Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Friday, 29th September – London (Bath)

One of the places we were both looking forward to visiting was Bath. We had planned to go while we were in the Cotswolds, but we found out that the Jane Austen festival was on that week, and even though we are both JA fans, we thought a town full of Janeites might be a bit much for dedicated crowd-avoiders like us. Instead we headed off by train from London. We were not intending to pre-book the train tickets, in case of bad weather, but that was before we found out how expensive British trains are! Pre-booking reduced the fare from ₤114 ($272) each (!!) to ₤45 ($107), so we didn’t really have much choice. So – surprise, surprise – the day dawned very wet, and really bucketed down most of the day. However, “there’s no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing”, so we remained resolutely cheerful and had a wonderful day.

First stop was Bath Abbey, said to be England’s last great medieval church (1499) and known for its stunning fan-vaulted ceiling and unusual stone carvings of angels ascending to heaven on a ladder. Some of them appear to be heading in the wrong direction, however. It also contains, we discovered, below an Australian flag, a memorial to Arthur Phillip, who died in Bath in 1814.

Next door to the Abbey are the famed Roman Baths, still today fed by the same underground spring and using the same plumbing that the Romans built so long ago. They had fallen into disrepair at the decline of the Roman Empire, and had become silted over. They were excavated in the 1880s and all sorts of interesting items were discovered, which are now very well displayed. For example evidence that the Romans believed that the earth was round. We enjoyed the exhibit, and then joined a (free!) guided tour of the Baths themselves. We weren’t going to, because we prefer to go at our own pace, but this particular guide was so good he got a spontaneous round of applause at the end. He completely transported us back to Roman times, and got so excited showing us various little grooves and markings in the stones, and what they meant, you couldn’t help getting caught up in his enthusiasm. A man who most definitely enjoys his work. We spent longer there than we intended, but it was worth it.

Attached to the Baths is the Pump Room, since 1795 a place for “taking the waters”. In Jane Austen’s novels, it is the place to go in Bath, so it was a bit of a pilgrimage for Shelley to be there, and we decided to splurge and stay there for lunch, under the watchful marble eyes of Beau Nash, who was master of ceremonies in Bath (1705-1761) and established it as an elegant Georgian destination. It’s a lovely stylish room, essentially unchanged since JA’s time, and the lunch was excellent. By the way – yes, we tasted the water, and yes, it was horrible!

“Every morning now brought its regular duties--shops were to be
visited; some new part of the town to be looked at; and the pump-room
to be attended, where they paraded up and down for an hour, looking at
everybody and speaking to no one.” Northanger Abbey,

By the time we left the Pump Room it was after 3pm, and we realized we weren’t going to “do” Bath in one day. We constantly have the conundrum of whether to see a few places in depth or push ourselves to see more. There are benefits either way, but our natural inclination is to immerse ourselves fully wherever we are, so that’s what tends to happen. Oh well, plenty to see when we go to Bath next time. In our defense, it really rained heavily while we were in the pump room, but stopped by the time we left, so it was time well spent. We had a pleasant walk past the magnificent Pulteney Bridge over the Avon River (said to be inspired by the Ponte Vecchio in Florence) up to the Royal Crescent, the address in Georgian times as it is today, and the Circus, both graceful curved terraces of grand houses reflecting the best in Georgian architecture. One of the houses is set up as a museum, but we’ll have to go there next time. Nearby is the Assembly Rooms (aka the Upper Rooms), the hub of the Bath social calendar in the 18th century, where they held balls, card parties and musical evenings. Very elegant, beautifully restored (there wasn’t much of it left after the Blitz). It also houses a museum of costume – fashion through the centuries, some amazingly well-preserved outfits hundreds of years old, and some pretty ordinary modern ones!

By then it was 5.30 and we had missed out on the Jane Austen Centre, but finally the sun was shining so we just enjoyed walking around the streets. We strolled along a path by the river which was really pretty and caught the train back to London (after a “cream tea” in the pub near the station). Another exhausting but very enjoyable day. We must be getting fitter, we are walking for literally hours every day.