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Part 7: Experiencing Aquae Sulis—Roman & Medieval Baths, Jane Austen Centre, the Circus & the Royal Crescent
While I don’t recall any difficulties driving to Bath (may have bounced off another curb or two), we did arrive there later than we’d hoped, and since we weren’t sure if we’d actually make it to Bath by Saturday evening, we had decided not to secure lodging ahead of time. Bath is a city of 85,000 and was sure to have a street or road that was lined with motels, we figured, and we had the names of a few of the British chains.
If there is such a street, we did not find it, and we drove all over that city on various streets for at least 45 minutes. We stopped once asking and someone said, “There’s a Travelodge on Pulteney Rd.” and gave us verbal directions. But after driving around some more, we had no luck in finding it. It was becoming extremely frustrating and discouraging, as we were tired, and it would soon be dark. Finally I spotted a neighborhood pub that we could easily pull into, and asked Dave to pull over; so, that we could seek directions. As we entered that rollicking place, Dave gave me a look that implied, “You must be insane, if you think anyone in this place can give us directions to that motel.” Truth be told, I felt it was a long-shot, but worth a try, as we weren’t having any luck on our own, and the tourist information center was closed before we arrived in Bath.
I bravely walked up to a man standing at the bar and explained our plight, and asked if he knew the way to a Travelodge in Bath on Pulteney Rd. He immediately went into action, “These folks are lost, and we need to get them directions to the Travelodge!” he shouted to some men gathered near the bar. A few of them put their heads together, gave us verbal directions, and the man at the bar drew us a map. I thanked them, and we climbed back in the car, not at all sure of the credibility of the hand-drawn map clutched in my hand.
By jove, that little scribbled out map did indeed get us to that Travelodge that evening, and they had a vacancy. The room was very pricey, and when we walked into it, it was clearly very spartan (not even a luggage rack), and the bed was not going to work for our aging backs. Annoyed at the high price and bad mattress, Dave proceeded back down to the lobby, where the clerk at the counter called a nearby B&B (from my guidebook) for us, but they had no vacancy. Dave also took my guidebook with him ‘cause he didn’t want to experience the same problem in the Cotswolds, where we hoped to spend the next two nights, and that very accommodating woman called different places in Chipping Campden, and Dave secured reservations for the next two nights.
By now it was dark outside, and we were hungry. The very gracious counter woman told us where to walk to find a number of dining spots nearby. Unfortunately, it was Saturday night, and the first three places we tried were overflowing, with no empty tables. We ended up eating in a Chinese restaurant, which was quite tasty. When we walked back to the Travelodge, I requested extra blankets that we might place under the sheet & over the mattress for a more comfortable night’s sleep. Within minutes, that wonderful woman appeared with an extra duvet and two extra pillows. That made all the difference for us getting a decent night’s sleep, as Dave slept atop the two pillows, & we both enjoyed the extra duvet padding.
The next morning, we ate bread/butter I’d brought along from our previous day’s lunch and had tea in our room, and Dave took a photo from our room of our lovely, window view, right on the River Avon. At the front counter we were shown via a city map, how to walk along the river, into the city center, and were given a parking pass card to place in our car window. We stowed our luggage in our car’s trunk for the day, and we didn’t have to pay for parking in Bath, which is not inexpensive.
It was a beautiful day and quite a lovely, short walk to the Parade Rd. bridge, where we crossed into the city center. We went to the Tourist Information Center in town and purchased our tickets for the Hop-On/Hop-Off bus tour, which we planned to take after touring the Roman and Medieval baths.
Bath reached its first peak in 973 with King Edgar’s coronation in the abbey, but its history goes to the Iron-Age period, where it was known for its hot, mineral waters, which were believed to be healing. Romans named the town Aquae Sulis, for the Celtic goddess Sulis Minerva, who was considered to be a life-giving mother, similar to the Greek goddess Athena. So many Romans traveled from London (called Londinium at that time) to bathe here that the town soon became known simply as Bath. The town’s importance continued through the Saxon times, when it had a large church where the present abbey sits, and was considered the religious center of Britain. Bath continued to do well for a time, and then declined until the mid-1600s.
In 1687, Queen Mary, who had been trying unsuccessfully to become pregnant, bathed in the waters here, and 10 months later birthed a son, heir to the throne. A few years after that, Queen Anne believed that the waters eased her painful gout. Word spread quickly, and the town began to boom again. Bath soon became a draw for the aristocracy.
