“Ah! There is nothing like staying at home, for real comfort.” – Jane Austen
Bath is a historic resort town nestled in the rolling hills of Somerset in Southwest England. At this point, it’s honestly hard to tell what it’s most famous for – the remarkably preserved ancient Roman Baths, the streets and sights straight out of Jane Austen’s novels, the resort town atmosphere, the uniformly elegant Georgian architecture… Needless to say, it’s a town with much to offer. Whenever we mentioned that we were headed to Bath to any of our British hosts and friends as we traveled, they would all have the same wistful reaction “Ah, Bath! You’ll love it there”. We eagerly awaited our first day off from WWOOFing and hitched a ride from our host straight into town. As adherents of public transport (willing or unwilling), we were chuffed to find that most of the popular sites in Bath were all walk-able from city center. During our time WWOOFing at Barrow Castle, we spent three full days enjoying the sights of Bath and yes, taking the waters.
I wanted to begin this blog post with a gripping quote from Jane Austen on the wonders of travel. Alas, all I could find was the exact opposite. The illustrious Austen only lived in Bath for several years and she herself didn’t love Bath in the end. Still, that doesn’t stop Jane Austen fans (myself included) from flocking to Bath to learn more about the celebrated author in a picturesque setting. Many locations in town appear in her books – who doesn’t want to see the shops that Catherine Morland walked in? Dance in the Assembly Rooms? Walk down Milsom Street? It’s an extremely popular tourist area, and it was strongly suggested to us that we tour on weekdays to help with the crowds. Luckily, WWOOFing allowed us to do that, and the fact that it was also the low season meant that the sites were relatively empty, to our delight.
Our first stop was the most ancient, well before the era of Mr. Darcy and high-waisted dresses. The Roman Baths date back almost two thousand years, built on a hot spring that was likely a place of worship for Celts even before the Roman invasion. The Romans built up the bathing complex over 300 years, and included a gymnasium area, cold water baths alongside the hot water baths, saunas, massage areas, a temple, etc. It was just as much a social gathering point as a way to get clean, and the museum made the rooms come alive with projections and artifacts on display. I particularly enjoyed the “curse tablets”, which were small metal sheets invoking the goddess Sulis Minerva to curse a particular person. Most often, the curse was against someone who stole their clothes, which provides a comical insight into daily Roman bathing culture. When the Romans left Britain, the complex fell into disrepair, but gained popularity again at different points in history due to legends of the waters restorative properties. The most recent of which is during the Regency Era, and the popularity of the Pump Room was captured in several of Jane Austen’s novels. The Pump Room houses an elegant fountain which spouts the spring water, a convenient way for elegant socialites to get their daily dose as prescribed by their physicians (sometimes up to five litres a day!) At the end of our tour through the Baths, we got to taste the water itself. Some people say that it tastes as if thousands of Romans bathed in it… and they’re not wrong. The water contains high concentrations of sodium, calcium, chloride, and sulfate ions, giving it a strong mineral taste. I’ll tell myself it definitely has healing powers, though. Who couldn’t use a little restoration?
Exiting the Baths, we walked across the square and were confronted by the Gothic Bath Abbey. This is a popular spot and we saw many street performers doing everything from opera to mime. Evading the tourist crowds, we meandered over to Pulteney Bridge for a picnic on the riverside. Pulteney Bridge spans the River Avon, and is famous for housing shops and eateries built across it on both sides, something I’ve seen most often in depictions of Tudor England. I’ll admit, from the bridge itself, it doesn’t look like much, since it’s really as if the street you’re on just keeps going. From the cafe window, however, it’s nice to look out over the river. It’s more impressive from the banks below, where we could see the bridge in its entirety.
We continued on to what would be my favorite stop in Bath – the Fashion Museum and the Assembly Rooms. This is one complex that houses hundreds of years of fashion history, though in order to keep the garments in good condition, only 100 items are shown at a time. These 100 items represent 300 years of fashion history in an incredible winding display. It was dark, to protect the fabrics from decay, but the beautifully tailored displays felt so close to the glass that it wasn’t hard to see minute details. The oldest garments on displays were from 16th century England. We were particularly enchanted to see them, given our own recent history performing in Renaissance Faires. Other favorite displays of mine were the Regency Era with its empire-style waistlines in the Greco-Roman style, and the Victorian bustles and frills. Upstairs from the Fashion Museum were the Assembly Rooms themselves, where the social elite of Austen’s time met during their time in Bath to socialize and dance the night away. The ballroom, tea room, card rooms, and “octagon” were built in the 18th century, lavishly decorated with high ceilings and fine chandeliers. Events are held in the rooms today, but unless you’re going to one, there isn’t much to do except look at the rooms and imagine the throng of dancing Georgians.
Thirsty from so much imaginary dancing, we popped over to the Regency Tea Rooms, a little cafe above the Jane Austen Centre. Saving the Centre for another day, we headed straight up to the tea room itself. The building is in a townhouse on Gay Street that is strikingly similar to the lodgings Jane Austen would have had at one point during her life in Bath. The tea room was decorated in the Georgian style and was capped, naturally, with a portrait of Mr. Darcy (aka Colin Firth). We got to enjoy a cream team with the room to ourselves, probably due to the late hour and the happy fact that it was a weekday.
