Bath – an extraordinary city (3)

Ralph Allen.  Image displayed with permission of National Portrait Gallery.

Ralph Allen. Image displayed with permission of National Portrait Gallery.

This is my third posting in a series on the delightful city of Bath. In my second post I wrote at some length about that remarkable man, Ralph Allen, who is largely responsible for the way the city looks today.
I am indebted to Harry of Bath who has contacted me to point out that I failed to mention one of Allen’s greatest achievements, so I’m putting that right. I’m also indebted to Brenda Buchanan whose detailed records have helped me rectify my omission.
The River Avon flows through Bath and on to the port of Bristol. It is a big enough river to provide a useful transport link between Bath and the sea and should have facilitated the movement of goods in both directions. By Allen’s time in the early 18th century the river wasn’t navigable, not because of any natural factor (such as silting) but because man-made structures along the river blocked the movement of boats. Numerous landowners had constructed weirs to use the water to power mills of various types.
This situation had developed over some 300 years. During the 17th century the Corporation of Bath twice secured the required Act of Parliament granting it the powers to return the river to being a useful transport link. As early as 1629 land had been set aside in Bath for the construction of a harbour when the Avon was again navigable. However, the weir/mill owners proved to be both intractable and to have an appetite for litigation. The Corporation made little progress and in 1724 it transferred the authority for action to a group of entrepreneurs from Bath and Bristol.
The group met for the first time on 31st December 1724. Allen was appointed one of the treasurers. They met again the following day and the minutes show his position had already been enhanced. He had become Chief Treasurer.
Those minutes give an insight into the way business was conducted. It was agreed that a newly-purchased iron chest should be ‘lodged in ye poste offis or in ye dwelling hous of Mr Ralph Allin as he Shall find moste Convenient’. So it was Allen’s responsibility to collect money from backers and control payments made. During the project thousands of pounds passed through that chest and his name appears on many of the letters and contracts that record progress.
By the end of 1927 the Avon was once again navigable between Bath and Bristol. The weirs were avoided by cuts and locks. Wharves were constructed at numerous points to allow the loading and unloading of goods. In only three years Allen and his fellow entrepreneurs had achieved what the Corporation had failed to achieve in over one hundred years. And he had done it while he was revolutionising the Post Office, expanding the quarrying operations in Bath stone and being heavily involved in the re-building of the City – including the new hospital that he paid for. A truly remarkable man.
When the Kennet & Avon Canal was constructed subsequently it linked the Avon, Kennet and Thames rivers, meaning that it was possible to travel from Bristol across England to London on waterborne transport.
In my posts I’ve concentrated on the buildings and history of Bath, but the city’s parks deserve a mention. There are eight formal parks. The largest is Royal Victoria Park whose 47 acres are close to the Royal Crescent and include the 9-acre Botanical Gardens which is a beautiful area, especially in the spring.
Parade Gardens is probably the best known park because of its prominent location between the Abbey and the river. It provides lovely views of the famous Pulteney Bridge and the weir.
Both of those parks do tend to be busy, but it isn’t hard to escape the crowds. At the end of Great Pulteney Street stands the imposing building of the Holburne Art Museum – free admission. Go straight through the museum, through the gate behind and you will enter Sydney Gardens which offers twelve acres of gently-sloping lawns, ancient trees and attractive cast iron bridges over the Kennet & Avon Canal that runs through the park.

Kennet & Avon Canal in Sydney Gardens

Kennet & Avon Canal in Sydney Gardens

Strangely, in Sydney Gardens you’ll find a copy of the Roman Temple of Minerva that carries a plaque saying it was erected to commemorate the Bath Royal Pageant of 1909, but that Pageant took place in Royal Victoria Gardens which has its own replica of the Temple of Minerva. I’ve not been able to find out anything about the Bath Pageant except that it lasted for six days in July 1909. Maybe Harry can tell me all about it.
I can recommend a delightful walk.

Temple of Minerva in SAydney Gardens

Temple of Minerva in Sydney Gardens

Sydney Gardens provide access to the towpath of the Kennet & Avon Canal that leaves Bath following the valley of the River Avon. If you walk along the towpath for about three miles you will reach the Canal Visitor Centre at Limpley Stoke. The route takes you through stunning scenery and includes crossing the Dundas Aqueduct that carries the canal over both the railway line and the river. If you don’t fancy walking back you can catch a bus from Limpley Stoke to Bath.
If you’d like a break with a difference in Bath, spend a few days strolling around the city looking at the bridges. As a compact city built on hills and crossed by a river, a canal and railway lines, Bath has an extraordinary number of bridges catering for pedestrians, trains and road traffic. It’s not just the number that is impressive, it’s the variety of design, ranging from the elegant stone arches of Pulteney Bridge and the delicate stonework of the Palladian bridge in Prior Park, to highly ornate cast iron structures that are imposing works of art.
For Barry's blog 2015.01.23 022This photo is taken from Halfpenny Bridge (pedestrian, where a toll of one halfpenny was once charged) and shows the iron rail bridge over the Avon just outside Bath Spa railway station. Behind the railway bridge you may be able to see the top of a building that stands on the river bank. It’s a building with an interesting history.
In Victorian times it housed a sailmaking business, but as steampower became prevalent business dropped off. There used to be a whaling industry based in the Severn Channel. The enterprising sailmakers acquired a large quantity of baleen left from whaling activity, baleen being the hard plates in the whales’ mouths that sift out the krill. It is often incorrectly described as whalebone, but it’s actually made of keratin. So, equipped with baleen and sailcloth the sailmakers switched to making whalebone corsets. Examples of such garments can be seen in the Bath Clothing Museum.
The company traded profitably for many years until whalebone corsets fell out of fashion. They didn’t give up and tried to use their women’s clothing trade connections to move into the manufacture of bras.
This didn’t work so well. Pretty soon, yes you’ve guessed it, the bra firm went bust.