The Sack of Bath by Adam Fergusson

One of the joys of a trip to London is a visit to the very lovely Persephone shop; however, that visit always creates its own problem in the form of making the decision as to which Persephone title(s) to buy! I last dropped in there in November, when I met up with some lovely ladies from the LibraryThing Virago Group and before travelling I spent a little time going through the books on their site to come up with a shortlist. And a book which intrigued me, and which I ended up getting, was “The Sack of Bath” by Adam Fergusson.

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On the surface of it, you might ask why a publisher which specialises in 20th century women’s fiction would bring out a book which looks at the wholesale destruction of a particular kind of architecture in that city. However, the city of Bath is a special one, and if for nothing else literary is remembered for its connection with Jane Austen. But as Fergusson’s book makes clear, the city had a rich cultural heritage, as well as an architectural one, and this short book is a passionate polemic aimed at those who were trying to destroy its individual character.

First published in 1973, “The Sack of Bath” was an attempt to bring the attention of the wider public (and indeed the world) to the fact that the authorities in Bath were undertaking a large-scale, wide-ranging demolition programme, bringing down buildings that although not Grade 1 listed, had immense historical significance. Much of the city itself had been built and developed in the Georgian style, and although the well-known and well-to-do streets were being preserved, the artisan dwellings and less prominent areas were being declared unfit and flattened to make way for large, incongruous Brutalist developments. The 1970s saw much of this kind of redevelopment, but in a city like Bath the new buildings sat very uncomfortably next to the old.

Beautiful endpaper design by John Piper

Beautiful endpaper design by John Piper

More to the point, the blind demolition of whole areas was altering the whole character of the city, which was losing its homogenous Georgian whole; and as Fergusson makes plain, much of this was development for development’s sake as it would have been just as cost-effective to upgrade the existing dwellings, therefore providing plenty of housing which was in the same style as the rest of Bath.

Fergusson is a strong and fierce champion of those who sprang up and formed local groups, trying to stop the destruction. And he makes a special case for the city being retained in its original form, pointing out that nothing is really irreparable, and that if you live in somewhere as special as Bath you have to take the consequences…

The point is that a damp house may have a damp course inserted; that an unfit house may be made fit; that those who live in and enjoy the beauties of an eighteenth-century town should not expect the amenities of Harlow New Town or Hemel Hempstead; and that if they want them that is where they must go and live.

Much of the problem seems to stem from the local authorities at the time having no real expertise or overview, and relying on a series of experts who really didn’t know what they were doing. And I have to say that Bath was not alone in having such changes made to it; I can recall the small town I lived in having its centre torn out and turned into a modern shopping centre, and the pictures of before and after are striking. However, this needs to be put in context; the post-WW2 years had seen a Britain that had been heavily bombarded with large areas destroyed or made difficult to live in. The country was striding into a brave new modern future, and the new kinds of architecture were part of that. I should declare here that I actually had something of a fondness for Brutalist structures and it’s ironic that so many of them are now being wiped out and replaced with modern buildings that look to me even more faceless and ugly.

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But that’s by the by; “The Sack of Bath” set out to do a specific job, and it certainly did that, bringing the fight for Bath’s heritage to national attention (and as an unexpected result making other parts of the country more aware of what was happening and inclined to take action to save buildings and areas). Bath itself was declared a World Heritage Site in 1987, though that in itself is not without problems and a quick look at the city’s Wikipedia page reveals that controversy about developments is still rumbling on.

The book itself is a short and fascinating read, capturing a moment in time when a call to action was made. It’s liberally illustrated with a large number of photographs, most notably several by Lord Snowdon, and these are an essential and integral part of the book, speaking just as eloquently as Fergusson’s prose. Although the book is slim and can be read in one sitting, it does make you think deeply about the bureaucracy and red tape in the country, the people we put in charge of making decisions and plans on our behalf, and also the constant trends in building and architecture. I do feel that there is a place for Brutalist architecture and but what’s quite certain is that Bath was not it!

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