The next morning we headed off towards the Royal Crescent, walking the very same gravel path from Persuasion where Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth reconcile. What chills! It’s one thing to see where something was filmed, but to be in the very place that inspired such a prolific writer is another thing entirely. The path spat us out at the Royal Crescent, which is a row of 30 residences arranged in a crescent, and perhaps the most iconic image of Bath. It’s considered to be the best example of Georgian architecture in all of the United Kingdom. No. 1 Royal Crescent has been fully restored to reflect its Georgian heydey. We’d toured something very similar in Edinburgh in New Town, but as a lifelong Austen fan, I could never get enough of touring fancy homes from that time. Like the museum in Edinburgh, this one also had volunteer docents in each room that were incredibly knowledgeable of the era. Again I was astonished on the sheer volume of food that Georgians ate. The social life in Bath was another fascinating element. Anyone coming to Bath would be announced in the paper, and the wealthy classes would read up on who was coming and decide who to invite for dinner, even if they were strangers. It was all about “who you knew”, and sometimes dinner invitations would be revoked if someone even better showed up in the paper the next day. Yikes!
We headed back across town, passing through the famous Circus to do so. This is an historic street of even more Georgian townhouses, named as such for the Latin ‘circus’, which means circle or ring. I can’t imagine what it’s like to live in one of these townhouses today, let alone what it costs. Pausing for lunch at the Darcy’s News Cafe (they really capitalize on Jane Austen in this town), we enjoyed what would be the best English-style breakfast we would have in the United Kingdom, served with a side of friendly service. Then it was next door and a tour of the Jane Austen Centre, the very same one we had passed through for tea in the upper rooms the day before. Perhaps disappointingly, it’s less of a museum of her effects but more of an informational exhibit on her life and works. The staff are all dressed up in Regency attire, and I couldn’t miss the opportunity to nab a photo with the allegedly most photographed man in all of England at the front door. It was enjoyable to learn about her life and influences, given I am such a fan.
With plenty of time to kill before dinner, we wandered through the streets of downtown Bath. Numerous shops were all decorated for the Christmas holidays, though there were only a few antique-looking mom and pop shops squeezed in amongst the big name brands. We walked down Milsom Street (Austen fans, rejoice!) and found ourselves near a guildhall market we’d stopped in previously. It certainly wasn’t as big as St. George’s Market in Belfast, but there were numerous stalls and one particular French stall where we purchased Wild Boar pâté. It was shockingly delicious, even if the smell could knock your socks off. We popped into the free-to-enter Victoria Art Gallery, which had an exhibit hall with some nice British paintings and sculptures but nothing really to write home about. Except I guess I did write about it.
Dinner was at Sally Lunn’s Historic Eating House. It’s one of the oldest houses in Bath, being built in the late 1400s. The basement dates up to 300 years even before that, since it was part of the Bath Abbey. It’s purportedly the birthplace of the famous Bath Bunn, which is a large tea cake made with a yeast dough, cream, and eggs. It’s not unlike a French brioche, which makes sense, as the inventor Sally Lunn was a French Huguenot refugee who brought the recipe to Bath in the 1600s. The basement has a small kitchen museum and shows the different layers of the city through time, as it was built up to avoid being flooded by the river each year. It’s certainly a tourist trap, and usually it’s really hard to get a table without a long wait, but again the fact that we were touring Bath on an off-season weekday played into our favor. We each got a bun to split, one savory with melted cheese and another with cinnamon sugar. They were good, but to be honest with you, it sort of just tasted like…bread. Hype is not a tasty secret ingredient.
Our last notable stop in Bath was at the Bath Abbey. For All Souls Day, the Abbey Choirs and instrumental ensemble performed Rutter’s Requiem for the Eucharist. It was a solemn service, but the music was hauntingly beautiful in such a grand cathedral. It was mostly attended by locals, and it’s a shame that more tourists don’t attend these free events. It was a beautiful window into the life of the town.
The Requiem wasn’t just a special occasion for All Souls Day – all of the United Kingdom was commemorating the centenary of World War I. Just about every British person was wearing a red poppy pin that week – we saw poppies everywhere, from shop windows to jacket sleeves to road signs. Of course we have Memorial Day in the United States, yet Remembrance Day seemed so much more raw here on the English streets. Naturally the UK was severely and violently affected by WWI, and it seemed that every village had casualties. We saw memorials in every off-the-beaten-path hamlet we passed through, listing all those who died in either World War. It all just seemed so much…closer. A saying comparing Americans and the British I am fond of is “For the British, 100 miles is a long way, but for Americans, 100 years is a long time”. WWI still seems like it ended yesterday for everyone we saw. I hope that the memories of the Wars remain prevalent, not just in the UK, but across the globe. In these increasingly turbulent times, I fear that many of us are too far removed from the horrors that are just one twisted ideology away.
I think back to the quote by Jane Austen that I had to settle on in lieu of an inspiring one on travel. It’s true – there is nothing quite like home. I am just as much of a fan of real comfort as the next person, but who is to say that you can’t find home in places you visit? Growing up reading Austen, I felt like I was surrounded by something familiar. Seeing Christmas preparations made me feel like this was no different than a Virginian Main Street during the holidays. The more we travel and see new and exciting things, the more I feel like we can find comfort and the familiar almost everywhere.
Fully restored by the waters and wonders of Bath (in theory), we bid goodbye to the bustling resort town and headed off into the wilds of Bodmin Moor. Up next, the Cornish Coast!