steepholm (steepholm) wrote,
steepholm
steepholm

Port Esquiline

I'm not sure why this pleases me, but it does. I read Smollett's Humphrey Clinker many years ago, long before I moved to Bristol, and over that time I've forgotten almost everything about it. Everything, that is, except for one scene that takes place early in the book at a West Country spa, where a doctor embarrasses the assembled company with an impromptu lecture on olfactory hypocrisy, including the following passage:

He had reason to believe the stercoraceous flavour, condemned by prejudice as a stink, was, in fact, most agreeable to the organs of smelling; for, that every person who pretended to nauseate the smell of another's excretions, snuffed up his own with particular complacency; for the truth of which he appealed to all the ladies and gentlemen then present.

Why that stuck with me in particular, I leave to others to speculate. Anyway, over the years I'd assumed that this scene took place in Bath, Bath being the only West Country spa I was then aware of. However, it turns out that it's actually set in the Hot Well in Bristol (today an area known as Hotwells), which in the eighteenth century set up as Bath's never-quite-as-successful rival, between Clifton and the River Avon - more or less underneath where the Suspension Bridge is currently. Indeed, the Avon plays an important part in the scene, for in the days before the Victorians put in proper drains our tidal river (like most city rivers) doubled as an open sewer, which fact prompted the good doctor's lecture in the first place:

My uncle was complaining of the stink, occasioned by the vast quantity of mud and slime which the river leaves at low ebb under the windows of the Pumproom. He observed, that the exhalations arising from such a nuisance, could not but be prejudicial to the weak lungs of many consumptive patients, who came to drink the water.

The Avon is still highly productive of mud and slime, but these days I'm glad to say that it smells lovely.
Tags: books, bristol
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