Sunday, 7 September 2014

The Bath City Trail

I realised today that I have been walking over a tourist route these last few days that I hadn't even noticed. I'm probably in company with pretty most of the people in the city centre as The City Trail is anything but noticeable.

Upon emerging from the Tourist Information with some leaflets on further tours, such as The Tour of Britain coming to Bath very soon, I looked down and by chance spotted this plaque below.

Each of these brass plaques, sunk into the pavement, has a quote about Bath from a British writer or notable figure of the past. What they have to say is rarely interesting or important, all that matters is that Dr Samuel Johnson said something about Bath.

Unexpectedly then, I was off once more on a tour, excited to see where it would lead me. I somehow managed to miss plaque 2 and passed directly to 3. The arrow seemed to be pointing in the right direction. When I thought about it further, the work involved in laying out this trail is not simple at all and there is scope for error both in the design of the plaques and in their installation too.

The arrow gives you the direction of the next plaque but not the location. It could be 10 metres away it could be 10 kilometres, there is no way of telling. This made the game more interesting as it introduced an element of uncertainty that kept the eye busy. In practice the distances were never that great but they were certainly not uniform either.

The route was also designed to make it easy, as far as possible, by avoiding obstacles in the path from one point to another. It would have been possible to have made two points on either side of a building, so that you would either have to walk through the building or else walk around it, thus going off the line of the arrow in order to return to it. I would have rather liked it more if they would have done this as that would have brought the intervening structures and spaces more fully into the frame of the trail. 

Thinking about that further, such a trail cutting straight lines through space is somewhat reminiscent of the colonial divisions of newly acquired territories. When conquering powers had a duty of administering land over which they had little familiarity, the line was the abstract and arbitrary method of delineating one area from another. It is precisely this possibility of making a line that passes through someone's house and then turning that line into a meaningful border that displays both power and insensitivity. The line can be a potent thing. These lines, however, were not.

As I fell into a rhythm moving from plaque to plaque, I started to think of the work of the Boyle Family too. Some of their works present pavements as wall mounted artworks and I remember how these had the wonderful effect of reawakening the senses to the complex compositions under the feet. The least loved of the directions of looking, down is where these abstract social sculptures abound.  

As I was fully expecting, there were locations where the trail met unforeseen obstacles. The arrow pointed in the direction of this construction site and at the far end of it no plaque was to be found. With the pavement claimed and closed off, I had to assume the plaque was there but I could not be sure, which made it far more interesting.   

I found my way back on the trail again easily enough as it passed through the tourist attractions. I only had to pause and think, what is the most obvious place to walk to next, go there, search for the plaque and there it was.

The trail made me think of the trail of plaques put up by The Museum of London along the length of London Wall. I really should write that up as a tour sometime since I have taken it and it was a really worthwhile stroll. It was enjoyable partly because of its limitations and neglect: the Roman wall has been largely destroyed and exists only in fragments. The contemporary plaques have also fallen into neglect making it a trail of double neglect. Following such a tenuous route became a challenge.

This plaque struck me as a sad one. The designer must have run out of quotes to add so it remained blank with just a number and an arrow in its centre.

After a while the distances between the plaques enlarged and it became increasingly difficult to find them. What also happened is that my eye became more attuned to looking for them. I spotted, for instance, the plaque on the far side of this crossing.

I here realised that there was another quoteless plaque and that the previous ones had attempted to make the quotes relevant for the locations they were sited in. That must mean that there was nothing much to say about Queen Square, which was sad in itself too. Surely, even staying within the frame of the work, it would have been possible to find enough specific quotes for the locations that had them and keep enough generic Bath quotes to spread around the rest. But no, the trail became a simple game of directing the walker from point to point. To be honest I didn't miss the quotes that much as they added little and were written in a circle that makes you have to stand above them, twist your head, turn around and even stoop down to read more closely when there is an interior line of text with a smaller font size.   

Thank God for number 14, then. and a return of words! My impressively practical though less than beautiful shoes, by the way, are for a skyline walk tomorrow which I was instructed to come suitably attired for.

I found this plaque a curious one as it was quite different to the others. It was on the right direction, more or less, but it seemed to not belong to the series. It had no number in the middle and was embedded in a newer concrete slab which was itself framed by tarmac. I suspect that this may have been a later addition but I could not say for sure. If it were a newer addition it makes me ask, is the trail still maintained or was there a year when it ceased to be?

The trail seemed to fall apart all together at this point so I took a picture of a water cover instead, as it was in the area the plaque should have been. That's when it struck me just how invisible these plaques are. With a little bit of weathering they fade into invisibility and become a variant of the utilities cover.

By the time I got to 18 my will to pursue this City Trail was failing. I started to wonder if anyone had really bothered to come this far before, except for the people specifically invited when the trail was first set in place. I suspect there may be a handful, but this really is one of those public art projects that must have seemed like a good idea at the time but which is now near forgotten.

At the circus I felt sorry for the designer of this trail as he or she had an obvious problem to contend with: how to point with a straight line around a circular space? Their solution, pointing towards where this woman is coming from, was not a good one but then again this was always going to be a challenge. Following the arrow on its word would have led me into the building behind her so I instead interpreted it to mean, follow the circular path of the pavement.

This I did and I failed to find another trail plaque so settled for this gas cover. With that I concluded the City Trail.

Stepping back to Tourist Central I noticed this woman posing for the camera. Following up on an observation I made on the Pingyao Tour about there being a very interesting range of culturally specific poses that tourists pull when getting their picture taken, this was a new one for me. I cannot locate this body gesture at all. It looks very deliberate, like it might be part of a traditional dance or a pose common to statues, yet there is always the possibility that it's a more personal mannerism.  

The tables were soon turned and she was in the camera crew taking pictures of the monks. There's something funny about monks doing typical tourist things, you somehow imagine they would be above that. 

On a similar note, I saw this picture of Obama in Stonehenge this morning, he visited it after the NATO summit in Newport, which itself is also slightly mismatched. This opens up the question of appropriate and inappropriate costume for tourists which narrows down to casual and smart casual in the UK. Going round the Roman Baths dressed as a soldier, a nurse, a cleaner or a homeless person would not look at all right. A businessmen in a suit mixing work with leisure is somewhat acceptable but even that looks like it belongs more to the 1970s than to today. Practical solution: remove the tie and jacket.

1 comment: