Strolling in the Pleasure Gardens of Jane Austen’s Bath

Whereas the first day of the Jane Austen Festival in Bath was as dreary as anyone could wish to avoid—enlivened only by the gaily dressed ladies and gentlemen who braved the rain for the Promenade—the next day broke off as sunny and pleasant as anyone in England would wish to enjoy.

The major activity for our group was a tour of the pleasure gardens, beginning at the Holburne Museum, which now as then is the entrance to Sydney Gardens. In Austen’s day the building was called the Sydney Hotel, though it was not a hotel in the traditional sense but a place of entertainment. All of the activities of the Gardens—public breakfasts, music, fireworks, and special events—began at this building. The Gardens were behind.

The public could buy subscriptions for a season of activities, though occasionally special events required additional admission. Jane Austen is known to have participated in some public breakfasts.

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Moira throws herself energetically into her history of  Sydney Gardens

Our tour was led by an architectural historian by the name of Moira, a knowledgeable, energetic, theatrical, R-trilling woman of a certain age and build. She walked us through—literally—the layout of the Gardens, which as originally constructed had a variety of features including a canal, Chinese-style bridges, a waterfall, serpentine promenades, a grotto, and a labyrinth.

Progress has reduced the size of the Gardens and eliminated a few features. The Great Western Railway swallowed the labyrinth in the 1830s, for instance. Most of the Gardens remain, however, and it’s still a lovely place to promenade of a pleasant afternoon, as Jane and her sister Cassandra were fond of doing.

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The only way for a lovely woman to dress for an afternoon promenade

On our Sunday, the Gardens were full of visitors, including a few dressed in Regency wear. (Being in costume can lead to discounts at some haberdashers and eateries, we learned.) Our group featured a stunning young woman in a blue Regency walking outfit carrying complementary ivory parasol and gloves. It’s this sort of thing that gives credence to the concept of time machines.

The one thing that surprised me was the extent to which the Gardens sloped up from the entrance. Given that the canal cuts across the Gardens along the back, I had assumed that the elevation would be relatively flat or would slope downhill rather than up.

We finished at Jane Austen’s three-story house at 4 Sydney Place across the street from the Gardens. The building is rather austere, with a plain front of light-colored local Bath stone. Next to the red door is a small plaque giving the dates of Jane’s tenure there.

The family lived at Sydney Place from 1801 to 1804, after her father retired and they moved from the country in Steventon, about eighty miles east, to Bath where her parents had met and married as young people.

The location of their house, just off the Great Pulteney Bridge and across from the Gardens, was, however, too expensive for a retired clergyman and they ultimately moved to cheaper quarters. The plaque incorrectly gives the end date as 1805. Likely, the person who commissioned the sign assumed that the family moved upon the death of her father in January 1805; in fact, it was before then.

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In her first few years in Bath, Jane Austen lived in a townhome at 4 Sydney Place, across from the Gardens

We couldn’t go into the house because it’s now part of a boutique hotel group—so any Janeite can settle in for a long weekend. The price is somewhat dear! A member of our group who recently stayed there says it is well decorated and has a number of Austen-related books but, curiously, none of Austen’s own novels.

Moira the tour guide had a book of illustrations that she used to point out details of the Gardens to the tour group. I noticed that one illustration showed a hot-air balloon, which she had not mentioned by the time the tour concluded.

I discreetly asked whether that drawing might be of the flight from the Gardens in September 1802. She laughed with surprise and excitement. The illustration was from a much later flight in Vauxhall Gardens, London—there is no artwork apparently of the 1802 flight by Monsieur André-Jacques Garnerin in Bath. The story is that the balloon was intended to remain tethered, being moved about by ropes above the heads of the admiring crowd. But the balloon got away, causing great mischief and alarm.

Moira wondered how an ordinary modern-day American might know about Bath’s aviation history. Before I could answer, my companions leapt in to explain that I had written a novel about Jane Austen, the critical scene coming when she is launched in a runaway balloon from Sydney Gardens. Furthermore, they announced, after hearing all the details about the Sydney Gardens, the Sydney Place home, and the balloon flight—I had got all the details right.

