Wednesday 25 September 2019

Trip: A Visit to Keats House

I have an odd relationship with poetry. As a child I enjoyed poems for their playfulness but as I grew into my teenage years, I began to feel that poetry put such unfortunate restrictions on the expression and exploration of ideas that most things would be better expressed in other ways. Nowadays, I enjoy some individual poems but still find I like poetry in theory more than I do in practice. 

Even odder is my relationship to romantics and romanticism. I discovered the idea as a teenager while reading ‘Sophie’s World’ and fell in love with the idea of the subjective and introverted search for meaning. Studying philosophy at university, I began to find romantic tendencies to be loose and baseless, producing statements that often sound like they mean more than they do. As I got older and further into Samuel Johnson and the earlier eighteenth century, I find myself gravitating to enlightenment ideals more than romantic ones. That said, I’ve enjoyed a lot of romantic poetry I’ve read and I really enjoyed the ‘Lyrical Ballads’.

With all this in place, I’ve had a particularly prejudicial view of John Keats. My image of him was of a fey, affected wan youth, quietly dying and pretending to feel things. I pictured him as a drip. My visit to Keats’ House changed that view utterly. 

I went on a glorious day in the now usual late September sun, having wandered there through Hampstead Heath. There were people flopped all over the lawn, relaxing in the beautiful weather which created the perfect mood to get into the heightened emotions of Keats’s poetry. 

The visit starts downstairs with a video. This was projected on a screen that looked like a summer’s window and gave a quick run-through of Keats’s life and the house’s part in that. Despite the name, the house was never actually Keats’s. He lived there for a while, wrote some of his most popular poetry and met the love of his life. This was also the house when he discovered he was dying.

The leaflet then suggested going back up the stairs, going through those rooms, back down to the basement and then up two pair of stairs to the top floor. This sounded stupid to me, so I went round the basement rooms first. They contained a number of kitchens which looked like many of the same kitchens I have seen in most other historic houses. It didn’t help that these kitchens had the same pots, pans and fake food as every other historic house (there must be a catalogue somewhere). The downstairs also had the obligatory dress up section, though this was quite a weak-sauce version of the idea, with the same naff tricorn hat I wear for my youtube videos.

The rest of the of the house was more distinctive, with the different rooms dealing with a different aspect of Keats’s life, related to the original function of the room. The room he used as a study contains many of his books. One thing I particularly liked was an annotated copy of ‘An Anatomy of Melancholy’, there was also a set of ‘Orlando Furioso’ books on a shelf. I didn’t feel the same shiver I would have felt standing in a room of one of my favourite writers (or even as I did standing in the room where Newton formulated the rules of gravity) but it was a lovely room to write in and I appreciated his reading habits.

His friend’s study dealt with his ability to make friends. Keats was not a fragile introvert who kept himself to himself. He was fond of bodily pleasure and friendship, describing a great life as being full of ‘women, wine and snuff’. His ability to make people feel at ease was described by one contemporary as ‘like a spell’. In his short lifetime, Keats published three books of poetry and the first two did very poorly but were fondly received by those friends.

Upstairs, there was a room dedicated to his relationship with Fanny Brawne. He gave her an engagement ring, which is in a case with some of their love-letters. They would never actually marry, as Keats could never gain a solid wage with his poetry but the love was strong. When he died, Fanny Brawne wore the ring for the rest of her life. 

Another room included a selection of paintings inspired by subjects that also inspired Keats. I had a chat with a volunteer in this room, who told me the story of ‘The Pot of Basil’ in a very entertaining way. A line in this poem was the one that surprisingly caught me. The poem includes a description of how the woman ignores the world to wallow in grief, one of the things she stops noticing is, ‘The blue above the trees.’ I’m not sure what it is I love about the line - something about the way the line captures the pleasure of suddenly noticing an everyday beauty like the sky.

The last room was the one Keats was staying in when he realised he was going to die. In the hallway before that room, there is the unusual exhibit of a life mask and a death mask. Morbidly, the visitor is asked to guess which one is which. 

While my previous image of Keats had him as permanently weak and ailing, he was extremely active most of his life, including a walk of 700 miles that took in Ben Nevis. Keats had studied hard to obtain a medical licence, a training that involved physical dexterity and strength but he gave this up to write poetry. It was in the bedroom in Keats House that he had a coughing fit. When he looked at his handkerchief, his medical training kicked in, he knew the colour of the blood meant that he only had months to live. There’s something extremely poignant and chilling about a medical person who knows exactly how terrible the next few months will be - and their ultimate end.  