The major building spree here took place in the 18th century, when architects John Wood (father and son) followed Italian architect Andrea Palladio’s Neoclassical style and attempted to build England’s “Rome.” With the new beautiful buildings, lighted streets, sidewalks wide enough to work well for the women’s wide dresses of the day, and the newly opened Pump Room, Bath became known as the city of balls and concerts—the city for the wealthy to enjoy and in which to be seen.
Today, Bath has more government-designated historic buildings per capita, than any other town in England, and the Roman and Medieval Baths are its top tourist attraction. The baths (the only thermal springs in England) with their great, well-signed displays and the outstanding audioguide (included in the admission price) make this an absolutely first-rate attraction.
The audioguide tour begins on the sculpture-lined (famous Romans), upper terrace, overlooking the largest bathing pool. The terrace here was built in the 1890s, because the ruins of the bath complex sat underground for centuries before being excavated and turned into a museum in the late 19th century. The structures that were here in the times of the Romans served two purposes: a temple dedicated to the goddess Sulis Minerva and a relaxing and healing bath complex. Visitors still look down into the springs (115º F.) where 240,000 gallons of water emerge from the ground each day.
Downstairs are sections of the original temple, and a slide show gives visitors a good idea of the meaning of many of the Roman artifacts found here. The next exhibit shows the importance of this site to the ancients, who brought many carved offerings to the gods, when they came to this religious site. As you walk through the temple’s original foundation, you’ll see the gilded-bronze head of Sulis Minerva. It once was inside the temple in an area where only priests were allowed. Visitors can also view the ancient drain system, which still functions and carries excess water to the river—quite a tribute to engineering of two thousand years ago.
The largest pool area (called the Great Bath) at the center of the complex was once covered with a roof, a part of which remains, and at one corner visitors step over a small canal where hot water still enters the main pool. At each end of the Great Bath are smaller bathing sections; all areas of this complex are well-described by the audioguide. I can’t speak highly enough of the audioguide throughout this complex, as it even has numbers keyed to exhibits for children, as well as additional commentary by American expat author Bill Bryson. It was an exceptional tour!
By showing your ticket stub, visitors can get a free taste of the mineral water in the Pump Room, a very upscale Georgian Hall just above the baths, but we’d heard that it tasted awful; so, we didn’t taste the mineral water. We did step inside the Pump Room, just to check it out, and decided we’d prefer a local pub for lunch. As we were leaving, we sought directions, and again a friendly Brit drew us a map, and explained, “You are here, go out this door, etc …” After lunch, we looked at our Hop On-Hop Off map and went to a bus stop corner and soon hopped on when the bus came by!
The first stop was at the Jane Austen Centre, and we hopped off here to take a short tour of the facility about Bath’s most famous (around 1800) resident. We enjoyed the intro talk and the 15-minute video and learned more about the author whose writings portrayed the shallowness of the aristocrats’ lives, and who many believe to be the first well-known feminist.
Then we climbed on (we were past hopping on, at this point in the day) the bus again, appreciating the ongoing commentary of the guide as he drove throughout the city. Of special interest were the Circus townhouses and the Royal Crescent apartments, the former designed by the elder John Wood and the latter by the younger. They are located just a block from each other and are lovely structures. The Circus is circular, and its columns with their Greco-Roman capitals are a reminder that Bath did indeed aspire to be “the Rome of England.” The ground floor doors were made large enough so that the aristocrats could be carried inside in their sedan chairs, and women, if on foot, did not have to go through sideways with their very wide skirts of that era, or if seated didn’t have to duck due to the very high hairdos then.
The Royal Crescent is a long, pleasing-to-eye arc of apartments, and the stylish Royal Crescent Hotel sits in the center. Visitors are allowed to step inside the public areas and back garden of the hotel. We decided not to hop off here, but did get a look at the “Ha-ha,” a trench, the inner side of which is vertical and faced with stone: the outer side is sloped and turfed. It served as a retaining wall, in the vast front yard of the Crescent, invisible from the windows of residents, for keeping out sheep and common-folk.
When our tour ended, we walked back along the River Avon to where our car was waiting in the motel parking lot, and headed towards the Cotswold Hills, a 25-by-90 mile area of Gloucestershire, which is sprinkled with truly quaint, tiny villages, and LOTS of sheep.