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Bath

Terraced houses encompass Bath's hills in peached cream, rows of stony façade tidily bedecked with cornices and columns. The guidebook promised a Palladian city, but I was astonished by how true that was. The eighteenth-century houses which dominate the city into pleasing uniformity are the result of crossing Palladian villas with British architects. Pediments balance on clean Ionic columns or crown windows. The city's status as a World Heritage Site ensures that windows once stoned over against the window tax will stay so. Cobbled roads swerve through crescents of houses, edged with wide sidewalks, the merit of a city which came to prominence when promenading was in fashion. Parks are compact, but lush and green even in the opening days of December, and the long rays of midday sun limned the serried rows of houses with glow.

My mother swears I've been to Bath before, but I didn't remember it. It's a handsome city, a healthy one, given the limitations that its historical significance gives it. Our hotel was once a country mansion; my eyes superimposed the doorways to its ballroom on the walled-up arch behind the check-in desk. The expanse of the still-usable ballroom in The Assembly Rooms was a relief - big enough for proper dancing, for large numbers of well-dressed visitors gathering by the hundreds for an afternoon of cards, conversation, and dancing. Original chandeliers glittered in transparent crystaline clarity above, hanging from a capacious ceiling. Bath is full of ballrooms.

We walked into town, across a narrow toll bridge to the canal. Docked houseboats lined its banks, one with a wood stove, another with a bicycle. Greenery fell away to the railroad below, while trees edged the hill which rose gradually above us. Houses graced the water's far edge. Closer at hand was a bench hewn from a tree trunk. We looked down on the approaching city. I paused to photograph the sun in the still waters; C. took pictures of Bath's stone.

The annual Christms market was mad. The crowds were nearly solid most of the time, and I couldn't see why. There were too many people passing through, not enough stopping to look and browse and shop. We wedged ourselves in the corners of booths to browse, dodged the oncomers progress further. The others speculated that the crowds are drawn by a general lack of Christmas markets in Britain, a recent import from the continent. In the midst of the crowd, coincidentally, we ran into friends from Greenwich. We come so far to see those so close. The abbey church offered hourly carol services for the shoppers. We stopped in to look at the last pre-Reformation cathedral in Britain. Its fans seemed plastic, smooth curves, as if extruded, carved by practiced hands for the vaulting above.

Roman Baths
On Sunday morning, we went through the Roman Baths, the city's star attraction. The hot springs on which they were built was used prehistorically, but first built upon in the first century C.E. The oldest part of the complex, the spring, was further built up during the Middle Ages. The extent of the Roman compex ruins was rediscovered in the late nineteenth century, in an attempt to find out why local basements kept getting wet. Thus the rest of the complex as it stands today was built in the 1890s, elegant statues, terraces, and high-ceiling rooms.

As a museum, however, it's actively maintained and regularly updated. As a venue for handling large crowds, much of its layout was admirable - streamlined exhibits, generally wide aisles, a clear progression through the parts and pieces of the complex. There are signs throughout, but most of the information and the pacing is set by the included-with-price-of-admission audio guides. There were three layers to the guides, three sets of information to follow. There was the general series, the children's series, and a commentary by Bill Bryson. How does one become the sort of author who is invited to give an audio commentary on a famous historic landmark with no particular authority on the area? Frankly, the opportunity seemed wasted on him, but the concept was appealing. Perhaps Lindsay Davis could do one?

We wandered through with slow deliberation, each caught up in our own personal audio world. The other two are the serious photographers, but I was the one taking all the photos, capturing the site in detail for my own entertainment and for the next time I need to teach hydraulics and bath construction: the hypocaust laid bare; the remnants of lead piping; a piece of hollow-bricked roof, original to the Roman structure.

At the end of the tour, the path turned to the Pump Room, now an elegant café. A sundial perched on the windowsill, a gift from the eighteenth century to the town, given in concert with a large cased pendulum clock. The man at the piano tinkled out the theme tune to "The Muppet Show", followed by "Land of Hope and Glory". I presented my ticket to a man dressed as staff from over a century ago, and he filled a glass from a white stone fountain, whose four outpourings of water was caught in the sculptured mouths of fish. This was the spring water, the water for which people travelled from far afield to bathe in, to taste, to be healed by the goddess Sulis Minerva or, for later folk, to be healed by "taking the waters". The glass was warm, cozy in my hands, steaming slightly. I sipped it, and my mouth was filled with minerality, with liquid stone and chalk. A few more sips made no different: it was still an alien water-drinking experience. Like everyone else, I put back my glass, and the water rejoined the outflow from a spring pumping out over a million liters a day.

Comments

( 20 comments — Leave a comment )
gillo
Dec. 5th, 2006 11:28 pm (UTC)
I thought most of the Pump Rooms complex was Georgian, with Victorian additions.

