Put on your black topcoat, brightly coloured waistcoat, elegant trousers and your new polished shoes with their silver buckles, and collect your cane at the door as you saunter out into the most amazing sight – a complete new town being created in neoclassical style, its fresh golden stone shining in the sunshine and the paint still wet on the doors, windows and ironwork. You stroll down the newly-cobbled street, admire the elegance of the architecture and the freshly-landscaped gardens and squares. Later perhaps, the coachman comes to take you to fashionable shops in Milsom Street or the new Pump Room which has been built onto the old Roman Baths, to meet friends for afternoon tea, and then in the evening with a change of clothes, you are off to a grand ball underneath the crystal chandeliers of the new splendid Assembly Rooms, where you spot your friend Beau Brummell, glass in hand, surrounded by a gaggle of admiring ladies.
Eighteen century Bath must have been astonishing, as terraces of new neo-classical houses broke out of the medieval city and marched across the landscape, set around new squares and gardens and with new fashionable shopping streets. Even the old Elizabethan city was being changed around the Abbey and the Roman Baths. John Wood the Elder had led the change, acting as a speculative developer by buying up land and allowing builders to develop individual houses, but within an overall Palladian architectural framework in, for example, Queen’s Square, The Circus and the Royal Crescent.
It is possible to peek inside some of the buildings, courtesy of the Bath Preservation Trust, with the splendid interiors at No 1 Royal Crescent and the Museum of Bath housed in a Georgian Gothick building, rather a surprise, developed as a chapel by the Countess of Huntingdon which displays pattern books, models and drawings of Georgian architecture, the drawing instruments of John Wood and a huge model of Georgian Bath, from which it is possible to appreciate the scale of the development undertaken at the time, and most of which still exists today.
Lessons for today? If we are to tackle the housing demand in this country we need ambition and imagination. Good, well-designed buildings will last many centuries – can we say that about everything that is being built today? – and the best town planning needs vision and determination, setting strong guidelines to create good quality architecture and great spaces, not reactive as seems to be the case too often. Interestingly, it was John Wood and others, private developers who led the development of Bath, while the City Council of the day was slow to react to the need for housing, but then it did catch up and, with the Bath Improvement Act of 1789, drew up plans to improve and redevelop the congested old city centre. Private developers and the City Council worked together achieved the Georgian city of Bath we see today. Perhaps Grosvenor Estates will do this in other parts of the country with its new announcement to build 30,000 houses today.
Not everything is great. There are some grim parts of Bath that were developed in the late 20th century, especially for car parking. Hopefully these will go and be replaced with well-designed modern developments that will compliment the Georgian architecture, not try be a pastiche as also happened, with mixed results, in the post-war period.