One of the things Keats House does especially well, is exposing the visitor to snippets of his poetry. There are lines painted onto the walls and each card describing the room also has a quote. I knew I would recognise some (‘A thing of beauty is a joy forever’ - something the volunteer at the shop also said to a customer) but there were many I didn’t. Some I very much liked but others were self aggrandising. Keats definitely liked writing about how great writers are, the example I chose to write down being; ‘A fine writer is the most genuine being in the world.’

I arrived at Keats House with a rather dismissive view if the man but now, I see him as a vigorous and energetic person. The man did far more in his first (and only) twenty-five years than I did with mine and I will definitely be checking more out about him.

Wednesday 18 September 2019

Review: Beau Nash by William Harrison Ainsworth

As soon as I decided to spend a few days in Bath, I knew which book I wanted to take with me. William Harrison Ainsworth has been a (frequently nutty) pleasure every other time I’ve spent time with him and to share eighteenth century Bath seemed a great idea. What craziness could he conjure up in those serpentine streets?

It turns out, not much. Ainsworth is not playing with his full deck of cards, where his great skill is delightfully improbable action and melodrama, here the melodrama is kept safe within the genre and the improbabilities are not greater than other novels. He’s being relatively subdued, a tale of adultery, duelling and young love. 

We start of with a love triangle. Both Sir Thomas Carew and Reginald Grey fall immediately for the beautiful Mrs Mallet, who has traveled to Bath with her husband. Mr Mallet is a country beast, full of solid virtues and considers that his wife can never be won over by Grey’s sleek politeness of Carew’s glitz. He’s wrong and his wife runs off with Carew, regretting it instantly. A duel between Mallet and Carew ends in Mallet’s death, Mrs Mallet’s self-imposed exile into a sisterhood and Carew’s temporary banishment from Bath.

Later, Mr Mallet’s nephew, the inheritor of the estate, comes to Bath to settle an annuity on Mrs Mallet. While there, he falls in love with a woman that whose mother doesn’t trust him, and whom his own mother doesn’t trust. Also, Carew returns newly wealthy and plots to steal Mrs Mallet away. The young couple end up together and the penitent adulteress pines away in the approved manner. 

Yet the book was enjoyable, and it showed up another aspect of William Harrison Ainsworth that draws me to him. He’s a goofball. While this comes across most when he’s being utterly mental, it comes across in a more subdued work, and comes across enchantingly. My Mum watches Neighbours, she started to watch it because the script was dumb and the acting laughably bad but she grew attached to it anyway - or even because of those qualities. That’s how I feel about Ainsworth.

The man couldn’t write natural dialogue even if he were living with people who spoke it his whole life. At one point a man tells his fiancée that he doesn’t love another woman because that other woman is too beautiful and clever and makes him feel threatened, that he chose his fiancée because she was neither too clever or beautiful. Her response to this sucker-punch of a compliment is to smile and declare that he flatters her too much. The characters are always given each other awkward, stiff complements, thanking each other for those compliments and flushing with pleasure at receiving them.

The prose is also stiff and awkward. Occasionally, Yoda takes charge and we get sentences like ‘remarkably well, he looked’. Frequently characters ejaculate rather than talk. There’s a part describing a garden where the text says;
“The head gardener, whose name appeared to be Markham”
How did the gardener appear to be someone called Markham? Was there a particular birthmarkham on his face? Did he have it written into his clothes?

Such silliness is sort of charming - and the man did his research - the Princess Amelia appears in this book as bolshy and bossy as she apparently was in real life. Fielding turns up ill for a cameo, Ralph Allen is the picture of kindness and practicality. I also appreciate this book for introducing me to Reverend Grace who is so very nice and peculiar that his book, ‘The Spiritual Quixote’ has been bumped up my reading list.

As for Beau Nash, he doesn’t appear in this work very often, he is mainly a messenger - even his role of advice-giver is taken by Grace and Allen. I expect that is how Nash would have appeared to a visitor, always smiling and welcoming, always going off to welcome someone else, like a bride at a wedding reception.

So, while this book is definitely not the one I would introduce to people if I wanted to share William Harrison Ainsworth, for someone who has a blind spot for him, it was a perfectly entertaining and pleasurable few hours.

Wednesday 11 September 2019

Trip: A Visit to Bath (Part Two)

I awoke early the next day to get to as many museums as possible.

The Assembly Rooms and Fashion Museum
I was lucky enough to be staying very close to the Assembly Rooms which also houses the Fashion Museum. These rooms were finished in 1771 by John Wood the Younger and are the rooms pictured in pretty-much every later eighteenth century and early nineteenth century novel, if you’ve seen an adaptation of ‘Northanger Abbey’ or ‘Persuasion’, you’ve seen them. A few days after my visit they were set to be a location again but I couldn’t find out what for... I later found it it was being used for Bridgerton

The rooms are large and elegant with huge crystal chandeliers. Walking through them, it’s very easy to imagine the good nights out and rough mornings afterwards. There’s a room called The Great Octagon, as octagons go, it’s pretty great but its no Rushton Triangle Lodge.

