In Bath, where photographic history was made

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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.

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.

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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.

You can find the Royal Photographic Society at The Octagon, Milsom Street, Bath. Open Mon.-Sat., 10-5.

Even before the Royal Photographic Society moved to Bath in 1980, the area was a center for photography enthusiasts from all over the world. They came to see the home of one of the most important figures in photography's history, William Henry Fox Talbot, who discovered the positive/negative principle of photography. His home is nearby in the ancient village of Lacock.

Mr. Fox Talbot was born in 1800. At school, he excelled in mathematics, science, and the classics. Family tradition has it that while on his honeymoon in 1832 he and his wife were sketching the scenery around Italy's Lake Como. But he was not much of an artist. So he used a long-established artist's aid, a camera obscura, to cast the image of the scene that he wished to draw onto a piece of paper. This turned the task of drawing into mere tracing.

But even this was beyond Fox Talbot's skill. So he developed a method for fixing an image onto paper permanently. In his first experiment, he treated the paper with chemicals to make it sensitive to light, and placed a leaf on it. Exposure to sunlight blackened the paper around the leaf. The unexposed area under the leaf remained white. The result was what we today call a ``negative.'' The process progressed rapidly to the point where any number of prints could be made from the original.

The earliest surviving negative is dated 1835 and is now in the Science Museum in London. The image is of a window, taken from the inside of Fox Talbot's home, Lacock Abbey. Fox Talbot took many photographs of his estate and his family over the next 15 years, while developing the technique. Many of these studies were gathered together and published in six parts as ``The Pencil of Nature,'' which was the first published work illustrated with photographs.

The National Trust now owns Lacock Abbey and the whole village. A museum has been established in a fine 16th-century barn at the gates of the abbey. Here Fox Talbot's materials and methods are well displayed and simply captioned. The museum is open daily from March through October, 11-6.

The ancient Abbey -- a private home since the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539 -- would be well worth a visit even without its historical significance. It preserves a palpable aura of the past. This atmosphere reminds one of Oscar Wilde's famous comment about ignorance: It ``is like a delicate exotic fruit: Touch it and the bloom is gone.''

Lacock Abbey has been largely untouched since the days of Fox Talbot and is likely to remain so, due in no small measure to the fact that it is occupied and administered by Fox Talbot's descendants. The medieval village is one of the most beautiful in the country. The Abbey is open daily (except Tues) April-October, 2-6.

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