Day 14: Bath


Day 14 Photos (172)

Day 14 Videos: Miranda Gilroy 1    Miranda Gilroy 2     Ben Powell

The breakfast room had tables for seven groups. We were down early and took the table for two in front of the fireplace.  Several other guests came in while we ate, everyone pretty quiet.  Full English breakfast for me (no baked beans on the menu), and Hank had two poached eggs with all the trimmings. Wonderful tea and a rack of toast, plus jams and marmalade. This was Hank’s morning to take a breather, so we spent a couple of hours resting upstairs. Headed out just before noon and picked up the bus for the ride down the hill. Took so long to come that we could easily have walked it, but we wanted the change of pace. We got off at city center right by the Abbey and the Roman Baths, and bought a couple of day passes for the hop on-hop off double-decker city tour bus. For a very modest fee you can get on or off at 15+ locations in and around Bath and listen to an audio guide while you’re riding. We figured it might come in handy later in the afternoon when we were less eager to walk as much, and it did.

However, our first destination that day was the Roman Baths. To the casual observer walking outside the entrance, it appears to consist of one large rectangular pool that sits 18 feet below street level, with statuary high above the water. In reality, this visible pool is perhaps 1/5 of the total excavated ruins, all of which lie below the Georgian buildings in the center of Bath. When they were being constructed, the geniuses of city planning raised the level of the streets 18 feet above the Roman foundations. The result was to eliminate the effects of repeated flooding of the River Avon. It also buried the first floor of Sally Lunn’s house, the oldest house in town and the site of the famous Sally Lunn Buns, a Bath tradition.

Now the excavations, which are ongoing, are in large part open to the public and the on-site museum they incorporate is one of the most fascinating experiences of this trip.  Room after room with audio guides that supplemented the exhibits or occasionally provided commentary by American author Bill Bryson, one of Bath’s most ardent fans. Finds continue to be unearthed, most recently a stash of over 30,000 coins, many from Roman times.

There was much more to take in than we had capacity for in just one visit and our stomachs were grumbling, so after 2 ½ hrs. we walked through the famous Pump Room, where the spa water of Bath bubbles up into a fountain and is available to drink, but there was a long wait for a table, so we settled for the Roman Kitchen restaurant across the square. Had delicious gourmet sandwiches and soups. The busking just outside in the square kept competing with the restaurant’s sound track and we were delighted that we got outside in time to hear two pieces sung by a soprano with enviable vocal versatility. Her name is Miranda Gilroy and in talking with her when her set was done we learned that she’s been busking here daily for 26 years. I don’t see any website or info for her online…we gave her a generous tip and captured two short videos, the second one a few bars of “Nessun Dorma.” More grateful tears on our part for the talents and devotion of people who make music-making their vocation, as she does.

When her set was finished, we hopped on the bus and rode through stops 1-9, learning more about the history and architecture of Bath. We got off near the Assembly Rooms, where Beau Nash worked his social engineering marvels and Jane Austin attended events during the 5 years she lived in Bath, from 1801-1806. It was close to closing time, but fun to get a glimpse of the ornate Georgian ceilings.

From there we walked to the nearby Circus and Royal Crescent, both elaborate Georgian condominiums in essence. The Circus is three banks of buildings enclosing a green space containing 5 huge plane trees (what we call maple). We estimated they must be easily 300-400 years old. It was softly warm and breezy and the sun was shining…perfect day for people to be out and about. As we walked into Victoria Park just south of the Royal Crescent, we saw families and couples picnicking and relaxing on the grass near the Victorian band shell. Sitting on the bench waiting for the bus at stop #15 enjoying the fine weather, it was hard to imagine being anywhere else on the planet.

