A short visit to Bath, England creates lasting memories of both the uniformity of the cream-colored buildings and the diversity of the city’s historical contributions, including the nearly 2,000-year-old Roman Baths, Bath Abbey, Georgian-era architecture, and Bath’s culture. Yet for many of us, Bath’s most compelling legacy is the 5-year reluctant residence of Jane Austen. And considering the role of tea rituals in each of her novels, Bath offered a fitting venue for combining this beloved author with our pursuit of tea and scones.
By using Bath as a setting in Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, Jane Austen (1775-1817) forever linked herself with the city. At the same time that these novels bring Bath to life for readers, they also suggest some unfavorable opinions of the city. Her letters provide additional insight into these opinions, while the other four novels, which all include at least one mention of Bath, further hint at Jane Austen’s feelings through the characters associated with the references to Bath (Wickham, Willoughby, the Eltons).
Without hiding from these feelings, Bath has embraced Jane Austen and built a tourism industry around her. The Jane Austen Centre at 40 Gay Street preserves Jane Austen’s presence in Bath through guided walking tours, a permanent exhibition, gift shop, tea room, and the annual Jane Austen Festival (the next festival is September 12-21, 2014).
We began our Austen-related sightseeing with the Walking Tour of Jane Austen’s Bath. The tour starts in the Abbey Churchyard at 11:00 a.m. on Saturdays, Sundays, and bank holidays. (The website lists the cost as £12, although I don’t remember it being that expensive in 2013.)
Just prior to the start of our tour, a cold and relentless rain began. With one partially broken umbrella to cover us both, this was not how we had envisioned our Jane Austen journey. Fortunately our tour guide was delightful and accommodating, trying to find covered spots for us to stand wherever possible while keeping us entertained by reading scenes from the books, providing details about Bath society during Jane Austen’s time, and sharing stories about the Austen family, including the shoplifting scandal involving Jane Austen’s aunt, Jane Leigh-Perrot. (Visit the Jane Austen Centre’s website for an article about the scandal.)
Our tour guide had a special fondness for Northanger Abbey, and shortly after beginning the tour, he brought us to the Pump Room, now a restaurant, and explained its significance for Catherine Morland (visit Jane Austen’s World to learn more).
The rest of the tour was outside. Even though better weather would have been welcome, the tour guide was a fine companion and effective in sharing his perspective on the era and recreating scenes from the books. Perhaps because of the rain, the tour extended slightly past the scheduled 90 minutes before ending at the Jane Austen Centre, which is located a few doors down from what is now a dental office at 25 Gay Street, where the Austens lived for about 6 months following the death of Jane’s father.
Inside the Jane Austen Centre, there are three places to visit. On the ground floor is a delightful gift shop. The main section of the Jane Austen Centre is the permanent exhibition. Before entering the exhibition, a costumed staff member gives a 10-minute talk about Jane Austen, and while some of the information was shared during the walking tour, one can never hear enough about Jane Austen. While the exhibition is not large, the displays include many interesting objects and details relating to Jane Austen, the books, her family life, and the era, society, and culture that would have influenced her. (Exhibition fee is £8. We received a 10% discount because we had been on the walk.)
Finally, on the second floor (Americans would call it the third floor) there is the Regency Tea Room. Not that we saved it for the end. After almost 2 hours of walking in the cold rain, we deferred our visit to the gift shop and exhibition in favor of the tea room.
The Regency Tea Room offers lunch items and other treats, but we were there for afternoon tea (click here for the menu). Dorene selected the traditional Ladies Afternoon Tea (tea, finger sandwiches, and a scone). My selection was Tea with the Austens. Along with a better name, Tea with the Austens included a piece of cake instead of a scone. I would have enjoyed a scone, but the cakes were on display behind Dorene’s seat, and the chocolate cake looked irresistible.
- Tea – There was a good selection of tea, and we both chose the Jane Austen Blend, “a light blend of China black teas popular in Regency times.”
- Sandwiches – They were nicely prepared and included cucumber, ham with mustard, smoked salmon, and cheddar with chutney. The smoked salmon and cheddar with chutney were especially good.
- Scone – The scone was very good, of substantial size, with no sweetness (a good thing), and served with ample clotted cream and jam. Notice the jam and cream are missing from the picture above. Dorene had to request them.
- Decor – There were two rooms with hardwood floors and red walls above white paneling. The larger room had windows, a fireplace, and a portrait of Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy. The smaller room by the entrance had just a few tables, the cake display, and the cash register. This is the room we were in.
- Service – The staff was pleasant and friendly but also seemed frazzled. In addition to forgetting the cream and jam, our waitress spilled my tea while pouring it.
- Atmosphere – Because we were near the cash register and the entrance, the activity of the staff was visible to us. There was a mildly heated discussion between two of the waitresses, which created tension in the room. The weather could have affected their moods, but we were distracted, and the tea room’s charm was diminished for us.
- Overall Rating
After years and years of reading and re-reading Jane Austen, I had hoped that the Regency Tea Room would transport me to another era. This didn’t happen. Perhaps with lovely weather and a seat in the room dominated by Mr. Darcy’s gaze, the experience may have been different. At least the tea, sandwiches, and especially the chocolate cake were wonderful.
The ultimate destination for a Jane Austen pilgrimage is the village of Chawton in Hampshire County where Jane Austen lived from 1809-1817. Since our visit to England would lead us in the opposite direction, Bath needed to suffice, and while the experience could have been better, overall this Jane Austen journey did suffice.
The walking tour did not travel to all of the Jane Austen sites, so we visited several places on our own, including another Austen residence and the site of her father’s tombstone.
The Austens lived in a few different buildings in Bath, with their longest residence at 4 Sydney Place near what is now the Holburne Museum. The building is privately owned and can be viewed only from the outside.
During our walking tour we learned that Jane Austen’s father was buried in St. Swithin’s Church, which is just north of the tourist section of Bath, but still within walking distance, with a slight uphill climb. The following day while in the area of the Assembly Rooms (more on those in a subsequent post), we decided on a whim to visit St. Swithin’s.
We thought the tour guide had said that George Austen was buried inside the church, so when we found the church locked, our side trip had seemingly ended. Then a church member arrived a few moments later and offered assistance. She did not know where George Austen was buried, but she let us enter the church to look around. Scanning the plaques on the walls with no success, we had little hope of finding anything.
As consolation, the woman showed us a replica of the 1764 marriage record of George and Cassandra Austen. The church had been torn down and rebuilt several years after their marriage in order to accommodate Bath’s growing population, but church records were retained. The church was also known as Walcot Church or the parish of Walcot, which used to be a hamlet just outside of Bath and is now part of the city. George Austen once served as curate of Walcot.
Joined by a second church member, who also did not know where to direct us, the first woman ended up calling someone who solved the mystery. The tombstone was outside in the small yard on the side of the church. We had arrived from the opposite side and had not seen the yard.
Originally George Austen’s tombstone was in the crypt, but it was moved outside in 1968, and the memorial plaque was added in 2000.
There is a more proper way to visit St. Swithin’s. The inside of the church is open to the public during the summer months on Wednesdays from 11:00-3:00. There’s also a crypt café open Wednesday through Sunday (visit the website for more details and some history about the church). As two clueless tourists, we were most fortunate to encounter such kindness from a stranger and bring an unexpected yet fitting end to our Jane Austen journey.