Getting Stone(d) in Bath: When a Natural Resource Gains Heritage Status
Becca Lo Presti, WPAMC ’24
The city of Bath in the UK has an almost jarringly yellow look (fig.1). For over a millenia, the built environment of this UNESCO-designated heritage site has been synonymous with a particular type of pale yellow local limestone (of the Great Oolite Group for the geologists in the crowd).1 The aptly-called Bath Stone has come to hold significant material and immaterial meaning to the city. When and how does a natural resource like stone become a heritage material?
Amy Frost, our fantastic Bath tour guide and curator of the Bath Preservation Trust, described Bath Stone as the “palette” of materials used to construct and maintain the city. I quite like this framework, as it encapsulates how much function and aesthetics can be intertwined when defining a constructed area. Bath Stone is local to the region; its earliest use was likely motivated by a combined appreciation for the qualities of the limestone and the practicality of sourcing nearby resources. It played an integral role in the Roman Baths, which were believed to glean their purported restorative powers from similar limestone reservoirs (fig. 2).
By the early eighteenth century, Bath Stone began to be used more strategically and deliberately in design. This is when the iconic Palladian and Georgian buildings of Bath were constructed using the distinctive buttery-yellow rock. Such construction occurred as the British landscape truly began to take shape, designed by selective elites with the influence and privilege to manipulate their environment. Now, Bath Stone carried connotations of class and status as an influx of Royal and wealthy residents flocked to the new buildings. However, the locality of Bath Stone remained the same – the color and texture of the limestone was still very much synonymous with the city. While a significant amount of construction from this era was destroyed during World War II, the burgeoning historic preservation movement in England worked to restore Bath to this particular time of sprawling yellow Georgian facades (fig. 3).
The preservation of Bath worked well enough to earn the status of a UNESCO Heritage site, although this was almost lost in the early 2000s when an advent of new construction threatened the highly curated aesthetic of the historic city. According to UNESCO, the imbued meaning of Bath Stone – determined to be heritage in this case – could be put in jeopardy when it interacted with other, newer materials. Clearly, the meaning given to the Bath Stone was something that could just as easily be taken away. The Bath Preservation Trust now serves not only as the gatekeepers of Bath Stone, but also as advocates for the future stewardship of the material.2 This proves more difficult as the stone reduces in availability and mining threatens already-existing structures. In contrast to impermeability we perceive rocks to have, the future of Bath Stone is precarious and contested. What are the risks of putting an entire city’s heritage behind a limited resource?
The city of Bath uniquely sources several identities from its natural resources. The local limestone brings color, construction, texture, and magic (if the Bath springs are to be believed) to the built environment, while also becoming a protector of the past. Stones are an essential yet enigmatic component to our studies that challenge the defined boundaries of natural resources, materials, and objects – and excitingly, Bath Stone is no exception in its multitudinous meanings.
1 Marker, Brian. “Bath Stone and Purbeck Stone: A comparison in terms of criteria for Global Heritage Stone Resource Designation.” Episodes; International Union of Geological Sciences 38, no. 2 (2015): 118-123.
2 City of Bath World Heritage Site Steering Group.“Management Plan 2016-2022.” The City of Bath World Heritage Site. Submitted to Bath and North East Somerset Council’s Full Council on September 15, 2016. https://dev.bathworldheritage.org.uk/management-plan.