A guide to Weird and Wonderful Bath

By Jon Price

From the grand Georgian facades lining the city streets, to the ancient Roman bath complexes that give this gorgeous Somerset town its name, Bath is steeped in history and legend – which means there’s often much more than meets the eye.

Here’s a handful of tall tales and quirky facts about the city which may surprise you, from corpses unearthed beneath religious landmarks to the bizarre backstories behind some of the city’s historic houses and famous residents.

A new planet discovered in an astronomer’s back garden

Today, visitors to Bath often stumble across the Herschel Museum of Astronomy entirely by accident, but this small side street attraction plays a much larger role in scientific history than some might think. Dedicated to the many musical and astronomical accomplishments of the 18th century Herschel family, this museum marks the spot where the existence of the seventh planet from the sun, Uranus, was first discovered in 1781.

German would-be astronomer William Herschel (whose former home now doubles up as the museum) first moved to Bath in 1766 with hopes of becoming a professional musician. Years later, he developed an obsession for gazing out at the night sky, turned his house into a telescopic workshop and discovered a whole new planet from his back garden. He was also the first person to pinpoint new dimensions of the Milky Way and critical, previously unknown facts about Saturn’s rings. Visit the museum to discover the full story.   

A monstrous literary classic brought to life in Bath

It’s a relatively little-known fact that English novelist Mary Shelley was inspired by her harsh times in the beautiful city of Bath to finally complete her iconic gothic novel, “Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus”, in the early 19th century.

Most people presume that Shelley penned the entire book in Switzerland during a writers’ retreat at the Villa Diodati near Lake Geneva, where Lord Byron, Percy Shelley and the then-Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin challenged each other to write ghost stories during a wet summer in 1816. In reality, however, the great female writer started “Frankenstein” in Switzerland but finished the novel in a boarding house in Bath, inspired by traumatic family events such as the suicide of her half-sister Fanny, who lived in nearby Swansea. Today, a commemorative plaque stands just outside the Pump Room and Roman Baths as a tribute to Shelley’s legacy.   

Thousands of dead bodies found underneath Bath Abbey

Rising high above the city skyline, Bath Abbey is one of the Somerset region’s most commanding sights – and has been architectural landmark and place of pilgrimage for generations. A site of Christian worship of some kind has stood on this spot for more than 1,000 years, but recent excavations suggest that throughout history, the Abbey has attracted thousands of visitors who had already encountered the Lord’s light long before their arrival.

In 2011, the remains of some 6,000 human bodies were unearthed beneath the Abbey’s floor, thought to date back to the mid-19th century. Historians and archaeologists believe that corpses were interred here in swathes until space became too tight and the burials had to stop. As bodies decomposed, voids were formed underneath the Abbey’s stone floors – leading to this glorious landmark effectively collapsing in on itself slowly over time. According to recent reports, work is still underway to carry out important underground repairs.   

A celebrity aunt wrongfully accused

Bath is home to literary legend Jane Austen, whose astonishing life and accomplishments can be explored in intimate detail at The Jane Austen Centre over on Gay Street. However, the peculiar story of the great novelist’s aunt, who lived nearby at No.1 The Paragon back in the 18th century, is often kept under wraps.

Jane Leigh-Perrot was considered a wealthy, well-to-do local citizen back in the late 1700s, but on 8 August 1799, a slip-up in a supermarket in the nearby town of Taunton had potentially deadly implications for Jane Austen’s once-respected aunt. Reports suggest that Mrs Leigh-Perrot purchased some black lace for £1 9s (one pound and nine shillings) but upon leaving was accused by store owner Elizabeth Gregory of shoplifting. A quick check of her bags revealed more than what she had paid for and landed her in front of magistrates – where she potentially faced the death penalty or exile to Australia for her alleged misdeeds. Facing the court, the family claimed that Jane Austen’s unfortunate aunt had been set up and subjected to an extortion attempt. The jury found her not guilty after just 15 minutes, but Mrs Leigh-Perrot nevertheless wound up spending a few months in prison ahead of the trial, where reports suggest she was allowed to live relatively comfortably with her husband in the gaoler’s house and accept visitors, due to her high status.

A Rastafarian enclave with Ethiopian roots

Fairfield House in the Bath suburb of Newbridge is a Victorian villa that stands as an important landmark to culture and diversity in the city, once housing one of the key proponents of the Rastafari movement in the UK.

Between 1936 and 1940, the house served as the residence of the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, who was rescued by the Royal Navy during his exile, when Ethiopia was invaded by the Italians during the Italo-Ethiopian War. Haile Selassie continued to serve as Emperor until 1974 and this important world leader made the West Country his home for several years, fleeting regularly between Bath and the Somerset coastal town of Weston-Super-Mare. To this day, Fairfield House is revered by the Rastafarian community and a blue plaque sits outside reminding visitors of Selassie’s influence.   

Image by Foxy_ from Pixabay