S. Worthen (owlfish) wrote,
S. Worthen


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.
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