The Fashion Museum told the history of British clothes from 1500s to the modern day in 100 items. Complementing these items were highlights from the collection of the Worshipful Company of Glovers. These included gloves belonging to Elizabeth I, James I, a cosmonaut and Luke Skywalker.

There was a decent, but not essential, audioguide and the museum told its story really well. Walking along, the visitor could see the development and then relaxation of the three-piece-suit from the doublet and hose. The first item was a Tudor Shirt, followed by examples of the Restoration suit, some eighteenth century examples and then the simpler, more form fitting versions pioneered by people like Beau Brummell. As the museum reaches the modern day, the examples of male dress diminishes as it becomes less interesting. While the fuss of the full Macaroni outfit (and they had one there) might be ridiculous, I think modern men have missed out on the opportunity to display themselves in a more varied manner.

The dress had a different evolution, they went from fussy to very simple, then grew in intricacy and then back to simple again. I particularly liked the Austen-esque white, gauzy numbers though I did feel sorry for anyone trying not to spill wine on it.

Half way through the journey was the obligatory dressing up section, but this blew any others out of the water. There were so many ages and styles to try on and mix and match and if I hadn’t been eager to get to the other museums on my list, I could have created some powerful concoctions.

Fashion is in no way my area, I am too clumpy and lumpy to ever display clothes well but I really did like this museum. While the Roman Baths are a required visit and another museum was my favourite, this was my second and people visiting Bath without popping in are missing out.

No.1 Royal Crescent

My next visit was through The Circus to the Royal Crescent and the museum there. This was one of my main reasons for going to Bath, having followed them on Twitter for some time and keen on seeing it.

The museum started with a cheesy but charming video about one of the previous occupants, Henry Sandford, a rich Dubliner who retired to Bath for several years. The house was set up to recreate what it would have been like in his time and we were encouraged to wander upstairs and downstairs to see how the household lived and were organised.

There were a number of guides, both costumed and uncostumed who explained the rooms and pointed out objects of particular interest. I had a nice chat with some Dutch people about the spiky plants on the chairs, placed there to encourage people not to sit on them. The Dutch people said they’d never seen that before and we wondered why it has become such a staple in British museums.

My favourite object in the house was the cabinet of curiosities, mainly because it had a drawer labelled ‘dog’s teeth purse’ which included exactly that. I also really liked the satirical prints on the walls though I wondered if that was really something a well-to-do person would have on walls rather than in books to share after dinner.

What with the velvet ropes and vigilant guides, I felt rather restricted in the house, everything looked like it wanted to be touched but had signs next to it saying not to. There was a little more freedom downstairs, which were so plain and simple after the opulence upstairs. Instead of furnishings and paintings were simple morals and rules painted up on the walls. I had never considered before how access to colour depended on wealth before.

I was ultimately a little disappointed in No1 Royal Crescent, I found that setting it up as a time-capsule but restricting interactions with it made it quite a cramped experience. 

Herschel Museum of Astronomy

Lunch-time was approaching but I, being a steadfast individual (and having had a large breakfast) went on to the Herschel Museum of Astronomy. It’s in a little back-road just off Queen’s Square, where Beau Nash erected the giant pillar to Prince Frederick and asked Pope to write a truly uninspiring inscription.

A thin house in the middle of the street is home to the museum and was home to William and Caroline Herschel. In this house, they both had a flourishing career in music; discovered comets, the planet Uranus and infra-red light as well as created the finest telescopes then in existence. One of the things I found most charming is that the museum leases out the top two floors as flats, and that is how they keep going. I’d love to live in a flat above a museum, especially as I didn’t see a separate entrance, so the tenants must go through the museum to get home.

This museum also started with a video, but this was a funny, charming one narrated by Patrick Moore. It reminded me how amazing the siblings were and how much I miss Patrick Moore’s reassuring voice telling us that we ‘simply, don’t know’.

The next part of the museum had a signed picture of the Apollo 11 astronauts, my second house museum to have this in a month (the other being Newton’s house). This room led to the workroom with the stone floor still cracked after an accident creating lenses for one of the Herschel’s telescopes. There were examples of lenses and of one of the polishing machines they used. 

