DM and MM's Britain 2009 Diary

Day 7 - Bath

Saturday, 6 June, 2009

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21:56 Claridges Bed & Breakfast

Today we spent the day in Bath, wandering around between the various sights and generally having a good time not having any driving to do.

The day dawned grey and wet, with overnight rain continuing. Breakfast was at 08:00, but we struggled to get up because of a poor sleep on a very soft bed - interrupted by some other guests here at the B&B stumbling in at 03:00 and banging around outside our room trying to work the key to their room. Despite there evidently being at least two other rooms of guests staying here, we still haven't seen anyone else, including at breakfast today.

We arrived downstairs to a breakfast room immaculately laid out with blue and white Wedgwood style china, for just two people, seated at opposite ends of a large rectangular table. There were three cereals in boxes, one being a nutty muesli containing cashews and hazelnuts, which we both selected. Our host greeted us and took orders for tea for M. and said the cooked portion of our breakfast would be along shortly.

It was, and was generous and well-presented. We both got two eggs, there was a selection of different breads, toasted, and kept warm wrapped in a napkin rather than allowed to go cold on a toast rack like everywhere else so far, and I had a sausage, three rashers of well-cooked, thickly sliced bacon, two hash browns, mushrooms, and a bunch of grilled cherry tomatoes still on the vine. It was delicious, but again extremely filling. The orange juice was also freshly squeezed - we guessed by our host. We took our time eating and when done we left reduced orders for tomorrow's breakfast. Our host suggested she get some fruit and yoghurt, which we agreed to. We mentioned we were going into Bath on the Park & Ride, and she again gave us cheerful directions which involved a lot of laneways and turns and "wiggly bits". Very nice, but it was easier for us to navigate by sticking to the main routes.

Claridges Breakfast
Breakfast at Claridges

We grabbed our stuff for the day and took the car into Bath on the A39, where we found the Park & Ride easily by following the signs. A bus left just as we arrived, but another pulled up before we even got to the bus stop from our parking spot and waited for the next departure time. We climbed aboard, buying tickets for £2 each from the driver. The bus was double decker, so we took one of the front row seats on the top deck, giving us a great view. The bus left soon after and delivered us through the hairy one-way narrow streets of central Bath to a drop-off point just a block from the ancient Roman Baths, which formed the first goal of the day.

The walk to the Baths let us admire the Georgian architecture that dominates the city - here in the centre mostly turned to retail purposes. Soon we reached the Baths and were stunned by the magnificence of the adjacent Bath Abbey, as well as the Roman colonnade leading from the Baths building to an adjacent one (now full of shops).

Bath Abbey and Baths
Bath Abbey (left) and the Roman Baths (right)

We entered the Baths right away, wanting to get the biggest drawcard done first. It was lucky we did it early, because as we emerged later on the queues of people waiting to buy tickets were considerable. Once paid, we followed the self-guided tour route through the baths complex, stopping at the many Roman relics and intact pieces of Roman architecture on display in the various sections of the building. Much of the baths was restyled by Georgian era designers who adapted the original Roman architecture to their own purposes, making some rather radical changes along the way, including raising the water level of the pools by a metre or so. The baths today have lowered the water level back to the original Roman levels and opened up a lot of the Roman parts of the building, leaving mostly only the exterior as Georgian. This, mixed with 21st century navigation and museum style displays makes for a very varied experience as you traverse the tour route.

Temple Pediment
Roman temple pediment, Baths Museum

The most impressive parts were the Roman bits - the pieces of original carvings and columns from the old temple to Minerva Sulis that used to occupy a nearby site, as well as the Roman Bath building itself with the mineral-laden green water bubbling up and steaming warmly in the chilly Bath air of the day. The main bath was a large pool about 10×15 metres, exposed to the air above with two storeys of rooms and walkways all around it, topped with stone statues of Roman VIPs - there was one recognisably of Julius Caesar, and one of Claudius that I could identify. Unfortunately access to the roof walkway around the bath was not open when we walked past it early in the tour. (Although, later when we were at the bath at ground level, there were people up there on the roof level. We didn't go back because it was a long way to retrace our steps through the linearly organised displays by that point.)

The Great Bath
The Great Bath

The tour led us through various interior chambers where we could see the Roman foundations, the pillars for supporting floors over hypocausts (under floor heating provided by hot air from a furnace), and the sluices and tunnels through which the hot spa water flowed to reach the various baths and drains. It was fascinating stuff and very well presented. A clever highlight was the projection of Roman bather images (played by actors) on to the walls of one of the bath chambers.

