In Bath, where photographic history was made
THE ``open season'' is upon us again. All over Britain, finishing touches are being put on restoration and redecoration at country houses -- a final polish and a last dusting before the doors open and the hordes pour in.Skip to next paragraph
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The great and famous tourist meccas will, of course, be crammed full of tourists this summer. And indeed they are not to be missed.
But there are times when one longs for something a little less demanding, a little less spectacular -- and a little less crowded. The latter might be the most precious of all.
Take the city of Bath, for instance.
Some attractions in this city in the south of England are hardly off the beaten path; the Assembly Rooms and the spectacular Roman Baths are second in popularity only to the Tower of London. But the city has many other attractions that the crowds rarely see.
Bath's popularity has gone up and down over the centuries. The Romans built a small town here early in their occupation of Britain, which began in 55 BC. Throughout the Roman period, the town was famous for its curative hot springs. But after the last of the Roman Legions withdrew from Britain in the fifth century, Bath became a backwater.
Bath got its second wind in the 18th century, when it rapidly became fashionable to ``take the waters'' -- the same spa waters, gushing up from deep inside the earth in hot springs, that the Romans enjoyed. Daniel Defoe called it ``the resort of the sound rather than the sick.'' The town grew from a population of 2,000 in 1700 to 34,000 in 1800. The sudden need for houses for the cream of society resulted in an urban development that has few rivals in the world for beauty and harmony. Bath may be rather less exclusive now, but little else has changed.
Milsom Street lies at the heart of the city and is an excellent place to begin a visit because this is where the Royal Photographic Society has its headquarters. This place is a must -- not just for keen photographers, but for anyone unfamiliar with the city. As part of its changing displays, the society has devised a photographic tour of all the most interesting places to visit in Bath. The display includes a brief history of the city, its architecture, and culture. It only takes about 20 minutes to see, and gives a visitor a good way of planning how to use his time here. The photography's good too!
Once inside the gallery, there is much more to see. The society was founded in 1853 and has assembled one of the finest collections of photographic plates in the world, with special emphasis on the 19th century. At any one time there are several exhibitions of both old and new work. This summer's major event will be a display in celebration of the 60th birthday of Queen Elizabeth II.
The society's Octagon Gallery is, in itself, something of a showpiece. Built as a proprietary chapel in 1767, it was intended to rival Bath Abbey. The older church could only be reached via a long, steep street. Unfortunately, the street -- like Bath's many incomparably elegant squares and circuses -- was unpaved. This made the abbey unpopular with people who did not like to find themselves ankle deep in mud. Astute property developers quickly exploited the situation by building three chapels nearer to the new, fashionable parts of town. They then charged admission by selling pews. The best preachers could therefore be hired, and four great hearth fires warmed the congregation at the Octagon Chapel while William Herschel, the discoverer of Uranus, played the organ.