Thursday, 6 September 2012

The Comforts (!) of Bath

I have known Bath since the end of the sixties. Back in those days, it was anything but "honey-coloured". Almost all of its georgian buildings were blackened from the soot of ages and it took four or five hours to drive there from London, the M4 motorway only reaching as far as Reading.

The predominant accent heard in streets and shops was either genuine West Country or shabby-genteel. There was even a rough pub in Widcombe called (as it still is in its overpriced wine bar reincarnation) the Ring O' Bells. Smoke-filled and noisy, seats and tables tacky from years of spilled scrumpy, its proceedings were ably supervised by Rosie, a plump and red-elbowed matron whose good side it was wise to stay on. When not keeping order, Rosie dispensed scrumpy cider. Proper scrumpy, that is, not the artificial muck sold these days. Scrumpy had an odd effect. You could drink a fair amount of it and your head remained sober and clear. The trouble came when you stood up - or attempted to - and tried to walk. If you've ever had proper scrumpy, you'll know just what I mean.

And there was not only proper scrumpy, but proper shopping. Needed one nail or a pound of nails? Go to the ironmongery in George Street. Needed an obscure electrical fitting, or a lamp fixed? Why, good old Nations in York Street was always obliging.

And there was even proper swimming. The elegant and delightful open-air Cleveland Baths at the riverside in Cleveland Row, Bathwick, was just about as close to wild swimming you could get.

We moved to Bath at the end of the sixties and, wanting to save on fuel bills, would have a wonderful hot soak in the public baths at what is known as "Bog Island". It's called Bog Island because there were public lavatories and bath tubs there. (There are still two rather elegant entrances to the under pavement facilities, one for men, one for women, but they lead nowhere these days.) Lashings of lovely hot water and bath tubs so big and deep that you felt like a small child again.

Fancy a read? There used to be a rather inconvenient arrangement. The public lending library occupied the ground floor of the Victoria Art Gallery, while the reference section was in Queen's Square.

Wanted to rent a nice flat in a georgian terrace? We looked at two floors in the Circus, on offer for 30 bob a week. That's £1.50 decimal. Sounds good? Well don't forget the average weekly wage back then was somewhere between £10 and £15. If you earned a thousand a year, you were considered pretty well-off. Well, we didn't take that Circus flat. Thirty bob was a little too much for us!

The only thing in Bath which has improved since these memories of mine from the late sixties and early seventies is the main library, which at least is all in one place, currently hugger-mugger with the mess Waitrose are making of the Podium.

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