True to its name, Sham Castle is indeed a fake. It is what the English call a “folly” (yes, they have an official term for “fake castle” in Europe!). Follies are fake castles built relatively recently – usually 18th-19th century – to resemble a medieval castle. Folly castles were built simply because a rich gentleman and lady decided that they wanted an exciting, over-sized lawn ornament. In this case, the castle was designed and built by architect Richard James for an important Bath gentleman called Ralph Allen. With a style clearly supposed to evoke reminisces of King Arthur‘s day, the castle was only built in 1762! In fact, Sham Castle is just a facade. No doors, no windows, no roof, no walls other than the front one. The reason why Allen dispensed large amounts of cash for a false structure that is nothing more than a facade and hidden away in the forest up a steep hill? To improve the view and “prospect” of his posh townhouse in central Bath. Of course. He wasn’t even the only one. Follies such as Broadway Tower, Fronthill Abbey, Hagley Hill, Castle Hill in Filleigh, Gwrych Castle, and many others exist all over the UK and to a lesser extent, all over Europe. It seems that 18th and 19th Europeans were just as obsessed with castles then as we are today; the difference being that then, instead of voyaging to the real ones, they merely hired someone to build a fake one in their own backyards!
Overlooking St John’s Church on Bath’s River Avon, England
Surely one of the quaintest and most quintessentially English towns in all of England is Bath. The tranquil waters of the River Avon winds through the city, a labyrinth of limestone facades constructed with a local stone called Bath Limestone, with the canal on the other side of Bath. Houseboats lap quietly against their moorings, ducks splash on the lush green backs. Church steeples – like St John’s Church steeple – rise dramatically against a cloudy sky. Forming the southern entrance to the Cotswolds region, Bath is recognised as one of England’s most picturesque places. Lined with rows of proud Georgian houses centred around the impressive Bath Abbey and the ancient Roman baths that lend themselves to the city’s name, Bath seems like a time capsule that has captured the Roman era, medieval times and Georgian England. It feels almost as if we were stepping out of a Jane Austen novel – which in a way is true. Jane Austen lived here from 1801 – 1806, and set some of her novels here (though it is known that she disliked the high society of 19th century Bath). Jane Austenmay have found fault with Bath, but to the modern day visitor, Bath is the perfect picture of England! (It also makes for a good jumping off point to explore the Cotswolds region…).
Pro tip: The recently-renovated Holburn Museum of Art is a lovely little art museum showcasing local painting. Runners (or walkers) might enjoy a walk along the Kennet & Avon canal – start from Bath and walk the 10 miles along the lovely and tranquil canal path to the lovely Cotswolds town of Bradford-on-Avon (well worth a visit!) and return to Bath via the local train. Another great walk will take you up the hill to Sham Castle. Also nearby is Bristol (also the local airport), a quirky artsy town.
England is a lovely place; Bath is even lovelier. Ancient Roman baths, Gothic abbeys, picturesque canals, charming cobblestones, green parks. Meandering forest trails take you through the grounds of Prior Park and its Palladian house built in the mid-1700s as a way of displaying the use of Bath limestone as a potential building material. The house, as well as this bridge nestled deep into the park’s hillsides, was built following the 16th-century Italian architect Andrea Palladio, whose style briefly became popular in the UK during the mid 17th- through 18th-century before being cut short by the Civil War. Palladio valued lines, symmetry and perspective. Inspired by the Greeks and Romans, he derived a style that adapted the symmetry of Roman temples and palaces to a more modern manor house. Today owned by the Prior Park College and the National Trust, Prior Park is one of Bath’s hidden gems and well worth the countryside stroll!
Owning a ruin in the 19th century was a big thing. If you didn’t manage to own your own ruin, well, that’s no problem because you could always build one! History and authenticity was obviously not nearly as important then as it is today. What mattered more was its aesthetic value. More than that, the 19th century saw owning a ruin (real or not) aligned with owning a piece of history, being in control of the past. So if you couldn’t afford to build your own ruin, but still wanted to jump on the ruin-owning, history-controlling bandwagon, you could turn an existing building into a ruin. We saw it with Sham Castle in Bath (a folly; 100% modern), again with the Gravensteen in Ghent (modified ruin), then later with Kreuzenstein Castle in Austria (a new castle was constructed from old bits of other castles). There are countless other examples (one more: Hungary’s Vajahunyad Castle, based on older ruin). Now, we see it again here, with Chateau Montmelas. Montmelas began its life as “chateau fort”; that is, a fortified manor house, in the 13-14th centuries. Then, some 500+ years later, crumbling and forlorn, the previous residence of Louis XV’s mistress, it was restored in the Neo-Gothic style. Turrets, crinolines, a keep, courtyards–all very medieval. And in fact, it still retains many qualities and original stonework from the Middle Ages, despite the modifications! Not only that, but it’s appearance is breathtaking. And its current purpose? A winery in the Beaujolais, as one can tell from the surrounding vineyards. While privately-owned, the castle can be visited at certain times of the year. I guess owning a ruin in the modern day–a real ruin, mind you–is still a pretty big thing!
