Bath – an extraordinary city (1)

We’ve just returned from a few days in Bath. It’s a treat that we give ourselves on a regular basis. I’m essentially someone who is happier in the country or on the coast, rather than in the city, but Bath is a city like no other in Britain. It’s compact, easy to navigate on foot, stunningly beautiful, packed with thousands of years of fascinating history – and it’s fun!

IMG_1756Even the buskers and the street theatre are out of the ordinary. ‘Living statues’ are rather old hat these days, but the chap above has an original approach. He sits on an invisible chair, pouring water unceasingly from a bottle into a mug. We also found a rich mix of buskers including folk musicians, a blues guitarist, an operatic soprano, an elderly crooner with a lovely voice and a didgeridoo player who had clearly mastered circular breathing.

A few words of practical advice – traffic jams and parking can be a nightmare. The railway and bus stations are both in the city centre. If you have to arrive by car, use the Park & Ride service. However you get there, head straight for the TIC next to the Abbey and buy a ticket for the two sight-seeing bus tours. National Trust members get a discount. The City Tour stays in the city centre; the Skyline Tour crosses the river and goes up into the hills to the south. Both have commentaries, but they don’t just provide information. Showing your bus ticket gets you a discount off the admission price at ten museums and in various shops and restaurants. Tickets are valid for 24 hours. Buy them at lunchtime and you can catch the buses that afternoon and the following morning.

220px-Pulteney_Bridge,_Bath_2The beauty of the city derives partly from its position in the steep-sided valley of the River Avon and partly from its Georgian buildings of Bath stone. It is the only place in Britain where the entire city has been granted World Heritage status. Florence is the only other city in Europe to achieve this. There’s another link with Florence in that Robert Adams’ Pulteney Bridge over the Avon strongly resembles the Ponte Vecchio, each having shops on both sides of the road crossing the bridge.

Much of the layout of the city’s squares, boulevards and open spaces are the result of the work of Georgian architects John Wood the Elder and his son, John Wood the Younger. Two of their most famous developments are the Royal Crescent and The Circus built in 1754-1770. Even if you’ve never been to Bath you may well be familiar with both as they have been featured on numerous television programmes, but I’ll say something about The Circle as it gives me the chance to drop in a little joke.

The Circus It’s a circular development of three-storey residential houses, divided into three equal terraces, the diameter being the same as the diameter of the largest stone circle of Stonehenge. Three roads lead into The Circus, each entering directly opposite the centre of one of the terraces, so as you enter you should be faced with the striking architecture that includes Doric, Ionic and Corinthian columns on each house, large decorative acorns (ancient Druidic symbol) at roof level and a row of Masonic symbols at first floor level. The Woods wanted the centre to remain an open space so their architecture could be seen, but in the early 19th century it was planted with London plane trees. When the trees are in leaf the view across The Circus is blocked – a classic case of not being able to see the Wood for the trees.

Bath has so much on offer (the Pump Room, the Assemby Rooms, museums, art galleries, river, canal, Thermae Spa, the Abbey, Jane Austen, Prior Park, Ralph Allen, Sally Lunn, Guildhall, shops, restaurants and character-filled pubs) that I can only pick out a few choice morsels in a blog post. Maybe I’ll make this the first of a brief series and just mention one more attraction today.

If you have to choose just one place to visit make it the Roman Bath Museum – and allow plenty of time. We can easily spend three hours in there. The administrators have managed to combine the excavated ancient ruins with modern technology to bring history to life. Their excellent website tells the full story. I’ll content myself with commenting on what has most impact on me. The Victorians built a terrace around the excavations so that the public could look into the site. Standing in one corner of that terrace, looking down into the fully excavated Roman Bath with the Abbey as backdrop is absolutely stunning.

The hot spring that lies at the root of the development of Bath isn’t fairly described by the word ‘spring’. Some 240,000 gallons of water surge to the surface every day at a constant temperature of 46 deg C. It’s the only hot spring in Britain and someone has calculated that the water coming out of the ground today fell as rain on the Mendip Hills 10,000 years ago. People travelled from all over the Roman Empire to visit the bath and temple complex that the Romans built.

IMG_1776There are two things that make me feel in touch with the Roman users of the baths. One is the display cabinet pictured on the left. When the drain from the baths was excavated a large number of precious and semi-precious stones were found. The hot water expanded the metal of jewellery, loosening the stones to the extent that they fell out. The stones only average about 1cm in diameter, but each is exquisitely engraved. I’m guessing that the wearer of the stone with the chariot engraving was a soldier. It’s so easy to put oneself in the position of a bather discovering the loss of a very expensive ring. The language would have been blueius maximus.

The other endearing display features a collection of curses! The pool where the spring emerges was sacred, dedicated by the Britons to Sulis and by the Romans to Sulis Minerva. The Romans appealed to the goddess for help by scratching messages on thin squares of lead which were folded and dropped into the pool. Excavation has found a lot of these lead pieces on which the writing is still legible. The messages are often curses directed at a suspected wrong-doer, but with a degree of subtlety. For example, if Antonius had his best toga stolen from the changing room and suspected that Brutus was responsible, he would give his toga to the goddess and urge her to recover it from Brutus punishing him in the process.

It’s a fascinating place in a fascinating city.

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