We moved to Bath thirty-two years ago in 1986. We bought our first home here, a small apartment in a long Palladian terrace that was built in the late 1780s as a windbreak for the Royal Crescent.
We got married in the city. Later we bought a more modern house, built in 1870, on Beacon Hill, overlooking the heart of the city. We spent ten years in the house and then, in 2002, we decided that I should accept a one-year international assignment to Switzerland and we rented out our house for the duration.
The duration ended up being a little over sixteen years. They were good years. Switzerland treats its immigrant workers well.
Last month, we came back to Bath, to our old house, which now, like me, is older and showing signs of neglectful use. We’ve traded our view of the Alps and Lake Geneva, for the familiar, but still compelling, view over the city.
We are hip deep in all the all-but-overwhelming demands of moving: weeks without a car or an Internet connection or a landline, buried in boxes and things emptied out of boxes that have no home yet, constantly finding and deploying gardeners, tree surgeons, electricians, carpenters and plumbers to return the house and gardens to life.
I’m still at the point where I feel more like a newly arrived immigrant than a returning resident. When I moved to Bath from London it seemed a slow-moving spacious, lightly populated city. Now it seems crowded to me. With a population of 89,000 people, it has nearly five times as many people as my nearest big town in Switzerland but covers roughly the same space. Add in the tourists and the students and you get a constantly active mass of people that I’m finding it hard to adjust to.
Yet the people are friendly, aggression is low and humour is close to the surface.
As I walked through the main shopping street I saw a man wearing a MAGA redhat pushing a supermarket trolley and waving something in his hands. I was still disturbed by the idea of Trump supporters on Bath’s streets by the time I got close enough to see that the man was telling rolls of toilet paper with Trump’s face on every sheet, hawking his wares by shouting “Get your Trump bog roll. Make Toilet Paper Great Again” and I realised that his hat read MTAG not MAGA. He and the brisk trade he was doing, made me feel more at home.
The university has expanded massively, mostly with foreign students, while I’ve been away and what used to be the declining industrial area on the south side of the river has now been levelled and is being rebuilt as a mix of student and Bathonian housing in a confident modern style with an emphasis on pedestrian ways and good landscaping.
The older streets are all still there, mostly looking more prosperous and better cared for than when I left. The use of many of the buildings has changed. Breakfast and afternoon tea have become big business and some of Bath’s huge buildings that were once the home of antique shops and auction rooms, now sell coffee and cakes and vegetarian breakfasts, all with free wifi and cheerful young staff who smile and remember that they’ve seen you before and of course, they all speak English.
As I take a breath and let myself walk aimlessly, I’m falling in love with the city again. In the sunlight (a much rarer thing here than in Switzerland) the Bath stone buildings take on a honey-coloured glow. There are trees everywhere and buildings of all kinds of styles and ages rub along together on Bath’s hills like old friends.
Bath is more than just the city, it’s all the small communities around it. We live close to Larkhall, which used to be a free-standing village but has long since been swallowed by the town. It has a magnificent church with a spire visible from all Bath’s hills, a real butchers, a farm shop greengrocer, a pub, a tearoom, a Post Office/cornershop, a small supermarket, a restaurant and two takeaways. This pattern repeats across the city.
Moving up the hill, we get to Charlcombe, too small to be a village but with a fine church and a holy well that Jane Austin took a day trip out to. Less than two miles from Bath Abbey but it feels like the countryside.
So we’re back but starting again. I think it was the right thing to do. In Switzerland, we would always have been foreigners. Here the effect will eventually wear off.
Of course, beyond the horizons of the town lies the Brexit-blighted political and economic landscape of the UK. Some people thought we were crazy to return to the UK at this point. Maybe they’re right, but maybe now is the time to come home and try to make a difference.