Coin pool
Bath with Roman actor projections on walls

At the end, we inevitably ended up in the gift shop. The final step was to go through the Pump Room - a fancy restaurant in what was presumably an old pump room and part of the baths complex - where you could try a glass of the spa water to drink. This was presumably filtered and purified as there were signs earlier warning visitors not to even touch the water in the baths as it was untreated and dangerous. The spa water was going for 50p a glass in the restaurant, but our Baths tour ticket entitled us to a glass free. The lady filled us a glass from a gushing fountain; the water was hot, but not too hot to drink quickly, and had a very distinct mineral taste, but not unpleasant.

Foundations of the Bath
Roman foundations beneath the Baths

We left the Baths and tried to go into the adjacent Abbey, but as we watched the main abbey doors closed on a scene of people inside and the strains of a string quartet. We think it may have been a wedding in progress. A group of elderly protesters then took up positions in front of the door, brandishing anti-war signs and showed no sign of moving to allow anyone to take unadulterated photos of the Abbey. After a few minutes of waiting, I ventured up to ask if they would step aside to allow me to take a photo of the Abbey. The old woman brandishing a petition said they wouldn't move away from the area, but if I asked the others nicely, they might step aside briefly to allow a photo of the building. She said they only protested here when the Abbey was closed for private ceremonies such as weddings, and they would be gone within an hour or so, but very pointedly made no apology for being there. I approached the picket holders behind here and asked if they would allow me to take a photo, and they kindly parted enough to let me get a shot of the ornately carved main wooden doors, but would move no further, meaning I could not get a shot of the whole front of the Abbey without their protest being conspicuous in front of it. Resigned to this fact, we left to see some of Bath's other sights.

M. was excited by the Jane Austen Centre, so we headed in that direction via the main shopping mall and then a small detour to check out some of Bath's finest Georgian terrace houses. Like Rome, the Romans built the town of Bath on seven hills and one of those now gave our legs a workout as we made our way up Gay Street to The Circus. This is a perfectly circular formation of 30 identical houses, built around a circular park with a stand of oak trees in the centre. There are three groups of houses attached to one another, with three gaps for streets to enter the circle. Several of the houses have had famous residents and they are now one of the most prestigious addresses in Bath.

The Circus, Bath
The Circus, Bath

The most prestigious address, however, is on nearby Royal Crescent, which is a much larger semi-circle of houses facing over a large park that cascades down the hill towards the centre of Bath. This impressive array of homes is fronts by a street on which are parked a row of expensive cars. In the very middle of the row of houses is the Royal Crescent Hotel, the swishest and priciest place to stay in town.

Royal Crescent, Bath
Royal Crescent, Bath

From here, we walked down across the park and back into the centre of town, stopping briefly at an open Georgian garden, which turned out to be the backyard of one of the houses on The Circus, landscaped in an authentic Georgian manner, with scraped gravel instead of any lawn (so ladies wouldn't get their hems dirty) and stands of wild-looking roses bristling with numerous thorns, but richly coloured and emitting a strong scent across the garden. It was pretty in a certain way, and definitely interesting and relaxing.

From there, it was just a short walk to the Jane Austen Centre. This was a house on Gay Street, fitted out with displays about the author and the times she spent visiting Bath as a child and living in the city in the years around her father's death. She had a total of about five different addresses in Bath, some still standing, but all those now privately occupied. So the Centre was built in one of the nearby houses identical to the one in Gay Street where she had lived.

The exhibits began with a spoken commentary on Austen's life delivered every half hour, so we had a few minutes to wait. I used the toilet, noting that they were labelled not "Ladies" and "Men", but with pictures of Mr Darcy and (presumably) Elizabeth Bennett. The whole centre was very girly, with romantic portraits of Mr Darcy everywhere, and gaggles of women in the gift shop accompanied by the odd bored-looking man in tow. M. bought an "I (heart) Mr Darcy" tote bag as we paid for our entry into the exhibits.

While waiting for the introductory talk, we perused the displays in the waiting area, which included letters from various celebrities extolling the virtues of Jane Austen (including John Major, Emma Thompson, Geoffrey Archer), and a collection of various cryptic Georgian-era everyday items in a "guess what this is" interactive display. It included a pincushion, candle snuffer, flint box, and tweezers and sticking plasters for covering smallpox scars.

Once done with the talk, we wandered around a moderately sized display of various paraphernalia from Georgian life and informational plaques about how they featured in Austen's novels as well as biographical details on Austen herself. Having already seen her final resting place in Winchester Cathedral, this was a nice way to round out our discovery of her life.

From there, we crossed town to the banks of the River Avon and the famous Pulteney Bridge, which crossed it with tiny shops on either side of the roadway - reminiscent of the Ponte Vecchio in Florence. Only the shops here were fairly mundane - not jewellers. Beyond the bridge the Avon tumbled down a series of steps and then continued on its way to the sea. There were colourful boats on both sides of the river level change.

