Day 13: London, Bath


Day 13 Photos (128)

Day 13 Video   Guitar Busker in Bath

Early breakfast and off to London Fields (getting to be very familiar) and tube to our train out of Paddington on tickets we bought online the night before. Glorious day for traveling—sunny and warm. Arriving in Bath early afternoon, we walked on Henry Street and other side streets to the Abbey and beyond, getting a feel for the very special atmosphere of this mostly Georgian-era city. Beau Nash, a true dandy of his time, single-handedly created and enforced England’s first “manners” as he and others in the 18th century developed Bath into the Las Vegas of its time. But the history, of course, reaches back to Roman times. Once we’d gotten our bearings, we walked back to the bus station close to the train station and boarded the next local for Wells, a 30-minute ride to the southwest. With all the places we visited and the dates on which we were traveling, the ONLY opportunity to hear Evensong in a major cathedral (which was one of my gotta-do’s), was this Monday evening, Sept 7 at 5pm in Wells. So to Wells we were going!

We chatted with folks on the bus, including two drifters and a dog…the young man called himself “a gypsy” --we took to mean maybe getting a handout from home but wandering on his own. His companion was vaping at the back of the bus, and Hank asked whether that wasn’t considered smoking and therefore banned on the bus. The answer, “It should be banned” came with a shrug. The dog was very well behaved.

The scenery was again mostly agricultural and we were now entering the southern edge of the Cotswolds so the rolling hills dominated the horizon. Every once in a while up popped a folly or a small castle, or chapel-like structure nestled among villages and fields. It doesn’t matter that we’d seen all this is movies and read about it for years, it was magical and mystical and utterly mundane all at the same time. Something inexplicable about breathing the air and hearing the sounds and listening to the voices to make it REAL for yourself. Nothing else manages to do that.

One of the locals, a lady in a flame red woolen coat, told us to get off a few stops before the cathedral and walk down the hill. She was so right…we went along cobbled streets and passed a few students wearing polo shirts with “Wells Cathedral School” logo. One of only 5 musical schools established for school-age children in the UK.  Turned a corner to the left and bam! – there was the cathedral gloriously showered in mid-afternoon sun. Breath-taking.

Wells is touted as the smallest city in England. How it rates this cathedral is a long story of power and its consolidation. We wanted to learn about it but were really hungry and it wasn’t easy finding a place to eat at 3pm…but we landed at Pickwick’s and they graciously (because they weren’t really open) fixed us paninis that will from now on rate as the panini gold standard with us. We wolfed them down and took their last two scones for later, and walked a few blocks to visit the Bishop’s Palace before going inside the cathedral. We checked with a docent whether it would be better to go climb the cathedral tower or tour the palace in the short time we had. He noted that ever since a woman fell 30 feet and was trapped between walls in the bell tower in 2014, they had cancelled all tower tours. She was airlifted with injuries in a rescue complicated by the turrets and tight spaces. So we went to the palace…  

Sixty Bishops have lived here since 1206, holding office as Bishop of Bath and Wells…an interesting bit of news since we were going to explore Bath the next day.  There have been people here since long before the palace and cathedral were built, drawn by the free-flowing irrigation from the wells.  However, it was the Palace (1206) and the cathedral built just before it that increased the political importance of the area.

The palace is simply grand outside, with its moat and walls you can walk, and the ancient well springs that gave this area its name. Henry VIII wanted the lead in the roof over the grand hall and so there are majestic ruins of that edifice, with grass growing lush where the Bishops’ dinner guests banqueted. And trees of over 400 years' majesty dot the greens: walnut, yew, and gingko.

The water works that were constructed to channel the spring water so that flooding abated are still in operation and a community garden takes advantage of the runoff just outside the palace. Inside are historic vestments in display cases and the Bishop’s Chair, as well as a gallery of paintings of the most important Bishops to hold court here. Even the restrooms were impressive with their vaulted columns.

We walked through a connecting archway, in which beggars historically asked for alms of the high and mighty passing between the two structures of power.  The interior of Wells Cathedral is every bit as impressive to the eye as the outside. We had only 15 minutes to take in what we could, and were most struck with the amazing swooping arches of the central aisle, and the inviting lightness of the interior. Getting in line with about 30 others who wanted to experience Evensong in this amazing space, we could hear the choir warming up. Tonight it was to be a Boy’s Choir together with a Vicars' Choir. We were ushered into the quire and admonished to turn off all devises and take no photos or videos.  We sat on cushioned wooden seats, several hundred years old (the seats, not the cushions).

The service was both musical and textual with two readings by churchmen whose official titles we did not learn. We were seated side-on to ½ the choir, one line of boys and one of vicars behind them. The other ½ was across the aisle and the director stood in the aisle facing us, which was wonderful as he was animated and very engaged with his choristers. His attitude was one of firm benevolence, gently admonishing one youngster who apparently got out of line for a moment. It was a joy to watch him direct. They sang a setting by Tompkins of Psalm 37, provided all the choral responses to the readings, and then sang Parsons’ Ave Maria. I don’t see them on youtube, but you can hear the Choir of King’s College sing it, and you may understand why this was worth the effort to experience.

One need not belong to a religion to feel a connection to some universal truth that rises in and through this music in this space.  Exquisite, healing sounds.

We engaged in a little scurrying to be sure we caught the last bus back to Bath, where we found clotted cream in one store and strawberry jam in another, to slather on our scones later. We set off in the dark up the long hill above Bath to our B&B, a walk pretty much uphill all the way for about 20 minutes. Arrived at Astor House to find a welcome envelop on the door.  Our key stashed inside—interesting security setup. I guess it’s a really safe neighborhood.

No one was there to greet us, but lights on everywhere and the breakfast room already prepped for the morning. Our spacious room was on the second floor, with even a trouser press among the amenities. The Victorian house with its colorful wallpapers and carpeting has been furnished in a rather stark but totally effective black on white/cream theme. Cozy and minimalist at the same time. Well done. Seated on the massive king-size bed and nibbling scones with clotted cream and jam, sipping tea from our courtesy teapot, we were completely content and ready to crash for another night. 

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