Weekend in Bath

At the end of August the English have a Summer Bank Holiday which means a long weekend to mark the end of summer. Richard and I took the opportunity to visit the city of Bath during this time and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves!

Our journey there was marred slightly by RWT strikes which meant we had to catch two trains instead of the single direct train we had booked. It was a bit confusing because we weren’t aware of the strikes at first and then it was just a little annoying. Once we were there though, we were immediately struck by the wonder of our surroundings. The city itself is a UNESCO World Heritage site and a great deal of effort is put into maintaining its Roman architecture.

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Our accommodation was conveniently right in a bustling town centre filled with cobbled streets and market stalls. As soon as we had dropped our suitcase off we were on our way to our first attraction, the Roman Baths. These baths were part of an expansive complex developed by the Romans who felt the natural hot spring meant divine presence. Initially the Celts worshipped a goddess there called Sulis who the Romans associated with their goddess Minerva. The temple built in Bath was therefore dedicated to a goddess called Sulis Minerva. On display inside was the miraculously recovered statue of Sulis Minerva’s head. While it was only the head, I felt it really conveyed a sense of grandeur and showed how dedicated these people were to their worship.

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Also on display was a partial reconstruction of what is believed to be the stone carving above one of the temple entrances. It also depicts the goddess of the moment, Sulis Minerva.

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To back track slightly, we were already impressed by the entrance hall to the baths. The wait to buy tickets wasn’t so bad because we were busy taking in our surroundings. It was a good example of the excellent work put into maintaining the city buildings.

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The largest bath is now exposed to the elements but initially there was a 20 meter high ceiling over it. I’m astounded at the engineering abilities utilised to create such a large structure! With the ceiling, the baths were dimly lit and the room filled with steam from the hot water which made the whole place seem more mysterious. During the 19th century, statues of great Roman leaders were added to the upper balcony level surrounding the bath.

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Inside there were multiple models on display depicting what the area originally looked like with all the buildings and temples. In the photo, the tallest arched roof is where the main bath is.

Further along inside we were able to get up close and personal with the remains of another temple entrance carving which depicts a gorgon head. This gorgon head appears on a lot of souvenirs and around shops in Bath and is likely more recognisable as a symbol of the baths than Sulis Minerva.

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Just like the ancient baths we saw in Xi’an, there were multiple baths in the Roman complex along with hot rooms. There was a smaller pool where no one bathed because it was considered a pool for the goddess and was just a place of worship. Another small semi-circular pool is suspected to be for healing ailments which indicates that the people who came here did so for a variety of reasons including healing, worship as well as socialisation. I was truly impressed by the method of creating heated floors and thus “hot rooms”. Stacks of tiles were placed at regular intervals and then the floor built over the top. The floor was no longer there so we could get a clear view of the tiles used to prop the floor up.

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At one end a large furnace was burning under floor level so the hot air travelled between the gaps in the tiles and heated the floor above. The room closest to the furnace was therefore the hottest room and apparently was too hot to walk on barefoot! Visitors would treat these rooms like a sauna or get massages in there if they were wealthy enough to do so. Next door was another hot room but because it was further from the furnace it was not as hot. I felt like this was so clever! Although they did have servants (slaves?) who had the unfortunate job of having to crawl between the tiles and clean them – I definitely wouldn’t want that job!
Directly outside the hot rooms was a cold pool which used water from a nearby river rather than the hot spring. The idea being that people used to work up a sweat in the heated rooms and then plunge into the cold water. Today there are a lot of coins thrown into the pool with plenty of wishes made. What has been uncovered from the site are ancient coins thrown in often with accompanying curses as visitors implored the goddess to punish those who had wronged them. We had a bit of fun reading some of the translated ones.

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Once we had been through a series of displays we came out to the main bath again and were able to walk around its perimeter. It is still a grand structure to this day.

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The afternoon of our first day was spent doing A LOT of walking. Both Richard and I found that Bath had a pleasant reminder of home in the form of hills! The land around the city is gently undulating which was such a pleasure to look at. London is a ridiculously flat place!

We walked along Putney Bridge which was quite unusual in that it’s a whole street with shops on either side and while you are walking on it, you wouldn’t know it was a bridge.

On the other side of the bridge I found the Beazer Garden Maze. With shameless childlike abandon we both proceeded to work our way through the maze. At the centre was a mosaic of the gorgon head which was fitting and I even had a victory moment when I reached the middle.

 

We proceeded up a big hill, subsequently realising how unfit we have become, to Alexandra Park. No, this is not at all like the Alexandra Park race course in Auckland (but I would have totally gone for some yum cha at Grand Park if I could have!). The view of Bath from the top of the hill was marvellous. It is truly a beautifully picturesque city with so much character whether you are looking from afar or you’re right in the thick of it.

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After the park we went back down to see royal crescent. It is a long row of homes in the shape of a gentle crescent. The homes all look out onto a large green which connects onto Victoria Park and the botanical gardens further down.

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Plenty of people were lazing on the grass but it had recently rained and it didn’t feel warm enough for that to me!

We also visited the surrounding gardens and made friends with the many squirrels hopping about.

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Without meaning to we stumbled across a wonderful restaurant for dinner called Bill’s. After a string of disappointing food experiences in London I was pleasantly surprised. An indulgent dessert of perfect doughnuts with chocolate sauce made for a superb end to our first day.

