Happy Easter to everyone and I hope you all had a nice long weekend. This was our first opportunity for a London escape, and we thought the first one should be a reasonably local sortie, so while friends and colleagues clocked up the carbon miles flying to Portugal, Amsterdam and Valencia (all of which are now on my list of places to visit), we caught the Great Western trainline to Bath on Saturday morning staying until Monday night, with a Sunday trip to Salisbury and Stonehenge thown in for good measure. Justin’s highlight was staying in a B&B with a mattress better than the terrible one in our flat, and an all-you-can-eat buffet breakfast. Well not really it was actually seeing some really ancient big rocks.
On Saturday we meandered around the town admiring the Georgian terraces and the honey coloured stonework which the locals take great pride in keeping spotless, aside from one or two exceptions still covered in the black soot from previous eras (who are apparently held up as examples of bad citizens in the local papers, along with the owners of the single ivy-covered terrace house which I thought looked quite attractive but obviously makes it hard to clean the stonework.) The streets of Bath have an almost European feel to them, as they have not been too overtaken by cars and retain many paved streets and squares filled with pedestrians. (That may have something to do with vast numbers of tourists walking down the middle of streets so that the cars have given up and gone elsewhere, but it still had a lovely feel to it.) The closest UK city parallel for me is Edinburgh, obviously similar with its New Town Georgian buildings but also from its narrow streets and pedestrian friendly spaces.
A visit to Bath Abbey was of great interest, I really loved all the old tombstones and memorials incorporated into the walls and floor slabs of the church, with many so worn by generations of shoes that they were slippery and illegible. The fan vaults were so impressive, and I’m glad they are now just plain stone rather than the brightly painted colours of mediaeval times. We went down into the abbey vaults, where I trod the path of many other monks before me (ha ha) and saw the skeleton of a woman (unidentified, probably a nun or a relative of a monk) which was on display – very cool – Justin thinks I am macabre but I think it’s fascinating to see ancient dead people.
The Jane Austen Centre was of course Justin’s favourite part of the day, and I’m sure he’ll have something highly amusing to say about being forced to come with me but at the time he was actually quite amenable to the idea. Being a fan of the novels I thought we should see the exhibit, but it was actually a little light on in terms of content – the house in which the exhibition was held was ‘similar to’ one she stayed in, being its main claim to fame – although it was interesting seeing inside one of the terraces. Being that there are remarkably few physical relics of her life – she was poorish and never married so never owned very much – the exhibition really relies on current films and tv series of her works. So there’s a lot about how they designed the costumes for the upcoming BBC Jane Austen season (yes Justin we can get a TV now!) and some information about the five houses she briefly stayed in while in Bath. I decided that Justin had had enough torture and regretfully eschewed the opportunity of ‘taking tea with Mr Darcy’ upstairs – I’m not sure how they intended to do this, whether they have local lads in regency costume or just a cut out of Colin Firth (I think I’d prefer the latter), anyway we’ll never know, as to make amends for the Jane Austen centre I agreed to a rousing round of putt-putt on the local mini-golf green. Unfortunately it wasn’t much compensation for him as I won!!! (under par, too) Beginner’s luck, Justin, must have been.
Sunday was the day for Stonehenge, and being the intrepid adventurer that I am, I decided that taking the 15 pound half-day tour by mini-bus was too easy and too touristy, and that we had to make our own way to Salisbury (hmm, there’s 12 pounds in itself) to see the Salisbury cathedral and Old Sarum, the original prehistoric settlement before they shifted it to Salisbury (all because I’d read about it in a massive tome called Sarum – thanks Alex!) before making our own way by local bus (7 pounds) to Stonehenge. Actually despite a minor hiccup when we missed the bus and had to wait an hour for the next one, it all went smoothly and we saved money as we got into Stonehenge for FREE!!! (saved 7 pounds each) thanks to the lovely gift of the National Trust membership from Nanny and Pa. Stonehenge was amazing. From some other people telling me stories of how they had been let down by the trip, I had prepared myself for a small ring of small stones with a massively over-run tourist path miles away from the item in question. So I was pleasantly surprised by how impressive they really were. So solemn and enduring, for me the busy rushing masses of tourists just provided a counterpoint to emphasise their timelessness and length of history.
