Welcome to Bath: just sink in and nod off

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There were two stories on the front of the Bath Chronicle, Bath's daily paper, last Thursday. One said "Princess Anne visits Bath" and, as if to prove it, there was a photograph of her getting out of a car and shaking hands with some silvery-haired local dignitary, prior to entering the Guildhall to address a meeting. "Dozens of police had been brought in to line her route and keep security tight," the story ran. They had done their job rather too well, it seems. It was clear from the photograph that not only were there no crowds to see Princess Anne, but there were no onlookers either. Not even a policeman was in sight lining the route, except for the plainclothes man holding the royal car door open. The rest of the street scene was innocent of humanity. The Princess Royal might as well have been getting out in the middle of the country to stretch her legs for all the attention it provoked. Princess Anne's visit had been greeted by Bath with a lack of deference that one can only call apathy.

The other story was headed "Last-ditch bid to restore spas".

Bath is making a last-ditch pounds 5m bid, said the text, to restore Bath's famous spas to their former glory. The deadline for bids falls on Monday, and represents the city's final chance to get Millennium Commission funding for the spas. A previous bid for lottery money had failed, but this time council officers are hopeful they have got it right ...

Both stories, quite by accident, illustrate the kind of complacent inertia that typifies Bath more than most similar cities. When I first came to live near Bath 10 years ago, I was told by an inhabitant that I should beware most of all of falling prey to inertia. "Bath sits in a saucer between high hills," he told me, "and the air sinks down and sits heavy at the bottom of the saucer - it affects everyone in Bath, and it seems very difficult to get enough energy going to do anything ..." He would have said more, but he sank into a soporific silence.

This seemed rather fanciful to me at the time, but I have come to feel he may have been right. I have since discovered it is not a new idea. When Jan Morris lived in Bath 20 years ago, she sometimes felt the same. "When the weather is wrong," she wrote, "or the mood jars, even the splendours of the place go sour. Then the honey-gold turns to grey, the hills look drab and lifeless, the young people seem to disappear from the streets, and Bath seems despondently sunk in its muggy valley - its sulphurous pit, as Pope called it.

"Bath," thought Jan Morris on reflection, "often has a sadness to it ... I myself attribute the sensation to an unfulfilment in Bath. Since the end of the 18th century, and the departure of the fashionable to newer and racier resorts, Bath has never recaptured its purpose - or rather, the particular purpose the Georgians gave it, and for which their glories were designed. Bath is only a bourgeois Somerset town, dressed like a capital."

There is certainly still a lack of nerve, a lack of will, about Bath. The town was built upon its warm and bubbling waters, upon its role as a spa, a place of recreation and healing, yet the place seems fatally unable to get its act together to reopen its watery facilities. Never mind a last-ditch attempt to reopen as a spa - this year, Bath's only public swimming pool has been closed during the whole summer, because of cock- eyed planning and past incompetence. Yes, a city built on water cannot give its visitors a spa treatment or its residents a swim. Something wrong, surely.

Bath does, as Jan Morris said, have a museum feeling. You can find an open-top tour bus any time you like in the centre of Bath. But you cannot find a hardware shop to buy screws or nails. It's much safer, for that, to go out to an outlying village such as Larkhall, to the splendid Langridge's Hardware Shop, and not look in Bath at all.

And it was there last week, on the very day that Princess Anne had visited Bath unnoticed and the last-ditch spa bid was announced yet again, that I went to the Rondo Theatre in Larkhall and saw a splendid play about the incompetence and arrogance of Bath City on stage, which, if I were mayor of Bath, I would immediately sue for slander and defamation, before having the author detained and the actors flung in jail.

Full and fearless details of this extraordinary production tomorrow.

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