Editor’s note: For the past half-year Clive Doucet has traveled through Asia Minor and Europe examining some of the world’s most ancient human settlements. In that time he visited ten Paleolithic and Neolithic sites, and dozens of still-occupied settlements from the Roman era. He reports that he toured the sites “by tram, bus, ferry, subway, overnight express train – and one private car rental”.
This post is his last installment filed from abroad, and, as Clive has now returned to Ottawa to take up a position as a Visiting Scholar at Carleton University’s College of the Humanities, the “On Cities” feature will once again be written from his home base.
There are no high rises in Jane Austen’s Bath. The one shopping centre I have been able to find is approached by foot and from the outside looks the same as an 18th century building. The buildings themselves are constructed from a honey-yellow limestone that glows in the sunlight and glowers in the rain.
You can find all of the houses and apartments that the Austen family ‘let’ in Bath, they’re all a comfortable walk one from the other. The Austen’s family wasn’t rich. Jane’s father was a clergyman, farmer and school teacher and with eight children had to work hard to make ends meet. Yet, they all did very well. Two of her brothers became Admirals of the Fleet. Another became a clergyman like his father and took over the parsonage at Stevenson where Jane had been raised. Like most families, the Austen’s had mixed luck. She had one brother who was born with a serious mental handicap. Another who went bankrupt as a banker and hurt many of his friends and family in the bank’s failure. Cassandra and Jane both lost their ‘men’ to sudden death.
Success is written in many registers and if independence and accomplishment count for anything, the family enjoyed extraordinary success. Jane was writing at a time when women were not supposed to attach their name to accomplishments that men would be honoured to have, but she defied convention, refused to marry for position and lived to see her own books published under her own name. Her six novels are not only still in print but she is loved and read the world over. There have been so many ‘series’ and films made of ‘Emma’, ‘Persuasion’ that a walk around Bath feels a bit like a walk around a movie set instead of a city.
I keep expecting to turn around a corner and see the movie set of Baroque Bath disappear into the modern mish mash of high rises, franchises, big boxes and parking lots, but it never happens. I asked a local where all the highrises were? And she pointed to a brass diamond slashed inside a circle – the sign which indicates a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The entire city of Bath has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site for the beauty of stone buildings, the consistency and coherency of its architecture and the tightness of its urban form.
Today, you can still walk down the same paths and streets, city parks and area woods that Jane walked in and created the famous scenes between characters like Captain Wentworth and Miss Anne Elliot. They’re still here. They haven’t been torn down or torn up for a big box store or a ten story building. To my North American eyes, which are so accustomed to seeing old neighbourhoods torn apart like old rugs, it’s all a little hard to believe, but it’s real.
Like any exceptional place, modern Bath has attracted the attention of the rich and famous. The actor Nicholas Cage has a home here as does John Clease of Monty Python fame. No doubt, one day their names will be enshrined on a plaque and attached to their houses as the famous from the past have been, but I doubt they will have an Exhibition Centre devoted to their lives and careers or public walking tours of their favourite haunts. Jane Austen does.
One of the many things that I have learned on this long jaunt through Turkey and Europe is how seriously the Europeans take the UNESCO World Heritage designation. It doesn’t matter if it’s a cave in the country celebrating a Palaeolithic site or the beautiful banks of the Seine in Paris or an entire city like Bath, that designation is regarded as pure gold and it is for the world sits up and pays attention, bringing tourists and affection from the most distant countries. This is a great thing for any city lucky enough to get a UNESCO designation.
Looking at the way, Ottawa has reacted to the designation of the Rideau Canal as a UNESCO World Heritage site, it is difficult to see how that designation will be retained once the conversion of the park into a shopping and housing complex begins. Lansdowne Park was originally built on an inlet of the Canal and since 1868 has been integral to the public urban landscape of the canal. It’s conversion will change the character of the banks of the waterway with a bus turnaround beside the canal, the loss of the heritage designation for the Horticulture building and the loss of historic sight lines and views of the Aberdeen Pavilion. Unless there are special rules for North American designations, I can’t see how we will keep the UNESCO designation in Ottawa.
photo by Neil Howard