By Angela Youngman
On a recent visit to Bath, I was strolling along the river towards Pulteney Bridge when something jogged my memory. It looked very familiar and yet different at the same time. Naturally curious, I did some research and found that this spot has some intriguing literary connections. Built in 1770, the bridge is unusual. Designed by Robert Adam during the town’s period of Georgian splendour, the bridge was designed to link the old town with the new suburb of Bathgate. Unlike most bridges – once on it you cannot see the river! It was deliberately designed to resemble the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, and has shops across the full span on both sides. Only by going behind the bridge or looking at from the river can you appreciate the architecture.
Walking along the little alley leading up to the supermarket, you get a good view of the back of the bridge and see the shops hanging out over the river flowing sedately below. It was this scene, which was recreated by writer and illustrator James Gurnley for his Dinotopia series. Jane Austen lived near here for several months when the family rented a house at No 4 Sydney Place. She had to cross the bridge each day on her way to the shops in Milsom street, or when visiting the Abbey, Pump Room and Assembly Rooms. The former Sydney Hotel located near the bridge was the site of numerous public breakfasts and dances that Jane attended regularly. Her life on this side of the river was her favourite time in Bath, as it gave her access to the open spaces that she loved so much.
Jane would instantly recognise the scene as you cross the bridge. It has not changed much since her day. The shops quickly give way to elegant residential, Georgian buildings leading down to the Holburne Museum and the Sydney Gardens. In a letter to Cassandra, Jane wrote ‘it would be very pleasant to be near Sydney Gardens – we might go into the Labyrinth every day’. Opened to the public in May 1795, the gardens were the place to walk and be seen. The building (now known as the Holburne Museum) had a long room suitable for country dancing and where visitors could stroll in bad weather. Firework displays were a speciality. In 1799, Jane wrote to Cassendra “we did not go till nine and then were in very good time for the Fire-Works which were really beautiful and surpassing my expectations – the illuminations too were very pretty’.
The weir just below the river has a very striking design. Rebuilt in the 1970’s, it has a three tier, stepped crescent design, which creates the appearance of a continuous series of waterfalls along the entire span of the weir. It is this scene which has become familiar to film goers worldwide – yet many will not immediately recognise it.
At the end of the film Les Miserables, Javert is shown perched on a parapet desperately trying to come to terms with conflicting images of justice. He eventually commits suicide by jumping into the River Seine. When the film was shot, the spectacular weir at Pulteney Bridge was used for the scene. Cinematic techniques were used to superimpose the skyline of nineteenth century Paris behind the bridge parapet. The actual filming shot was taken from the wall on the Abbey side of the river where there is a flat, broad parapet overlooking the weir.
Angela Youngman is a writer and journalist with numerous books linking travel and literary/film sites. She is the author of Discovering Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables and Jane Austen: The Writer, the Story, and Places to go