View of the River Avon from Halfpenny Bridge in Bath, England
The Avon. In Celtic, the word “avon” meant “river,” and as a result, there are quite a few “River Avons” in the UK. As this particular Avon (known as the “Bristol Avon” to differentiate) snakes southward through the English countryside, it finally arrives in Bath. Bath is famous not only for its Roman baths (hence the name), but also for once being home to Jane Austen (Bath must have made an impression on her as it appears in more than one of her much-loved novels). Bath is—how to put it?—posh. It is a city built on elegance, propriety, and beauty. Every one of its cobblestone streets are worn smooth and sparkling. The rows of houses that line the road—all made of Bath limestone—are stylish and elegant. The centre, with its magnificent abbey, Roman baths, and meandering High Street, is breath taking. And then of course, there’s the fine, classy buildings comprising of the Circus (two semi-circular buildings surrounding a roundabout that sports a small collection of magnificent oaks), and just next door, the famed Royal Crescent, which is—if possible!—an even grander affair. Even when you leave the center—let’s say you decide to follow the river, or better yet, you take to the beautiful Kennet and Avon Canal—you cannot escape the majesty of the rolling hills, thatched cottages, arching bridges, and stone houses that make up the English countryside. Small though the Avon may be, it will be difficult to find a more grand, more picturesque or more beautiful English river.
Hidden somewhere in this beautiful city is my heart, left behind after spending nearly 6 months living and studying there. To me, nothing is more monumental than Bath, England. Bath’s beautiful centre consists of Georgian (neoclassical) architecture, ancient baths, a magnificent abbey, wonderful limestone houses, not to mention the classy Royal Crescent (pictured here). Together, they form a UNESCO world heritage site, meaning that I’m not the only one who finds the city monumental! Bath is an ancient Roman city, founded in 60-70 A.D. to take advantage of the natural springs bubbling underneath the city’s feet. Bath’s Royal Crescent is a row of 30 interconnected houses that form the shape of a crescent moon. Overlooking Bath, the Royal Crescent has long been inhabited by the upper echelon of Bath’s high society (made ever more posh by the marketing of Bath’s spa as a haute couture resort, particularly in the 18-19th centuries). Ironically, the chief architect only constructed the facade – each of the 30 owners had to hire their own architect to construct their house – meaning that in the back, each house is different in size, height, style, etc. Regardless, this building is – like the rest of this breathtaking town – monumental.
Pictures cannot convey the essence and beauty of Bath. Bath, to me, is one of the top 5 prettiest cities in Europe. Bath also happens to be my home, having studied there 3 years ago (I have a lot of homes). It is my dream to one day move back, or really, just move back to anywhere in the UK, my favourite country. This is the cathedral square, which also happens to be the entrance to the famous Roman Baths. Bath was established by the Romans in 60 AD, not long after they arrived in Britain. Upon finding the hot springs here, they built the spa town, Aquae Solis, and much later, Edgar was crowned king here in 973, at Bath Abbey, upon which we are currently standing. Founded in the 7th century, Bath Abbey was rebuilt 12th-16th, today, standing standing as proud as it ever did. Bath is a city built of limestone (from the nearby quarry). In the 19th century, it was as black as coal (because of the coal) but today, it has been restored to its original, lovely state. As a UNESCO site, it is more beautiful than you can ever imagine.
Pro tip: Take a tour of the tower of Bath Abbey for a fascinating background of the Abbey’s history as well as aerial views of the city! Be sure to taste a Cornish pasty (a savoury sort of closed sandwich) when in town. Also a hike up the hill to Sham Castleis well worth the walk!
The green waters filling this beautifully constructed bath date back to 60 AD when the Romans first “discovered” the natural hot spring, then constructed a temple and public baths over top of it. One million liters of mineral-rich water pour out of the spring every day! You can imagine the gold-mine this was to the Romans. Over the hundreds of years of usage that followed, the baths were altered and embellished. By the 1800’s, Bath had developed a reputation as a curative spring, and visitors even drank the water – Jane Austen was a frequent visitor to the city of Bath, though it seems that she disliked the city (her novel, Northanger Abbey was set in Bath and didn’t treat its setting nicely). Today, over a million people visit the baths every year, though to bathe in the water, there is a modern complex next door.
[This is also where I studied as an undergrad, and living here made me fall madly in love with England (a love still in full bloom today!) and hope one day to live here again!]