Monday, 14 July 2014

The Mayor's Guides Tour of Bath: free heritage tours around the city centre

The Tour of All Tours now turns its attention to a new city and a UNESCO listed one at that: Bath. I will be making a tour here over the Summer months which will be presented later in the year. I got started by taking a guided tour. 

But not before I visited the Jane Austin Centre to inspect the newly unveiled waxwork of the famous author. It, or should I say she, cost several million pounds to be produced so I should have been humbled to stand beside this high-maintenance lady, but I must admit to being underwhelmed. I will be returning to the centre at a later point to take their tour but for  now this was enough as I wanted to begin my investigation of Bath with a more standard city tour.

The most popular starting point for guided tours is without a doubt the square bordered on one side by the Roman Baths and on another by the Abbey. This is an intensely touristic site: in addition to a very general random melee, there was a rank of Japanese tourists forming to my left, some excitable Spanish language students gathering in front of me, and a group of Middle Eastern boys lounging around beside me. The square retains some dignity, however, and is not completely overrun with souvenir stalls and ice cream trolleys, indeed Bath City Centre as a whole tends to avoid the worst aesthetic excesses of mass tourism. The look they strive for is historical: businesses adapt to the existing architecture rather than the street level exploding with garish signs and protruding shopfronts, all competing for attention.  

The tour I took was one with the Mayor of Bath's Honorary Guides. This is a free daily tour and as there was a large crowd of us, we were divided into two groups each led by a different guide. My groups's guide was Jean and her basic approach to the tour was to tell a roughly chronological history of Bath from Roman times up until today whilst making our way through the streets. It is often more satisfying to have a definite narrative structure, such as the city's chronology, shaping the tour, but it is also more difficult to do so neatly, as cities are rarely laid out in a way that makes walking such a timeline obvious. I thought Jean managed pretty well to reconcile these two demands and the history of the city itself aided her since the bulk of its history is from the Georgian period meaning that once we were into that epoch it was possible to treat the city and narration more thematically and to not worry too much about the chronology and more. 

Because the city has retained its Georgian architecture and many pedestrianised streets, it is not particularly well laid out for the delivery lorries that service the bustling shops. This means that on the back roads behind the elegant storefronts we stumbled across lorries backing up and men in high visibility jackets trying to make the system work as best they could. Out tour passed along a number of such roads and when we stopped to talk it was sometimes hard to hear the commentary such was the distraction of the vehicles. This front and back stage of the city is itself an interesting phenomena to observe and something a tour more focussed on the contemporary might be able to embrace. With the historical focus of ours, however, it was simply experienced as a minor nuisance. 

As we made our way through the city-centre we were shown that Bath remains a spa town. From the rooftop pool and viewing galleries, the white robed ones gazed down upon us plebs as we listened to the stories of their illustrious predecessors. I should imagine that the city looks rather different if you experience it from the comfort of one of the thermal spas. I don't know, perhaps it is even be easy up there to imagine oneself as a latter day member of a reconstructed high society taking a cure. That at least is what the pictures in the brochure would have you believe. On street level such a dream appears more likely to be ruptured, particularly on a Friday or Saturday night, when the streets belong to the drunks. I daresay there was a healthy supply of them, back in the real, rather than reconstructed past and I would not be shocked if a good few of them were the self same elite slumming it with the locals in search of kicks.

We were told about the former social life of the city and in particular how convalescence and cures merged with fashion, gambling and high society. This makes for an interesting comparison with today's visitors who take tours to hear about the history of these previous visitors. Bath has evolved from being a resort town into a historical resort town, but a resort nonetheless, that still has to provide beds, meals and entertainment to a wider spread of guests from around the world. This mirroring effect of having contemporary tourists learning about historical tourists as a a tourist experience, strikes me as not so far removed from my tours of tours, the main difference being there is not the same separation in time: I report on the contemporary whereas she reports on the past. 

Walking around the town and going up to the Royal Crescent it is clear why it is the visitor destination that it is: the city really does have a good deal going for it from a tourist's point of view. The commentary mostly stuck to local history and architecture though we did branch out into the origins of numerous phrases and fashions which could be traced back to Bath. In this sense the tour was not surprising, it played to the city's strengths.

About two thirds of the way through our tour we stumbled upon the other group taking the mayor's guides tour. But for standing on the left rather than on the right, at the very start, I would have been in their party. I learnt that the two guides do not give identical tours. While they draw upon the same basic material and there is a quality control filter that ensures it doesn't get too freaky or shambolic, the guides design their own route, tell the history in their own way and decide where to lay the emphasis of their tour. Jean, my guide, went so far as to say that we should take another Mayor's guide tour so we would see just how individual they are. I might well do just that.

In summary, I'd say my guide, was competent and enjoyed sharing the story of the city with visitors. Her presence was very much in harmony with that of the city itself: older, educated, neat and comfortable. So much was she the face of the city, I had to ask myself how a tour of Bath might work if it were given by someone very different: by a teenage goth, an african mother or a long haired hippy, which you do see a few of from time to time. For a first tour of Bath, the Mayor's Guides' Tour was a good one to take as it represented a mainstream idea of what the city is. I will, however, be looking further afield in the coming weeks and months to expand upon this and get a broader view of the things.  

The tour was circular finishing in the same bustling square where it started. As well as it being full of tour groups, it is also home to a constant stream of buskers and street entertainers. The quality of the acts I saw was decidedly mixed but the volume consistent. One consequence of this saturation of music is that tour guides have considerable competition for attention. I have not seen any of the guides wearing portable speakers to amplify themselves yet, but it really would not be a bad idea, even if it might look and sound a bit kitschy. When competing with musicians who come with amps and mobile generators, you can be at a distinct disadvantage and need all the help you can get.

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