Tuesday, 19 August 2014

The No. 1 Royal Crescent Tour: a period drama minus the drama

A further 'must see' site in Bath that offers a tour of sorts is No. 1 Royal Crescent. I got my ticket from a lady in period costume who then directed me to a side room to watch a video.

The video was a professionally filmed and well edited introduction to Bath and The Royal Crescent in its Georgian hay day. I should admit that I start to become a little bit blasé about these industry standard cultural tourism products when I am trapped inside of them writing about them, but I'm also aware I am not their target audience. For the dedicated cultural tourist, this is the stuff of dreams.    

Once the video ended the small group of us who had accumulated were told the the tour of the house began next door. I was also told that photography inside the house was forbidden but it was OK to take pictures out of the window. These images are therefore of everything but the building and that's a pity as it is rather beautiful inside but they want to hang onto the control of their imagery.

This is the view from the dinning room which was laid out very elaborately for dessert. I was handed a laminated information sheet by the guardian who explained some of the features of the room. The most striking of these was a folding screen in the corner behind which gentlemen, during the course of the dinner, could relieve themselves into a pot. With this in mind I looked again at the table and imagined the scene afresh.

I was told by another guardian that the man of the house and the lady had separate rooms and this I seem to remember is the view from the man's room. The ghost tour which passed this way slipped in some historical information which, at the time, I had thought was off topic. Nonetheless, it was good to know when looking out over the crescent that, post WW2 when the crescent was run down, the city council had proposed knocking it down and replacing it with a big concrete town hall. At least, that is how I remember the story and it is curious that none of the heritage guides told me about this important information. I have just ordered Baedeker's Guide to Great Britain 1937, a sort of Fodor's of its day, which reputedly inspired a series of German bombing raids during the war which were a good part of why this area was in such poor condition come 1945. I find the idea of a guidebook being used to select military targets quite far out and I'll be taking that tour as soon as it arrives in the post.

I wandered from room to room like I was in a movie. Speaking of which I have finally relented and in order to get a better grip on why these locations and Bath in general have such an appeal I have started watching Northanger Abbey, more on which I'll write about when I come to the Jane Austen Centre. I think that this period drama filmset made real, is the desired effect. The next step is to get dressed up in the clothes yourself and go in for the reenactments, speaking of which, I did spot a live role playing group in the car park yesterday dressed up like they stepped out of Lord of The Rings. Wrong costume for Georgian Bath but maybe there is another layer of goblins and sorcerers I have not yet found.

When I descended into the basement to the servant's rooms I was surprised to see these were not so well attended to by the guides. Maybe there was less to steal or maybe it was just somebody's break. There was a kitchen, communal dinning room, scullery and housekeeper's room. The most curious of the objects was the 'turnspit dog' model: a dog that walks inside a wheel which turns meat over a fire. I would have liked to have had the opportunity to go further into the class politics and lives of the workers, even if it was a Downton Abbey whitewash of it, but that was not on offer today.

With the tour of the house proper finished, there was still an exhibition to view in the annex. This featured portraits of women who were sexually 'available' from the higher sections of society. That is to say it combined women who conducted affairs, kept mistresses and high class prostitutes. I thought that including women who had affairs which became public knowledge with prostitutes in the same exhibition was stretching the point a bit far, but I also see that this was done to bring the idea of Georgian morality to the fore in order to then interrogate it through the artworks and commentary. The captions were informative and did convey something of the women's lives and the sexism and double standards of Georgian society: men who conducted affairs and used prostitutes were not subject to any such criticism.

Emerging at the end I felt that there was enough here to call the experience a tour, but I was left wishing I could have been shown round by a guide. Because it is a building that contains expensive objects, they have a primary duty to protect the premises and that is best achieved by having guardians based in each room who can both keep an eye on things and explain the room's contents to the visitor. If they were to have tour guides they would probably be in addition to guardians and not instead of them. When the costs are added up, this 'pass the tourist' system is cheaper and quite adequate for most visitors. It all makes perfect sense but something is lost in not having someone give a through line. In any case, most of the visitors, it seemed to me, were quite happy to have their primary focus on the house itself and not on someone dressed up in period costume hustling them from room to room. The thing the visitors really wanted to do was to soak up the atmosphere of the place and imagine how it would have been to have lived here. They were paying to enter a movie. We have different needs and the need to dream is great too.

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