austen Centre focuses on her experiences in Bath and the effect it had on her and her novels.The tour begins with a costumed guide introducing the Austen family, post that you can walk around the entire premises at leisure. There is a short film with Adrian Lukis talking about Jane Austen’s Bath which is shown exclusively here. Adrian Lukis is the actor who played Mr. Wickham in BBC’s version of Pride and Prejudice. There are exhibits which display clothing and accessories of those times, including pistols, vintage tea sets, furniture, writing equipment and dresses from casual to party wear. There is also a commissioned wax work of Jane Austen created using forensic evidence. The tour ends at the ‘dressing up’ area where you can choose to step back into the Austen times with a change of raiment. It is always fun to try and enact your own version of Elizabeth and Darcy’s story. To make the tour more engaging, the guides are dressed as characters from Jane Austen’s book, and visitors can also sample Georgian biscuits during the tour.An easy way to find this centre is to look out for ‘Lizzie’ who stands at the door everyday, come rain or shine. This centre also has an online memorabilia shop, so you don’t need to cart your goodies through the holiday, simply buy it online and ship it home
You can stay at Jane Austen’s home or visit it. This 18th-century Georgian property has been renovated and converted into a boutique hotel with four rooms. This was where Jane Austen lived in the early 1800s. There is a plaque on the wall outside so you cannot miss it. She also lived in No. 25 Gay Street, after her father passed away, which is a short distance from the Jane Austen Centre. However, later the entire family moved out of Bath to live with her brother as they could not afford the rent.Plan your trip around the Jane Austen Festival which is an annual event. Read more here: http://www.janeaustenfestivalbath.co.uk. There are around 60 events to attend spread over 10 days including a Summer Ball for you to dress up and swirl around the ballroom. Take along a Jane Austen book or a Georgette Heyer romance to read by the river or as you sit in a cafe. The atmosphere of the books might leap out of the pages and come alive in Bath that surrounds you.End your tour of Jane Austen’s Bath with a short stroll through Gravel Walk which is near the Jane Austen Centre, just off Queen’s Street. This is the location for one of the touching love scenes in Persuasion. It was said to be known as Lover’s Lane in Austen’s time.