(Actually, there’s one detail I might have fudged, but I will wait for a diligent reader to point it out.)

Rain in Bath Fails to Dampen Spirits During Promenade

Being in Bath for the annual Jane Austen Festival was a special treat, and things were so busy that the first time I’ve had to write is two days later, in another Austen haunt about 90 miles east of Bath–Hampshire.

Even these thoughts are quickly put together. No coherent theme has emerged!

The Jane Austen Festival runs for ten days in Bath every September, two weekends sandwiching a week in which something interesting happens each day: lectures, balls, tours, theatrical performances.

My wife, Wendy, and I attended the Friday night pre-festival soiree, which was a relatively small affair in which we got to mingle with the many volunteers who help put on the event. Things are informal enough, and hands’ on enough, that Jackie Herring, the festival director, was the one taking tickets.

Jackie has been with the festival almost since its start and director for nine years. She says it’s a good thing it’s an annual event, because it takes about a year to put together.

It was interesting to see the number of young women involved as stewards, who have various assignments all during the festival, including shepherding participants to the right places for the Promenade and different events. One such young lady was a microbiologist in Bristol, and another held multiple teaching jobs. Both were eager to help all week at the Festival. It’s good to think that another generation has fallen in love with Austen.

Saturday’s big event was the Promenade, at which a few years ago Bath set a world record in the number of people wearing Regency dress. This is the modern record, of course. One supposes Bath had a few more Regency-clad denizens in 1802. Bath reclaimed the modern record from upstart Americans who had previously gathered the largest modern Regency crowd, thinking it would be fun to beat the Brits at their own game.

We were a group of six: Wendy and I, the two winners of the sweepstakes tied to the launch of the second volume of my trilogy, “The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen,” and their guests. As we stood for a few photos in and around the Abbey, we were swarmed by a host of the other tourists, who could not get enough photos of relatively attractive people dressed so smartly. We had to explain to most of them that there was this festival going on, and that hundreds of people would soon be walking all over the city in Regency costumes.

The weather was gloomy all morning, with a light shower here and there. The forecast was for the rain to clear at 11:00 with the start of the Promenade, which began at the Assembly Rooms (the Upper Rooms in Jane’s day) and meandered by or through all of the big sights (and sites) in Bath.

Naturally, a forecast of clearing skies at 11:00 meant that this was when the rain began in earnest, and it came down in buckets for part of the two-hour walk. By the end, we were all as bedraggled—but in equally determined spirits—as Liz Bennet when she traipsed through the mud to see her ill sister.

Beyond my finely accoutered companions, the highlights of the Promenade for me were a delightful girl out with her grandparents, a set of half a dozen middle-aged Janeites from a Germanic country (whose language I could not understand), and a group of young people and children performing dances in the rain for those of us now able to finish inside the building where we started.

Inside the Rooms were hot drinks and pastries, which the crowd quickly set upon before turning to see all the wares at the Festival Fayre. This emporium features all manner of items related to the Regency era, from subscriptions to the magazine “Jane Austen’s Regency World” to Austen books and memorabilia to every variety of period clothing and accessories. If you’ve been to the shops at the annual general meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America, the fayre is similar—but the clothing for sale comes in a greater variety of quality and expense.

The day formally concluded for me with a lecture on the bigger history of the Regency period that framed Jane Austen’s novels. A small but attentive audience listened as I spoke about science, business, social and labor issues, politics, and war.

After answering several interesting questions, I was pleased when a man in the audience thanked me for the talk and said—apparently quite surprised—“You made an hour go by fast!”

First Monthly Winner of 2016 Bath Sweepstakes

We have our first winner of the monthly prize of our 2016 Bath Sweepstakes, which is a signed copy of The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen. This is the first of several smaller prizes before we select the grand prize winner, which will be a trip for two to Bath, England.

Click on this link to see the details of this month’s drawing!

Don’t wait to enter if you have not already.