Saturday, August 7, 2010

Bath—It’s the Water

By Claire
August 5
I thought nothing could impress me by this time. I was wrong. Bath, located in Somerset, England, is not to be missed. It has the only natural hot springs in Britain. We enjoyed every minute of our first day here. We started out early, a seven minute bus ride from our campground, Newton Mill Holiday Park Camping, €33.60. Much to our delight, we found the city almost empty which gave us the opportunity to walk around and see it in the early morning light without the crowds. In fact, we were the first ones through the doors of the Roman Baths.

I think the area around Bath has had several distinct eras: Pre-Roman, Roman, pre-Georgian and Georgian. The medicinal properties of the waters were alleged as early as pre-Roman times with several competing myths. The Romans had no natural explanation for the heated waters and attributed supernatural significance to them. Our guide explained that the probable natural explanation is that rain fell several hundred miles away 10,000 years ago and seeped through the porous rock layers of the area, only to be heated and forced up from nearly 100 yards deep, here, from the time of recorded history, in the amount of approximately 1 million liters a day! The Romans came so often to Aquae Sulis to “take a bath” that it finally became known as Bath.

Bath Abbey was the site of the coronation of Edward, first King of all England, in 973 AD. The ceremony, created by the Archbishop of Canterbury, has remained virtually unchanged to the present day.

For centuries, Bath was forgotten as a spa. Then, in 1687, the previously barren Queen Mary bathed here at Cross Bath, became pregnant, and bore a male heir to the throne. Bonnie Prince Charlie was her grandson and the defeated leader of the Scottish forces at the Battle of Culloden, in 1746. If not for the baths, the battle might never have occurred. Sometimes things come full circle for us.

Later, Queen Anne found that the water eased her painful gout. Word of the waters spread and high society soon turned the place into one big pleasure palace.

Colannaded Street

The baths include an audio tour with several choices: historically informative; Bill Bryson giving his impressions; or a version especially for children. The museum surrounding the baths was wonderful. There were video re-enactments of Romans going about their daily lives and that, as well as the fantastic HBO series, Rome, that we watched before our trip helped to bring it all to life.

This Celtic face was part of a pediment at the entrance to the baths. The image is unique in Britain. On the one hand, it is believed by some to be the head of Minerva, goddess of the hot springs, because of the snakes in the beard; however, since the image is male, it cannot really be Minerva—universally acknowledged to be female.

This 2,000 year old skeleton was found inside the lead lining of a coffin (the coffin did not survive). Archeologists did a reconstruction of the man’s head and determined that he was wealthy and ate a good diet that included honey, as indicated by several cavities. They also determined that he was Mediterranean and over the age of 45.

It was a custom of the time to formally curse those who had wronged you. Many Romans would write out a curse on metal to be presented to the goddess Minerva. I was impressed with how petty their problems were. Over 100 hundred curses have been recovered from the spring by excavation. Curses were folded or rolled before they were thrown into the spring. If the victims were unsure as to the identity of the culprit, they would often include a list of the “usual suspects” to help the gods appropriately apply the curse.

“To Minerva the goddess of Sulis I have given the thief who has stolen my hooded cloak, whether slave or free, whether man or woman. He is not to buy back this gift unless with his own blood.”

“Docimedis has lost two gloves. He asks that the person who has stolen them should lose his mind and his eyes in the temple where she appoints.”

One of the curses is the only surviving fragment of British Celtic language in the world. Unfortunately, it is illegible.

The pools are green with algae and you are warned not to drink the water. The algae only became a problem after the Romans left, the roofs collapsed, and sunlight hit the water. They are lead-lined and to this day they are still watertight!

This overflow channel with the buildup of minerals is the original Roman design.

Finishing the tour of the baths in just under 90 minutes, we walked to the Pump Room to meet up for a 2 hour walking tour. We were pleased with ourselves for beating the crowds that had now appeared.

The Mayor’s Corps of Honorary Guides, led by volunteers who want to share their love of Bath, is free, no tips and offered year round. Clive was a great guide and we were immersed in the history of this amazing Georgian town (so named for the architectural style of the buildings during the reign of 4 Kings named George in the 1700’s).

Georgian House, around 1747. Note the symmetry: there is always a distinctive center—for example, double pillars or a pediment, surrounded on each side by (ideally) identical features.

In order to keep to the properly balanced Georgian (English for ‘neoclassical’) style of this house, the windows on the ground and second floor next to the central doorway and window are fake.

The small jutting building made of slate with the small open window is called a hanging loo. This was considered quite modern and some people put one in as a place of privacy to use the chamber pot.

Clive told us that in 1956 a clean air act was imposed. The townspeople were no longer allowed to burn coal and the buildings were painstakingly cleaned. He’s not sure why, but one building was left untouched, giving us the chance to see how they had looked.

We finished our tour on the Pulteney Bridge, shop-lined like Florence’s Ponte Vecchio, overlooking the River Avon.

Rick Steves says that “Proud locals remind visitors that the town is routinely banned from the ‘Britain in Bloom’ contest to give other towns a chance to win.” We managed to overlook the 2 million tourists per year to this town of 85,000 and managed to thoroughly enjoy ourselves.

By now we were ready for a break and some food. We had made the decision to skip lunch and go directly to Afternoon Tea at the famous Pump Room, an elegant Georgian hall just above the Roman Baths—a fancy tea that was well worth waiting for. Not only that, we were entitled to a taste of the curative water (£.50; free with your ticket to the Roman Baths).
We had to wait about 15 minutes—if we had thought of it, we could have made reservations. The service, surroundings, music evoking Jane Austen, and the food were all stupendous.

Water fountain

The water was warm, about 100°, and I don’t care how curative it is, I did not want to finish it.

Feeling great about our day and with the sun shining, we decided to head back to Homer before exhaustion set in. We walked past the beautiful Bath Abbey, glowing in the sunshine—I had to shoot fast to capture the sun.

In Britain are
hot springs
adorned with sumptuous splendor
for use of mortals.
Minerva is patron goddess of these.

~ Solinus 3rd Century AD


Elle said...

Well the early birds definitely had the baths to themselves ~ almost lookt like a ghost town bath!
How'd it stack-up against our mud and springs in Calistoga ?? Can peeps actually go in the algae-filled waters these days?

Chuck and Claire said...

No comparison is possible with Calistoga--they are such very different experiences. There are spas in town much like Calistoga though. The algae-filled waters are just for looking at.

Carolyn said...

Thank you for reminding me of how wonderful Bath is! When we drove to Bath in 1993 we were put off by the industrial looking out-mulying areas, but once we were into the heart of the old city, we loved it!We stayed in a nice Rick Steve's recommended B & B and since it was August,we unfortunately could only stay two nights. That means only one day for the baths and that great walking tour. No, I couldn't drink the water either! What a wonderful time you had. Only 3 weeks left! What will I do without your blog to read and enjoy? Looking forward to having you back in Davis.

Paul King said...

Wow. Stunning posts! Thanks Chuck for the writing on Stonehenge. I'm moved to more study.
And the pics from Bath make me want to go right now.

Beautiful. Impressive.