 

On day two we went on a morning tour to Stonehenge. We were part of a small tour group with a lovely driver who shared interesting local knowledge about the early Celtic settlers. We had two hours to take in the site which sounds like a lot but it went by very quickly. The handy audio guide provides a lot of commentary if you want to listen to it all as we did. How amazing it was to see such an iconic monument in real life. I never realised quite how large the stones were; the largest were some 7 meters high with another 2 meters below ground and weighing in at 25 tons. The type of stone used also had to be brought in from a place 20 km’s away! It’s hard to imagine the effort and coordination required to construct this 5000 years ago. What is also incredible is the engineering skills used to the keep the stones in formation. Each vertical stone had a cone-shaped nib on the top and each horizontal stone had matching grooves carved into them. The whole structure was then made by lifting the horizontal stones (lintels) and connecting the grooves with a knobby bit. (There is likely a much more scientific explanation available.)

While we weren’t able to walk inside the circle itself, we were able to get pretty close at one end. If I’m honest I never had great aspirations to visit Stonehenge but I’m very glad we did it. I was floored by the complexity of its construction. You also can’t help but get caught up in the mystery of what it was used for – jury is still out on that one.

 

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Back at the visitor centre we explored the model village built to replicate how people lived around the time Stonehenge was built. Richard also had a go at moving one of the stones!

 

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When we got back to the city we had a Cornish pasti for lunch (it was pretty decent) and visited the Fashion Museum. This one might have been more interesting for me than Richard but he did not complain at all. Since I was really little I’ve been intrigued by the dresses of the past; perhaps stemming from an obsession with Cinderella.
The Fashion Museum had a great collection of clothing from the Georgian era which I really enjoyed. It continued on right through to the modern day culminating it a super weird fashion prize winner thing…

 

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We also took a look around the Assembly Rooms which is where the Fashion Museum is housed. This was the place to be if you were anybody in Bath during the 19th Century.

 

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Initially we planned to enjoy an evening at the Therme Baths but the line was ridiculously long so we abandoned that plan and had an early night.

On our third and final day we sought breakfast at a highly rated café called Boston Tea Party. It was raining which made sitting inside with mugs of tea feel very nice indeed. Afterwards we visited Bath Abbey which was only a few minutes away. We got in just in time to take part in the Tower Tour – completely worth it. Our guide explained the different between an abbey and a cathedral, and how technically Bath Abbey is neither. Should anyone be interested, an abbey requires a monastery to be attached and a cathedral requires a sitting bishop. Bath Abbey was originally constructed to be an abbey but during the reign of King Henry VIII many Catholic places of worship were destroyed and pillaged. As such, the monastery was never completed. It was briefly also a cathedral but when boarders were changed, the seat of the region was moved to somewhere else. Since it was originally intended to be an abbey, it was allowed to keep the name.

Bath Abbey is a beautiful building with a fanned ceiling and stunning stained glass windows all around. It was also the first church we have been to which allowed photos to be taken so we are able to share some of its beauty with you all!

 

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Our tour included climbing some narrow winding steps (again!) first up to the room where the bells are controlled. The best part of about this was crawling through to the back of the clock face! I felt like a mouse from Cinderella getting there and I wasn’t even close to the tallest person. We all huddled in a tiny nook behind the face of the clock and heard about how it was previously backlit using lamps so in order to prevent an unexpected fire, some poor guy had to sit in that space for up to 12 hours literally watching time go by. These days the clock is still backlit and so we have a rather dark picture of it to show you.

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We proceeded up more stairs to the roof which was not made for walking on but is apparently sufficiently safe for these tours. We got great views of the city while experiencing some chilly winds and light drizzle.

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After the abbey we went to Holborn Art Museum. It was situated in a lovely building at the end of a very picturesque street and contained an assortment of antiques and paintings from the local area. The place was not particularly large and I think a good size to ensure we got to see everything without feeling totally exhausted.

 

Our last lunch was at a very highly rated place called Blue Quail Café. It was a tiny place but we got a couple of bench seats and enjoyed a very satisfying lunch. I was mostly eyeing up their inviting selection of cakes but unfortunately after I had finished lunch I had no room for cake. Much disappoint.

After lunch we popped into the Jane Austen Centre. I was hoping this would be quite a cool place to visit but it was actually kind of lame. As part of your visit you must wait to listen to a presentation about Jane Austen’s life and her family. All the staff were dressed as a character from Jane Austen’s novels which was nice but “John Knightley” was a little awkward which made the presentation bland (although the content was quite interesting). There wasn’t a lot to see and everything was very cramped so that if one person stopped to read something, they were holding up everyone else behind them. I probably wouldn’t recommend this attraction.

Before wrapping up our trip we went to the Therme Spa for two hours taking turns soaking in both their indoor pool and the roof top pool. There were also steam rooms with different scents such as lemongrass or menthol which made things interesting! After a lot of walking around, our muscles were glad for the warm relaxation. Despite it being quite expensive, we both do not regret going!

The RWT strikes were still on when we were heading home so our return journey was a little disjointed but not too bad overall. When we got home we were both quite tired but felt so happy we had visited Bath. It truly is a beautiful place with so much history on offer.

I considered this first proper trip out of London to be a success and look forward to our next trip which is to York!

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