Bath (Austen's England Part 2)

Bath is a really, really interesting town, and the fact that Jane Austen lived their briefly & set several scenes there is just a small part of what makes it worth visiting.  It is often included with Stonehenge as a day trip from London which really, really doesn't do it justice.  It is easy to do as a quick overnight from London (less than two hours by train), but I think it should merit two nights, depending on your interests & time.  

First thing to know about Bath?  It's actually a bit hilly, with the oldest part of the city located down at the small river and the further up the hill the "newer" it gets (for the most part).  The Romans came here way, way back in the day when natural hot springs were discovered, then in Medieval times they built a gorgeous Abbey (coincidentally, directly next door to the Roman baths, which were then buried underground), and finally when the Roman baths were discovered it became a really popular resort during Georgian times.  It's actually experiencing another resurgence now as a spa destination, with a brand spanking new fancy spa taking advantage of the hot springs.  But in all honesty- it's all about the layers of history (a bit like York, actually).  I did the test of comparing a bus tour & a walking tour again, and once again- the bus tour wasn't bad, but the walking tour was GREAT.  I did the bus tour mostly because once I got my car parked I didn't want to drive around much (I may have knocked mirrors while driving through an alley after going to the wrong B&B first- I was still learning, ok?!?!), but also- like I said it's quite hilly, and the tourist bus had a route that took you to the top of the opposite hill to what ended up being nice vistas over the whole city.  That said- the town gives FREE walking tours each day (usually twice a day) and they are really excellent.  They meet up in the square in front of the Abbey & Baths, and cover everything from the original Roman settlement, the importance of the church, and then of course the architecture and demanding social schedule of the Georgians.  Let me tell you, this town is VERY proud of it's status as UNESCO heritage site (the whole city is designated), which they received in large part due to the nearly uniform palladium architecture - most buildings were built by one of two men named John Wood (the father, "Elder", and his son, "Younger").  The streets are nice & wide (sometimes with raised sidewalks!) in order to compensate for the ladies' huge skirts, and there are these lovely sets of apartments/town homes towards the top of the hill - one a full circle (The Circus), and just down a lovely street the huge Royal Crescent.  My B&B was just down the street from the Crescent, so I got to see it over & over, and it just never disappointed.  Here are a few shots from around town:

Now- sticking with this "uptown"/Georgian topic- Jane Austen lived in Bath for a while, towards the end of the social madness.  She hated it.  Heh!  When I say the social schedule was demanding - well, it sounded crazy.  I mean, you had to be "seen" at events from 6 am (when you took the waters) until late night balls at one of the two public ballrooms!  Her family wasn't wealthy, and she wasn't interested in the social scene (aka- the marriage mart, probably), so that might explain why she really wasn't happy there.  Like I mentioned above, major scenes from both Persuasion and Northanger Abbey are set here, and you can actually visit the Assembly Room, the Pump Room, the gardens where characters walk, ect.  There's even an Austen walk through the park in front of the Crescent.  There is a cheesy little museum in town - the Jane Austen Center, complete with a man dressed up as Darcy tempting you to enter - which describes some of her life, where the book settings are, ect.  It's cute, and only takes probably a half hour or so to visit, but it's pretty low on the totem pole compared to the other big hitters.  For example, the Assembly Rooms and the Fashion Museum located in the basement are far more worth your time.  Firstly, the Assembly Rooms are described endlessly in her books, and to get to see it was super cool.  OH- and our guide let us know that you could rent it out for a wedding for just 1000 pounds.  !!!  Plus, the Fashion museum below was AWESOME.  It features dresses from the 1700's and forward, and far surpassed the exhibit at the V&A in London (I thought).  There was one whole room that showed you how quickly fashions changed from year to year during the 1800's - you could even dress up in a corset, gown, & hat if you wanted to!  Highly recommended stop, Austen fan or not. (Sadly, no photos allowed of the pretty dresses...)

Honestly though, all of the above just pales in comparison with the two main sights of Bath:  The Abbey and the Roman Baths, both located in the middle of town in a super busy, bustling square.  The Abbey is not a cathedral for complicated church rules, but it's pretty impressive.  Somehow I liked it much, much more than the bigger cathedral in Salisbury - but again, it's just a matter of feeling & impressions on the day you visit I think.  I remember most how light it was, and how cool the ceiling was.  From outside, it's a little stumpy (I think an original high spire fell), but the facade is cool, with the requisite huge door and intricate carvings, plus a truly massive stained glass window.  

The last two shots show just how close it is to the Roman baths.  The neoclassical building next door is the Victorian entrance which covers up what used to be Roman ruins, and now houses a simply amazing museum.  Now, I'm not a huge Roman fan - I sorta feel like if you've seen one Roman ruin, you've seen them all.  This place changed my mind.  It's amazing.  It's pretty much always crowded, but I got my "combo" ticket up at the Fashion Museum, so I didn't have to wait in a line - but I wasn't there in high summer.  Rick Steves tells you to visit first thing in the morning, or right before closing.  Regardless- go, take your audio guided tour, and just prepare for really cool old stuff.  The audio guide is particularly good because you can just listen to the normal, fairly dry historical bits, or there are stories for kids, or there's a really entertaining commentary track by Bill Bryson (the awesome writer - for what reason, I'm not positive).  There's the typical Roman stuff, like remnants of pediments and statues, lots of coins, ect, but then you start getting into the structure of the baths, and it really gets cool.  Like, you see old drains that were built something like 2000 years ago.  You can still see different pools and steam rooms, and then in one section you see examples of requests that people scribbled onto little teeny metal scraps & threw into the spring hoping the goddess would answer them.  They've translated a bunch, and some are hilarious little curses for petty issues - you can even recognize the occasional roman letter even.  The main pool used to be covered, but now is gloriously open, and you even walk directly over one of the partially exposed feeder tubes leading directly from the source.  Again- a lead pipe from 2000 years ago (or more)- pretty amazing.  Then, the last part is the source pool, which has almost ALWAYS been in use.  It's cool because here's one spot where you can see the layers of history.  They've brought the water level back down to the Roman level, but you can see other arches & water line from more medieval times (when the monks from the Abbey experienced the hot water), and above that is the more modern Pump room - where people like Queen Anne (and Jane Austen characters) sipped on surely disgusting, yet pure mineral water.  I say "surely" because when I finally made my way up there the damn thing was closed.  I'd missed tea-time by about 10 minutes.  So I could take a picture of the room & the pump, but couldn't get a simple little glass to try it.  SIGH.  Regardless of that slight disappointment- this was a high point of my visit, for sure.

A few final notes before I move on from Bath (and I apologize, because this is clearly LONG!).  I would be remiss if I didn't mention the riverfront and bridge.  Firstly- they are quite proud of the Pulteney Bridge, calling it their version of the Ponte Vecchio.  Like Rick Steves, I'm skeptical of that, but it was cute- and the grounds along the river are really lovely.  It also is super strange to me that there are three hot springs coming up from Earth's core within a couple hundred yards of this little river, but they're completely separate (and other than past flooding issues, always have been).  The streets leading to/from the bridge do provide more examples of awesome Bath architecture, and I found out a fun fact about the flood controls you can see in front of the bridge.  That was actually used in the filming of the recent Les Miserables movie - it's where Javert meets his demise!  I thought it didn't look much like anywhere on the Seine I knew - Funny!

In any case- there are lots of other museums and things to see that I didn't even get to, and I didn't squeeze in a performance at the historic Theater Royal (pictured above)- OR even visit the new Thermae spa.  So clearly, there is much to tempt almost anyone for a couple of days in Bath!