After 3 hours there we decided to catch the bus to our next stop, Old Sarum, the original hillfort settlement before Salisbury, which was unexpectedly entertaining due to the presence of the local community taking part in an easter egg hunt – find all the letters spelling ‘easter egg’ or something – actually it can’t be as we found an H (we though maybe they spell easter here with a silent h) – and you get a chocolate prize! so we helped by pointing the local kids in the right direction (not too many of them fell over the edge of the fortifications as a result) and watched an egg and spoon race in which some of the little kids obviously hadn’t quite grasped the concept, holding both items with both hands and sprinting. The ruined fortifications were great, and I particularly liked the view from the top over the site of the old cathedral before they moved it to Salisbury, it was like looking at an old plan of the building as you could see the white chalk stone foundations marked out with green grass between.
After a tasting of local mead we caught yet another intermittant local bus that didn’t seem to adhere to any sort of timetable, and made our way back to Salisbury Cathedral, unfortunately missing evensong, but just in time to go into the chapter house and see the Magna Carta – another mindblowing occasion for me, to be in the presence of such an important physical remnant of history. I am currently reading Simon Schama’s the History of Britain (just to get to know my temporarily adopted home a bit better) and am just up to the bit about King John and the Magna Carta so it’s great to have this real life illustrated history to back it up. I’m not sure if we can go on more trips to illustrate further historical events as I read about them, I might have to return the book to the library before then, but it’s an interesting idea…
Monday was our last opportunity to actually see the Baths, well we couldn’t leave Bath without seeing them really. We left it till monday to avoid the queue that horrified us on the Saturday as it wound halfway around the cathedral, and our plan turned out to work perfectly, we walked straight in. The audio guide and the exhibition were great, I hadn’t expected such an extensive museum, with displays all through the Roman Bath complex. I loved the baths, with the layering of Celtic, Roman and Georgian history all neatly packaged up with contemporary exhibition displays! The main bath is fantastic, it’s open to the air which I hadn’t expected, although it would have been quite different in roman times with a vast tall arched ceiling. The weather was perfect, sunny enough to look beautiful, but still cold enough to see the coils of steam drifting up from the surface of the bath. The surrounding bathing rooms were all accessible although in their more ruined state, including the changing rooms, the sequence of hot to cold water of the caldarium, the tepidarium and the frigidarium, and the hot sauna I didn’t know about called the laconium. It was a fantastic experience, imagining the generations of people using the area, first for worship of Sulis (Celtic) and Minerva (Roman) and ritualistic bathing, as well as for getting Sulis Minerva to curse their enemies for them, and through to the later era (the Jane Austen era!) when the ‘quality’ went to take the waters (they were advised to drink 5 litres of spa water before breakfast!) and cure their ills, and show off their finery in the Assembly rooms (which we also saw), and arrange marriages for their daughters, and snub those who weren’t quite as fine as they were.
After a fancy lunch under the sparkling chandeliers of the lovely Pump Room, accompanied by a pianist (well, we had to take away the taste of the bath water we tried) our trip ended with a guided tour of Bath – something we perhaps should have done at the start but then we do everything backwards – hosted by a volunteer guide, a lovely old gentleman who gives up his mondays to impart the secrets of his city to groups of tourists. He spoke a little quietly so in the busier areas we had to strain to hear him, but he was very earnest and obviously loved his town, and we learnt lots and saw a number of little quirky details we had not picked up on our own walks. A fitting end to a great trip, and just in time to walk to the train station and hit London at the same time as everyone else who had been away for the weekend and had to lug their numerous suitcases and bags home on the tube.