Bath is surrounded by hills, and if you look up at the hills to the east from the Abbey you may be able to make out a castle on the horizon. It’s not really a castle – or rather, it’s a castle in name only.
The eighteenth century was the time when Bath had its second heyday (the first having been in Roman times) as the spa town of choice for the great and good. Much of the modern city was built then, including the architectural gems that are The Circus and the Royal Crescent. It was also a time for the building of follies – buildings intended solely for decoration, and often built to look like they were older than they actually were. The ‘castle’ above Bath is such a building.
It is a sham by name as well as by nature, for its name is the Sham Castle, and it was built in 1762 at the orders of Ralph Allen, a man who had much to do with the building of Georgian Bath for it was he who owned the quarries from which Bath Stone – the honey-coloured oolitic limestone which was the principal building-material for Bath and which gives the city, a World Heritage Site, its distinctive appearance – was taken. Ralph Allen was (also) the man who put up the money for the Royal Mineral Water Hospital (now the Royal National Hospital for Rheumatic Diseases), and who had Prior Park built in the hills to the south-east; both of those buildings, as well as much else of Georgian Bath, were designed by John Wood the Elder, considered to be one of the finest architects of his day.
The Sham Castle is not one of John Wood’s creations – in fact, it was built several years after his death. Like quite a few of his moneyed contemporaries, Ralph Allen apparently wanted to improve the view from his house (his town-house in Bath in this particular case) and so commissioned this folly to be built on the horizon. Nowadays, it is on the Bath Skyline Walk, a six-mile walk around the hills and valleys to the east and south-east of Bath itself (maybe I should set myself the task of walking it when the weather gets better). On one of my many trips to Bath, I decided to go and take a closer look.
Yes it was January and so somewhat muddy, but up I went anyway, through a kissing-gate and along the path through a field, so steep that steps had been put there. Before the castle itself I came across a bunker of some sort, brick not concrete, in which were the remnants of a fire and a few empty beer-bottles. And, then, just beyond the bunker through the trees, I saw it.
It – the Sham Castle of Bath – consists of a screen wall with a central arch (pointed, not round) flanked by two three-storey round towers and, at either end, two two-storey square towers. That, really, is all there is to it – its purpose was to look like a castle on a hill for those who, like Ralph Allen, could be bothered to look up from the city centre.
One of the windows has an inscription noting that the Sham Castle was restored in 1921, at which point it became the property of the City of Bath (a borough since the time of Alfred the Great and a city without a cathedral for, historically important as Bath Abbey is, it has never been a cathedral although the local diocese is called Bath & Wells).
For some reason I had thought that the Sham Castle might have an inner staircase enabling one to climb it, but on closer inspection I found that not to be the case; round the back, that part that was not intended to be seen, the two square towers look as though they once had entrances that have long been bricked up (probably when the restoration job of 1921 was done). It looks as though this may have been the case with the inner towers as well, although all that remains there is a small door at the bottom of one of them, and that was locked.
I don’t doubt that, given a decent pair of climbing-shoes and sufficient ability, you could find enough finger-holds and toe-holds in the brickwork where the mortar has worn away to enable you to climb up the outside, and I equally don’t doubt that someone at some time has done just that; had I been fifteen or so years younger and a couple of stone lighter, I might have been tempted to have a go myself.
But I contented myself with squelching through the mud, walking under the central arch and checking out the view of Bath; somewhat obscured, for there was plenty of mist in the valley of the Avon that day, but I could just about make out the Abbey. Another folly visited, I then made my way down to the city.