I love Bath. It's funny to read how dusty, crowded and noisy Jane Austen considered it, though.
owlfish
Dec. 5th, 2006 11:36 pm (UTC)
The Pump Room was "rebuilt" in 1792-6 according to the Blue Guide. Rebuilt from what, it doesn't say. The clock and sundial obviously well predate the building, but are housed there anyways.

I really want to read Bath books now that I've been! I haven't read Jane Austen in ages, and she's only the tip of the iceberg.
gillo
Dec. 6th, 2006 12:39 am (UTC)
1790s, not 1890s? That makes sense. Near the end of Bath's time as a real Upper Crust resort, but still extremely popular with squirearchy and middle classes.

Ah, but Jane Austen is the crème de la crème. Heyer has her moments, mind you. In a totally different league.
owlfish
Dec. 6th, 2006 11:03 am (UTC)
For the Pump Room, yes. The rest of the complex around the Roman parts of the baths are 1890s. The spring was never lost - just the Roman bath complex.
owlfish
Dec. 7th, 2006 12:26 pm (UTC)
Further details! I have located a brochure on the Pump Room I picked up. The first Pump Room opened in 1706. So the clock and sundial may have been gifts to grace the original room, retained for the rebuilding.
gillo
Dec. 7th, 2006 11:18 pm (UTC)
That's earlier than I'd thought - I sort of associate the Pump Room with mid-century Georgian. They probably did retain a few things like that, though.
a_d_medievalist
Dec. 6th, 2006 01:57 am (UTC)
I am so going this summer. My ex BiL has invited me to use his place in London if I need to work in the BL. My ex SiL loves Bath, and I promised her ages ago we'd take a trip next time I came over.
owlfish
Dec. 7th, 2006 12:30 pm (UTC)
How handy to have a (free!) place to stay in for work, with social bonuses. I do recommend Bath, based on one-and-a-half chill December days there.
a_d_medievalist
Dec. 8th, 2006 12:35 am (UTC)
yep -- I've stayed on good terms with the last couple of exes and their families. I stood up with my last serious bf before X at his wedding.
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owlfish
Dec. 6th, 2006 11:06 am (UTC)
Were you healthy ever after drinking it?

I want to see the costume museum and the Herschel museum when I go back.
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owlfish
Dec. 7th, 2006 12:27 am (UTC)
It's already opened - this August, I think. it' sounds decadent and expensive from what I've heard - and towels aren't included in the access charge.
black_faery
Dec. 6th, 2006 09:45 am (UTC)
I have family down near Bath, and we used to go every year around Christmas. They're getting older now, so we don't visit so often, but I still remember liking the city an awful lot. It's a beautiful place, especially down by the river.
owlfish
Dec. 6th, 2006 11:07 am (UTC)
I'd never seen a weir so elegantly constructed. It was symmetrical! I saw the canal in the daytime, but the river in the city proper only at night. I'll just have to go back and see it again sometime.
wishus
Dec. 6th, 2006 01:41 pm (UTC)
There is a German Christms market going on in Birmingham at the mo, and we get a Hungarian one from next week in Wolverhampton!
owlfish
Dec. 7th, 2006 12:27 pm (UTC)
Funny as it sounds, I'm relieved to know there are others around. I quite like Christmas markets, and it's not that I want to undercut Bath's, but it just made no sense to me that there was such a demand for it. Tradition, maybe?
curtana
Dec. 6th, 2006 02:32 pm (UTC)
I loved Bath when we went there a couple of years ago. The costume museum (which has the same convenient hand-held dealie as the baths, though probably not narrated by Bill Bryson!) is definitely worth a return visit. The market and the hourly carol services sound lovely :)
owlfish
Dec. 7th, 2006 12:28 pm (UTC)
I remembered your photo(s) of it when I was there, and my impression that you were enthusiastic about it. I liked the city quite a bit, and am sure I'll be back - for a trip which includes the costume museum.
moon_custafer
Dec. 6th, 2006 05:09 pm (UTC)
I've just been reading a book called The Architecture of Happiness (got it for my dad but may not give it to him as it's a bit entry-level as architectural theory goes) and it mentions Bath quite a lot :)
owlfish
Dec. 7th, 2006 12:29 pm (UTC)
I'm certain I'll now see references to the city everywhere. The very next novel I happened to have waiting for me at home was, in fact, set in Bath.
pfy
Dec. 7th, 2006 03:06 pm (UTC)
I'd very much like to move back to Bath. It's big and busy enough to have a good range of shops and services, but not so huge that you can't get everywhere on foot. And it is elegantly pretty, and has dusty old bookshops and little cafes tucked away in corners, and it nestles among quiet green hills. It's not easy to find IT jobs, though, and the houses aren't really any cheaper than in London, so moving back there is no simple matter. Maybe I should visit again some time...
( 20 comments — Leave a comment )