Monday, July 25, 2011

Sydney Gardens, walking for pleasure in Bath

Imagine to yourself, my dear Letty, a spacious garden laid out in delightful walks, bounded with high hedges and trees, and paved with gravel; part exhibiting a wonderful assemblage of the most picturesque and striking objects, pavilions, lodges, goves, grottoes, lawns, temples and cascades; porticoes, colonnades, and rotundoes; adorned with pillars, statues, and paintings; the whole illuminated with an infinite number of lamps, disposed in different figures of sun, stars, and constellations: the place crowded with the gayest company, ranging through blissful shades, or supping in different lodges on cold collations, enlivened with mirth, freedom and good humour, and animated with an excellent band of music.

The wonderful description of a pleasure garden above was written by Tobias Smollett in his book, Adventures of Humphry Clinker. Pleasure gardens developed naturally from the custom of promenading, and in Bath the concept was taken a step further with Sydney Gardens when the traditional promenading area was combined with a scheme of houses so that the owners could look upon green spaces as if they owned the land. Thomas Baldwin, the architect to the Pulteney family who owned the estate drew up the first plans, but only one of his terrace's was completed before financial problems hit in 1793. Great Pulteney Street was completed, as were the houses in Sydney Place where Jane Austen came to live in 1801. Bath stopped at this point, the countryside stretched beyond, and a ten minute walk took you into town, much as it does today. You can see why the Austens would have chosen this end of the city. They were country people at heart, and Jane wrote of walking in the gardens and visiting the labyrinth, a maze, every day.
Constance Hill wrote about the interior of number 4, Sydney Place a hundred years after Jane had left.
We sat in the pretty drawing-room with its three tall windows overlooking the Gardens. The morning sun was streaming in at these windows and falling upon the quaint empire furniture which pleasantly suggests the Austen's sojourn there. The house is roomy and commodious. Beneath the drawing-room, which is on the first floor, are the dining-room and arched hall from which a passage leads to a garden at the back of the house. The large old-fashioned kitchen, with its shining copper pans and its dresser laden with fine old china, looked as if it had remained untouched since the Austens' day.

A silver token was issued to each shareholder as a free pass into the pleasure garden, and you can see the coin featured what we know as the Holburne Museum today. Back then the museum was a hotel and tavern at various different stages, and sitting (as it still does) at the end of Great Pulteney Street made a fabulous focal point at the end of this classically inspired vista. The museum has recently undergone extensive re-modelling, and the new exhibitions inside are wonderful. There is a lovely cafe at the back where you can enjoy some refreshment, inside and out, and you can get a sense of what it must have been like to attend 'public breakfasts' in Jane Austen's day.

Sydney Gardens opened in May 1795 with the Tavern building known as Sydney House nearest to the city, containing dining rooms and meeting rooms. There were two wings on both sides of dining cubicles, a movable orchestra, and a space for fireworks. There was a main, wide walk, and narrower pathways leading off into shrubberies and winding walks. The New Bath Guide (1801) describes them as 'serpentine walks, which at every turn meet with shady bowers furnished with handsome seats, some canopied by Nature, others by Art'. There were waterfalls and pavilions, alcoves to enjoy tea, urns, statues, swings, castle ruins, and a labyrinth, said to be twice as large as Hampton Court's.
The gala Jane Austen attended on 4th June 1799 was spoilt by rain, so she went to the repeat performance two weeks later. She enjoyed the fireworks and illuminations, but not the music which she avoided by not arriving until nine o'clock!

Jane Odiwe


Elizabeth Hawksley said...

What an enjoyable post, Jane, and I loved the prints.

Great to see 'Humphry Clinker' getting a mention. It's a terrific book - makes me laugh out loud.

Jane Odiwe said...

Thank you, Elizabeth. Yes, it's great fun-lots of wonderful names too!

Jan Jones said...

How beautiful, Jane. Great prints - what a shame his money ran out.

Jane Odiwe said...

Yes, the prints are gorgeous, aren't they. The area was developed in the end by other people, and you can barely tell the difference between the first houses and the ones that followed.
I'd like to go back in time and see the gardens as they were- and go to a gala!

MOBAW researcher said...

This is fascinating. Does anyone have any information on the nature of the illuminations in Sydney Gardens? Jane Austen clearly enjoyed them.