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A changing view: Scenes from Beechen Cliff

While firmly established as Bath’s literary heroine, Jane Austen was not the city’s biggest fan. Andrew Swift recreates one of her walks and tries to work out why she was so unimpressed by a view over the city from Beechen Cliff

A guidebook to Bath published just over a century ago advised new visitors in the city to head for “the famous Beechen Cliff view which has ever afforded delight and surprise to the stranger,” adding that, “from this precipitous brow the marvellous view of the city is brought within optical range with a suddenness that partakes of the dramatic.”

Today, however, Beechen Cliff is surprisingly little frequented. It may be one of the richest things that Bath has to offer, but its delights are shared by only the discerning few. Jane Austen, the tutelary deity of Bath’s tourist industry, may be partly responsible for this, having made Catherine Morland, the heroine of Northanger Abbey, climb its slopes only to reject “the whole city of Bath as unworthy to make part of a landscape.”

Our walk for November is an attempt to recreate that fictional excursion, taken in 1797 or thereabouts, and to figure out why she was so unimpressed.

Starting off

The first part of her walk from Great Pulteney Street was ‘along the side of the river’, so we start by going down steps at the east end of Pulteney Bridge and heading south past the open space where boats leave for the trip upstream.

The view here has changed beyond recognition. At either end of the weir – which then ran diagonally across the river – stood a mill. On her left, Catherine would have seen Spring Gardens, Bath’s original pleasure gardens, then in the twilight of its popularity. Beyond them lay green fields. On the right bank where Parade Gardens stands today were walks laid out almost 90 years earlier by Thomas Harrison, the proprietor of Bath’s first assembly rooms.

Until North Parade Bridge was built in 1836, North Parade ended at the river. After going under the bridge, you will see steps leading down from South Parade. They served a ferry which closed after the bridge opened. Beyond South Parade, however, there was nothing except fields on both sides of the river.

After going under the railway bridge, built-in 1841, and crossing the canal, you come to Widcombe. Turn right along the road, cross the dual carriageway at the second set of pedestrian lights, and turn right and then left to head up Lyncombe Hill.

A changing view

The next steps

In 1797, this area was undeveloped and Catherine could have struck out across the open country to climb Beechen Cliff. The shortest route today is up a steep and narrow flight of steps with very little in the way of views.

A pleasanter option is to carry on up Lyncombe Hill, past a succession of Regency villas and terraces, with views eastward through the gaps between them.

When you reach the crossroads at the end, turn right up Greenway Lane, and after 75 metres go through a handgate on the right. As you walk up the track directly ahead, you can enjoy glimpses over the wide combe from which Widcombe got its name, until the trees close in and you are left with the illusion of being in the heart of the country. Follow the track as it curves away from the hedge, climbing the field towards a kissing gate in the top corner. Just before you reach it, turn to take a last look back. Although you are less than a mile from the city centre, the only building visible is Prior Park, high in the hills.

Go through the kissing gate and turn left into Alexandra Park, where a viewing platform commands the prospect dismissed so peremptorily by Catherine Morland. The buildings below bear little relation to those she would have seen, of course, but an even greater transformation has taken place on the cliff itself. In 1797, this was a breezy down with only an occasional tree. Today, trees predominate, with only occasional gaps through which to enjoy the view.

The view

Catherine rejected the view because it was unpicturesque – in other words because it did not look like a picture and in particular the landscape paintings in vogue at the time, where trees invariably framed the scene.

As you continue along the edge of the escarpment, the view disappears, until, after 75 metres, the path curves right, and a gap in the trees provides the frame for a view which seems too perfect to be fortuitous – the railway curving across a bend in the river and leading the eye onward, with Bathampton Down to the right, Little Solsbury to the left, and the hills of Wiltshire in the distance. Here, although many of its elements would have seemed quite incomprehensible in 1797, is a view that is indubitably picturesque.

A little further along, you come to a viewing platform commanding a view with the foreground dominated by the Southgate shopping centre. A much finer view can be found a little further on, but it is easy to miss. As you continue along the path, with houses on your left, look to your right after 100m to see the Royal Crescent and the hills beyond, with the intervening buildings, blotted out by massed trees.

Apart from that, there are just stray glimpses, until you come to a toposcope presented to the council by Cedric Chivers in 1928. Several of the buildings marked on it have been lost to bombs or bulldozers. Several more, though, is hidden by the trees that so picturesquely frame the view.

A changing view

A little further on you pass a viewing platform without a view – all that the trees frame here are more trees. Just beyond it, the path swings right down a flight of steps to Magdalen Gardens, a pocket park opened in 1902 and recently restored by a team of volunteers after years of neglect. It overlooks Holloway, the old road into Bath from the south, and the chapel of St Mary Magdalen, founded in the 11th century.

Follow the path through the park, and bear right up steps to follow a path through the woods. After crossing a flight of steps, carry on past the site of ruined cottages until you come to a clearing with a newly installed information board. If you look up to the right you will see the skeletal remains of an Anderson shelter.

Continue along the track through the woods, and, after steps lead down to a patch of grass, bear right to a road, head down to a T-junction and turn right along Alexandra Road. At the end, turn left down Lyncombe Hill, continue across two sets of pedestrian lights and cross a footbridge over the river. After going through a tunnel under the railway station, head along Manvers Street to return to the starting point.

Walk fact file

– Distance: 2.5 miles
– Time: 2 hours
– Level of challenge: Straightforward, but with tracks through fields and woods which may be muddy, and steep steps and paths down from Beechen Cliff

Two longer walks featuring Beechen Cliff are included in Andrew Swift’s Country Walks from Bath, available from bookshops or direct from akemanpress.com