Pulteney Bridge
Pulteney Bridge

Near here was the Victoria Art Gallery - a free art museum. We took the time to explore both its levels, full of British paintings and displays of Bohemian glassware and porcelain of various types. There was also a display by a present-day sculptor, consisting of vast numbers of works in various media and sizes, ranging from thumbnail to room-filling, all depicting the form of a woman with a giant hare's head instead of a human one. It was an odd theme, but the artist was obviously obsessed with it. We'd also seen a couple of her distinctive sculptures out on the streets of Bath - a human-sized bronze one in front of the Roman Baths and a giant-sized one made of wire around another side.

From the art gallery, we took a bit more of a walking tour through central Bath, passing through the Guildhall - an old hall now converted into a permanent market-stall type arcade. The next destination was Bath Abbey, hopefully open after the wedding earlier. (We'd seen a silver Rolls Royce decked with white ribbons and carrying a beaming bride and groom pass us towards Royal Crescent when we were walking back from there earlier. The bride saw us smiling at them and returned a huge grin. We guessed they might have been the couple getting married at the Abbey.)

Bath Abbey
Bath Abbey

The Abbey was indeed now open and we paid the suggested donation of £2.50 each before entering. This was the most tourist-ridden church we'd been in yet, beating even Salisbury Cathedral for shoulder-to-shoulder visitors gawking at the towering fan-vaulted ceiling, the stained glass, and the numerous memorial stones and plaques which lined all the floors and walls - many more plaques than in the earlier cathedrals. At one point on the northern wall was a memorial to Arthur Phillip, first Governor of New South Wales, who had died in Bath and was presumably buried there, the plaque surmounted by an Australian flag.

Bath Abbey Glass
Inside Bath Abbey

Following the Abbey, we toured a few more of the streets before deciding on a place for dinner. While M. browsed in a shop, I pulled out the Lonely Planet and checked the restaurant section. One struck my eye - Demuths - a vegetarian place that sounded good. I looked up from my book and discovered that Demuths was right next door to where I was standing! When M. appeared, I showed here the restaurant and she agreed it would do nicely. Although we were hungry, it was only about 17:15 and the restaurant didn't open until 18:00.

So we walked around a bit more, heading north to cover some of the streets we hadn't seen yet, then east across to the Avon River once more. We crossed Pulteney Bridge and took a leisurely walk along the riverside on the east bank to the next bridge south, near the Bath Cricket Club oval, where men in creams were playing a game. Tied up along this stretch of the river were dozens of colourful canal boats, apparently assembled for the Bath Festival of Boats, which was being advertised by a banner stretched right across the river. People on the boats were lounging around doing boat chores, or in one case cooking a barbecue on the roof of the boat.

At the bridge, we climbed a narrow set of spiral steps cut into the stone of the bridge itself to the road level, where I was nearly flattened by a bus tearing past as I emerged on to the very narrow footpath. We crossed the bridge and headed back to Demuths, but discovered we couldn't get a table without a reservation. Undaunted, we backtracked a few doors to the Cafe du Globe, a Moroccan place we'd spotted on the way.

We got a table by the window (from where we could see Demuths, it was that close) and ordered a garlic bread to start, followed by a vegetable couscous for M. and a lamb tajine with couscous for me. The vegetable dish came with several different vegetables - we identified eggplant, potato, carrot, cabbage, zucchini, onion, and possibly sweet potato - layered over couscous and served with a brothy sauce, honey-spiced raisins, and hot harissa paste on the side. The lamb tajine contained tender chunks of meat, prunes, onions, crunchy almonds, seasoned with cinnamon and other spices. It was incredibly aromatic and absolutely delicious. M. didn't want her raisins or harissa, so I added them to mine to increase the variety and spiciness.

Dinner at The Cafe du Globe, Bath
Dinner at The Cafe du Globe

Thankfully, after last night's dinner the servings - although perfectly adequate - were not stomach-burstingly enormous. For the first time on the trip I felt like I could fit in dessert, so ordered the "Deadly Delight" - a layering of chocolate fudge cake, chocolate and vanilla ice cream, hot chocolate sauce, and whipped cream, served in a tall sundae glass. It was delicious, with the vanilla ice cream in particular being a rich yellow colour and intensely flavoured.

"Deadly Delight"
Deadly Delight

Dinner done, we walked back to our Park & Ride stop and waited just a few minutes in the chilly evening air for the bus. It soon appeared and the driver punched holes in our tickets before letting us on. The drive back was quick and soon we were driving our hire car back to Claridges B&B for our second night there.

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