"You cannot escape the dancing as Mr Nash sees everyone and is quite cross if you do not get up when asked for a Country Dance. He is a kind man, I believe, but I swear his linen is not altogether clean. Everything must cease at eleven o'clock because he commands it. Papa says he is a fool but a harmless one..."
Sophie Carey, 1726
The Mr Nash she is referring to is the Master of Ceremonies at Bath for over fifty years - Richard "Beau" Nash. He ruled Bath with a rod of iron, it was he who decided which cravat was fashionable, as well as outlawing duels and swords from the city and engaged good orchestra's for his Assembly rooms. He was so powerful that he could tell Duchesses, Countesses and even the Prince of Wales how to behave. Half the fun was probably obeying him and then laughing about it afterwards.
The centre of his kingdom was the Assembly Rooms. This was the social hub of the city from the 17th Century onwards where everyone came to be see and be seen. The great rooms housed the city's famous balls where the upper classes would parade and preen in front of each other in surroundings of exquisite splendour. Bath, to me, is a city where you can still conjure up the past in your minds eye and a visit here is to revisit Bath in it's heyday. To experience Bath at it's elegant best and go back in time to to the period of Jane Austen and and Thomas Gainsborough. The Assembly Rooms, along with the Roman Baths, are the highlights of this charming city.
As Bath became more and more popular so did the need to build a place where all could gather. The old Assembly Rooms were down by the river where the Parade Gardens are now. It was perfectly something that something bigger was needed, preferably in the upper town where most of the fashionable lived. So John Wood the Younger was commissioned to build in 1769. They were built in the Palladian fashion just off 'The Circus' and a short walk from George Street. Here they were the social hub of the city until the end of the 19th Century when Bath became a place for retirees rather then fashionable visitors. Their nadir came in 1943 when a Luftwaffe incendiary bomb set fire to the building. The buildings were restored but in the Tea Room the plaster is streaked pink from where the effects of the fire could not be fully eradicated.
It is situated in the Upper Town, a little bit of a walk from the Roman Baths and the river. They are combined with the excellent 'Museum of Costume' which costs £3.50 to enter, a combined ticket to the Roman Baths costs £11. The best way of reaching it is to walk up the main shopping street of Milsom Street. Take a left at the top at George Street, and carry on to where Gay Street heads uphill. This will take you to 'The Circus' and the street heading east is Bennett Street. The Assembly Rooms are just off this and are very noticeable with their orange colouring and columned portico (see photo). It is owned by the National Trust so entrance is free and I strongly recommend the audio tour. This has won tourist awards and brings the rooms into brilliant 18th Century life.
The building is divided into four rooms. Once past the entrance vestibule takes you to the Octagon Room. As per it's name it has eight sides and is decorated in light blue. The three other rooms were visible through the doors and this was where the visitors would gather under the chandeliers before deciding how they would spend their night. Most headed for the 'Ball Room' which was colossal at least one hundred feet long. It had a very high white ceiling and windows set 40ft up into the air. Supposedly, the high ceilings were to help ventilation. Chairs were set around the outside and a balcony housed an orchestra. This had to stop at the stroke of eleven even if they were half way through a piece. Most of the music they played were 'country dances' and the audiotape spoke of Austen's 'Northanger Abbey' where Mrs Moore panics that her daughter doesn't have a dance and rushes around saying 'I wish I had a dance...I do wish I had a dance..."
Between this and the cafeteria was the 'Card Room'. Gambling was a big part of Bath and this was where the men headed to play whist, poker and cribbage whilst their womenfolk circulated and gossiped. The room was beautifully decorated with portraiture and four enormous fireplaces heated the place in cold winter nights. To the north of this is the cafeteria where smart waiters waited and there were huge pictures of women in crinoline. Even the background music was elegant with vignettes from 'My Fair Lady' and the like. The cafeteria serves light meals but mainly snacks such as cakes and tea. The restaurant when the Assembly Rooms were at their height was the 'Tea Room'. It was decked in an ivory cream colour with a pink ceiling. Four colonnades took up one part of the room and there was yet another balcony for the musicians. This was where tea was served and they could partake in jellies and sweetmeats. According to the tape Tobias Smollett tells of a very undignified, elbowflying scrum for the dessert one evening.
Downstairs is the Museum of Costume. Housed in glass cases are mannequins wearing the fashions of the 18th Century all the way up to the 21st. The audiotape tells the story of each one and some of the ballgowns are so big that the women could not have managed to squeeze through door. The wigs that they wore grew ever larger and corsets not only accentuated the curves but must have been agony. The men wore waistcoats, britches, gloves and periwig's but seem to have had an easier time then the women. And in the 21st century section eveyone was surprised to see a blue/green cleavage-showing evening gown worn by Jennifer Lopez.
But it was the sense of elegance that pervaded the exhibt. It was easy to see these women squeezed into ballgowns up in the Assembly room with with ostritch feathers and glittering jewels. The minuets were so slow that they could move, smile and flirt with their partner while dancing. They must have been quite a sight...