Getting off the bus we noticed a statue close to the Abbey, a rather Victorian looking angelic lady pouring water from an urn. The inscription read “Water is Best” and under that the notation that this fountain was part of the Bath Temperance Movement in 1861. A push-button activates drinking water but mostly it misses the mark and makes a mess. Kind of like temperance…

There was now another busker in front of the Abbey. His playing drew us in and held us for his whole set. Ben Powell plays all original instrumentals in a DADGAD tuning on a Lowden guitar. Mesmerizing. A little like hearing Michael Hedges or Pierre BenSusan but not mimicking either of them.  My mother would have made him get his hair out of his face, but we didn’t care…the music was brilliant.

When this town was in the epicenter of fashionable living, back in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, fancy people (including Jane Austen by her own account) sauntered up into the hills surrounding Bath to stroll on country lanes, enjoy the meadows and the views and “take the air” away from the bustling city crowds. We figured on doing the same thing and catching the sunset while we were at it.

We set out for an evening stroll over Pulteney Bridge, likened to the Ponte Vecchio by Queen Victoria on her one and only visit to Bath. It is considerably shorter and less dramatic, but it does have shops along the sides.

Past the bridge we walked out of the main city via Great Pulteney Street, making a short stop at the public loos in Sydney Garden. (If I had all the time and money in the world, I would take a trip around England photographing and documenting public loos with their often-inventive solutions to the problem of hand-washing/drying, as well as the whole pay-for-pee situation.)  The Sydney Garden loos cost 20p and access was on a 15-minute basis. A digital display ticked down before my eyes. We didn’t find out what might happen as I gamed the system, holding the door open for Hank since we had no more coins. We were gone before the 15 minutes was up. I was a little curious to see whether alarm bells might go off or whether we’d be locked in, but we decided not to push our luck. 

Just past the elegant Sydney Gardens we connected with the canal excavated around 1800 by some of those entrepreneurial gentlemen of Bath. The River Avon flowing through town was unpredictable and, therefore an unreliable transport system for goods to and from Bristol on one end and London on the other. So they established a canal company and built the necessary number of manually-operated locks, more than a dozen, to accommodate the rise from the river. They also needed to build a few bridges and the outcry from the local aristocrats—complaining of this industrial activity so close to their Eden—was enough to force the developers to create visually charming iron bridges spanning the canal here and there.

One piece of trivia we picked up about Avon, which turns out to be the Celtic word for "river."  So when the Romans asked the Celts "What's this called?" and pointed to a river, the answer was uniformly "avon."   As a result there are several rivers in England labeled the River Avon. The one that flows here in Bath is not the same as the one at Stratford-Upon-Avon. 

We followed the canal path past a raft of colorful canal boats complete with resident cats, then came upon one of the locks. Boat pilots manipulate the levers and sluices and have to haul on the lock “arms” manually to pass through.

Up a flight of stairs into the hills and we were at Bathwick Fields, one of the best viewpoints above the city for centuries. A group of joggers nudged past us and headed further uphill, but we turned to see that the sun was just about to set and it was going down directly above the top of Bath Abbey tower. Lugging a “real” camera would have been difficult, but this was one moment when I would have been happy to have one.  

Rather tall grass and the threat of chiggers or worse kept us from lolling about in the greenery, so we observed and enjoyed the fleeting moment and then began the stroll back to town, passing two kids flying their new drone. Along one of the residential streets we passed a parked jeep of vintage age, emblazoned with the logo “Oxford and England Far Eastern Expedition.” Totally intriguing, there were two extra petrol cans lashed to the front and a list of ports-of-call including Afghanistan, Burma, and Greece.

Arriving in the dark and getting hungry we saw Garfunkel’s (a noble British restaurant tradition, we learned) just in front of us as we walked toward the city center. It seemed appropriate to eat something traditional on our last night on our own. A cottage pie and a steak and ale pie served with mange tout, a sort of snow pea. Hearty and delicious.  Our feet begged for a taxi back to our B&B, and we had a very short, but ridiculously dangerous drive up the hill with a man who clearly was not having a good day—the only nasty behavior we encountered this whole trip. He spit us out at the front door and we were glad to be in one piece. The only moment of civility was his look of surprise and thanks when Hank tipped him far more than he deserved. 

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