Eager to start on my tally for 2014, January has immediately brought a distinct challenge, i.e. finding properties that are a) open and b) not landscape gardens (which are probably not seen in their best light at the moment). So, it was a happy accident that took me to Bath for a weekend with friends as I found that the Bath Assembly Rooms are open all year.
Leaving my friends to take in the highlights of Bath on a tour bus, I wandered through the town by myself, heading uphill to the Assembly Rooms. First impressions of the outside might be that the building doesn’t look vastly different from many of the other grand properties found in Bath, but the interior decoration is another matter and certainly sets this particular location apart. I doubt very much that any other building can boast even half the same level of grandeur.
Anyone who is a fan of Jane Austen and has an active imagination will love the Assembly Rooms, and as I fit into both of these categories I definitely enjoyed by brief stroll around the empty, echoing rooms, imagining the tinkle of music, shuffling of feet, hum of voices and chinking of cups as the well-dressed ladies and gents of 18th century Bath danced, took tea and played cards.
Any visit is likely to be a relatively short one unless you combine your trip with a tour of the Fashion Museum in the basement. There are only four display rooms to see and one of these (the Card Room) is now the café. They are all pretty dramatic, however, with the largest – the Ball Room – being 105 feet long, 42 feet wide and 42 feet high. The Octagon Room is notable for its four doors and musicians’ gallery above the main entrance, while the Tea Room has a striking colonnade at one end. There are stunning architectural features throughout the building, with ornate plaster decoration (including ceiling work, friezes, cornices, plinths and fireplaces), plus a multitude of columns. In addition, the huge chandeliers that hang from the ceilings of the three main rooms are probably worth the visit on their own and are said to be among the most important to have survived from the 18th century.
The Assembly Rooms are still used for special events today so you do have to take your chances when visiting as one or more of the rooms may be closed. I was in luck, although some temporary carpets laid down in the Ball Room suggest that something may have been going on there the day before. The regular use of the rooms also means that there are plenty of chairs available, with neat rows lining the walls of both the Tea Room and the Octagon Room during my visit. And there was not a prickly thistle in sight!
I took full advantage of this unusual freedom to sit and settled down quietly to read my guidebook. It was there that I discovered that much of the plasterwork has been replaced over the years and that the Rooms have had their fair share of disaster. During the 19th century, they fell into decline and later served as a base for the Royal Flying Corps during WWI and as a cinema in the 1920s. The Trust took over in 1931 and restored them to their former glory, re-opening with a grand 18th century costume ball in 1938… four years before a bomb reduced the Rooms to a roofless shell! Another restoration in the 1950s was also somewhat temporary as in 1987 a large section of plaster fell from the Ball Room ceiling and other plasterwork was found to have serious faults leading to further major investment. Today, though, I think it’s pretty safe to walk around the rooms and admire the blue-walled Ball Room, the pinkish Tea Room and the yellow Octagon Room, and there’s always the green Card Room if you fancy some refreshments.
Stepping outside into the winter sunshine to take a photo of the grand entrance, I spotted some familiar faces on a nearby tour bus so I gave them a quick wave before fulfilling my photographic commitments and heading back down to the lower town to greet them on their return. Unfortunately, Waterstones was conveniently positioned on my route so although the Assembly Rooms only cost me the (very reasonable) price of a guidebook, the complete trip was slightly more expensive!
Highlights: Chandeliers, the dramatic impression