A modern conservatory next to it had some of William Herschel’s notes explaining his experiments on sunlight. He passed light through a prism and used a thermometer to discover that the area just beyond the red colour zone grew hotter. He called it invisible light but it was later known as infra-red. Did you know toasters heat up bread through infra-red rays? I didn’t.

Then out into the garden where they discovered Uranus. The video had explained that the planet as as far from Saturn as we are, so the discovery doubled the size of the known universe. It was strange, standing in the narrow garden, hearing someone making tea in another house and children playing in a garden further down, that such a discovery was made there.

The top floor was more about the Herschel’s as people. The stairs up featured satirical prints of the siblings, including a really bizarre one of Caroline finding a comet by sniffing its farts. 

The first room featured more scientific instruments, from an astrolabe to tiny pocket globes. There were William’s notes from a visit to the Boulton Factory and Caroline’s visitor’s book to the large telescope in Slough. The next room displayed there musical talents, William was an organ player and also played in Bath’s various balls and concerts, where Caroline also sang. There were tickets and instruments and one of Caroline’s dresses - she was tiny. 

I loved this museum, it was my absolute favourite. There was such a relaxed, homey atmosphere to the place and a real sense of two incredible people doing amazing work in their spare time from a cramped house. It’s not a large museum but it packed the biggest emotional wallop.

The Museum of Bath Architecture and the Star Inn

This one was a trek from the last, up a hill and past the Assembly Rooms. It’s housed in a chapel built by the Countess of Huntingdon to entice dissenting preachers like Wesley and Whitfield. I had seen her black cape earlier in the Fashion Museum.

The museum has different sections explaining the process with which the building in Bath were built. I can’t say I found these particularly interesting, never having been mechanically minded. I was taken by the section on John Wood and his belief in the mystical story of Bladdud. A mythical king, he suffered leprosy and noticed his pigs getting better in a spring. Bathing in the spring, he got better and decided to build his town there. Wood loved this story, feeling the area was tied in with Celtic and mystical origins and he loved a but of mysticism, seeding the town full of masonic symbols - even The Circus leading down to Gay Street is shaped like a key from the air.

The main reason to come to this museum is to see the huge model of Bath built by the university. It took thousands of hours to build and is very impressive.

Close by was the Star Inn. Built in 1760, it’s a lovely dingy place with pump-clips on the wall and three separate rooms all sharing the same bar, it’s also where the modern Bath Ales started. I had a few pints of plum porter and even managed to buys a small pot of snuff. I had a very interesting chat with some American tourists taking themselves on a historic pub crawl and with a regular who told me the story of a local pub which found Roman artefacts while being renovated and paid the builders to keep quiet and dump it all. It’s a pub story though, I’m sure it’s not true - perhaps.

The Pump Room

Finally I took myself back to the baths to the Pump Room. The centre of Bath life in some form or another from the early 1700s, this building was built in 1799. There is a statue of Beau Nash, a painting of him and a statue of the mythical Bladdud. 

For the price of an overpriced London Burger, I had a very nice meal of a rosti, bread and salad whilst listening to a man playing a piano. I also finally tried some of the famed water. Sam Weller was right, it tasted of;
“I thought they'd a wery strong flavour o' warm flat irons.” It really does.

I thoroughly enjoyed my little trip to Bath. If I were to go in a day, I would suggest visiting the Fashion Museum, Herschel Museum and then a meal in the Pump Room - but, that’s just my choice.

Wednesday 4 September 2019

Trip: A Visit to Bath (Part One)

When notable people entered Bath in the eighteenth century, bells were rung to welcome them. I can’t say any bells were rung to herald me as my train pulled into Bath Spa station, but sitting in bright sunlight, the sweeps of stone houses were very welcoming indeed.

I went to the city to get a bumper eighteenth century experience, to soak up the ambience, hunt out second-hand bookshops and visit as many museums as possible. Bath is one of those places that reflect one particular moment in history; where London is a dizzying mess of influences spanning over a thousand years, Bath is (with one very notable exception) a city that was born, flourished and pretty much remained stuck in the long eighteenth century.

The question of why Bath’s eminence didn’t develop into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries was not one that I was particularly aware of until so many people that I talked to offered up theories without my asking. It seems all the residents had been thinking about the subject heavily. 

The man at the Postal Museum believed the answer was based in Bath’s unique political situation as a hotbed of Patriot Whig politics held by people like Ralph Allen with Prince Frederick as the figurehead and when the Prince died suddenly, all the political importance of the place fled. The woman at No.1 Royal Crescent felt that Bath was too egalitarian, driving the Prince Regent and other influencers to Brighton. A man at the Museum of Bath Architecture felt that so much of Bath’s beauty was built in such a short span that the city grew complacent and didn’t keep up with the times. The man in the pub thought Bath traded too heavy on its Georgian past, sucking the life out of new developments. Whatever the reason, I had a great time playing in an eighteenth century playground.

Roman Baths

My first museum visit was to something which wasn’t primarily eighteenth century. While there was the main King’s and Queen’s baths in the same location, the eighteenth century builders didn’t find the remains of the vast Roman baths. It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that those were excavated and a viewing gallery built in a Roman style. I found it very interesting that the iconic image of the green water, the columns and the open sky, with the Abbey behind it, is not really Roman at all. The bath originally had a vast arched roof which meant that sunlight didn’t warm the waters and turn them green.

It’s undoubtedly the most popular attraction in the city and is laid out very well. The visitor first takes a walk around the top of the terrace, looking at the famous main bath. They are then taken down, through exhibitions showing the importance of the bath as a social and religious centre, another on the daily life of Roman Britain, then down into the bath itself and along the original square, then out into the main bath again with options to explore the other rooms.

The route means that there is a glimpse of the famous part of the bath, with the lingering wish to see it closer delayed by the other parts of the tour, building suspense. There were some great things on the way, a huge Neptune-esque head, sacrificial altars, the famous curses thrown into the waters - there were two problems though. One is that the exhibition rooms are simply too cramped and winding to cope with the sheer number of visitors. The other was the audio guide. 

A good audio guide can really heighten a visit but this one detracted. One of the problems is that there are too many audio stops, it meant that the already busy crowds would block the route at inopportune moments creating a deeply unpleasant and claustrophobic atmosphere. The other was that the adult guide didn’t seem to be written for adults. The modern statues around the viewing gallery were described as Romans who had ‘a special relationship with Britain’, the same ‘special relationship’ the Vikings had with Jarrow. The word ‘special’ came up a lot, there was a building called a Tholis which looked like a large bandstand. The only description the audio guide gave was that it was a ‘special kind of temple’.

That said, guide or no guide, crowds or no crowds, there was something magical about walking along the ancient street, over the courtyard to the massive (and well worn) steps to the main building. There was a delightful pettiness to the curses and a tremendous feat to the hydraulic engineering - it was worth visiting despite the flaws.

The Abbey

Sadly, I didn’t get a chance to go into Bath Abbey, because there are memorials to Beau Nash and Sarah Fielding in there. I was delighted by the outside though, particularly the side that was next to the queue for the Roman Baths. It shows two huge stone ladders going to the top with angels climbing them, I’ve never seen something quite so playful and was very taken with it.

I wandered the streets a little, spotting metal plaques along the way, marking the various people who lived and stayed in Bath. I also saw a ghost sign for a circulating library, which made me smile a great deal.

The Postal Museum

I didn’t plan on going to the Postal Museum, it felt a little too niche even for me. However, when the sign out the front mentioned ‘Ralph Allen,’ I was intrigued. I only knew him as Squire Allworthy in Tom Jones and Fielding’s great patron - I didn’t realise that he bought the postal routes that didn’t go through London and set up the first regular post service. Nor did I know that with the proceeds he bought stone mines which he sold cheap to grand projects, enabling the Bath that is there today.

It’s not a large museum but the volunteers are interesting and voluble and there are a few great things in there. It includes Allen’s contract for the service, the first royal pigeon mail, handbills for services, postal trumpets and a model for the first mail coaches. There is also a selection of letters (including one cross-written to save space) and an Alice and Wonderland stamp case that was officially licensed by Lewis Carroll. I also learnt that a ‘slow-coach’ was the one that carried heavy packages.

It was a niche museum, but a perfectly nice little one and well worth it for the chat alone.

The Circus and Royal Crescent

It had been a beautifully sunny day and had reached that point of a summer’s evening where everything glowed golden, the perfect time to visit two of Bath’s most famous sights. The Royal Circus, built by John Wood the Elder is far bigger than I expected. With the houses on all sides, it does feel like being in the Colosseum, but with each floor displaying a different order of column. Watching people saunter round it made me feel I was participating in something thousands of people have before me.

I found the Royal Crescent even more impressive. Built on a rise, the view flows down to a Victorian park. There was a large grass space out the front on which people were sitting, chatting and playing with their dogs. The light hit the warm stone in such a way that it’s hard to describe how peaceful everything looked. I walked around the crescent looking for metal plaques, my favourite was the one commemorating the house from which Elizabeth Ann Linley eloped with Richard Brinsley Sheridan. 

Sitting with a picnic out the front of the Royal Crescent and watching the sun go down was a very soothing end to my first day in Bath, especially when followed by a few local beers and a chat in a pub just round the corner.

The next day was when the real museum visiting would happen