Thursday, October 23, 2014


Bath, A Love Story

Before I begin, I have to tell you that I don’t just like Bath, I love Bath. Besides being a gorgeous city, the Bath we see today was built in my favorite era, the Georgian period, when Mozart, Marie Antoinette, George Washington and Jane Austen were the conversation of the day. Old George the III may have been a bit batty, but the times sparkled with brilliance and innovation. Bath is a true reflection of both.

Thank you, Emperor Claudius

Addicted to bathing, we have the Romans to thank for creating Bath in 43AD. One look at the scalding mineral spring that bubbled up into steaming pools and the industrious Romans promptly began construction on a communal bath house. Gradually expanding into a town, Bath happily provided the Roman garrisons a place to kick back and refresh after a long day of conquering for the next 500 years. When they withdrew from Briton around 577AD, however, the bath and temple complex gradually fell into disrepair and slowly silted over. (For more about the Roman baths, go to the post: “Stonehenge and Bath, a Page From My Journal”, October 22, 2012)

It took another 1,100 years for Bath to flourish again, thanks to portly Queen Anne and her gout. Her royal visits beginning in 1692 “to take the waters”, inspired the rich and famous to follow her lead, making Bath the place to be seen. And with that, an ancient place of bathing began a new life.

The City of Golden Stone

However, we owe the beauty of Bath to an enterprising young man from Cornwall, Ralph Allen. After moving into town in 1710 for a new job, he noticed that although the town attracted the well-heeled, it still had a frontier town quality about it. An ambitious visionary, he could see the town’s potential, and soon turned his attention to land development. He bought the local limestone quarry, and hired the best architect he could find, Mr. James Wood from York, and together they set out to transform Bath. Their vision, which already had the beautiful Avon River running through it, would be a town filled with parks, broad avenues for walking, and lovely Greek and Roman inspired public buildings and townhouses where the wealthy could spend summers away from London--all built out of the golden hued limestone from Mr. Allen’s quarries.

The Circus and The Crescent

The Circus

After visiting the Roman baths, our tour guide turned us loose for several glorious hours to wander around on our own. This being my second visit to Bath, I intended to make the most of it.  Grabbing a Cornish pasty to eat on the run, I set off to see the most iconic landmarks in town, The Circus and The Crescent.

Woods, Sr. designed both of these complexes but died before construction began, leaving the building of them to his son. Inspired by the Roman Colosseum, the Circus consists of 33 townhouses built in three sections, forming a circle. Originally, the paved center bustled with dozens of men carrying sedan chairs, hustling to answer the summons of “Chair Ho!” shouted by the resident servants. Now the center is a peaceful green space, filled with four enormous trees. (Incidentally, “Chair Ho” eventually became the greeting “Cheerio!”)

Grateful to have the time to really appreciate the beauty and symmetry of the townhouses, I slowly walked around the Circle admiring the soaring Greek columns and the luminous golden stone used to construct them. I peered into what used to be the servants entrances, now upscale basement apartments and tried to imagine who lives there now.  I then strolled up the street about a block to the Royal Crescent (the “Royal” was added after Prince Frederick stayed there). I wanted to tour one of the only townhouses that are open to the public, No. One Royal Crescent, now a museum owned by the Bath Preservation Trust.

 The Royal Crescent,  No. One is the first end unit on the right.

The Royal Crescent is a row of 30 magnificent townhouses, and, No. One is the first end unit. Built in 1776 and owned by Henry Sandford, it is several stories high, but surprisingly shallow. Each story contains only a couple of front facing rooms, and behind them are a set of steep and narrow stairs which lead to each floor. I pitied the servants who had to run up and down those stairs all day long from basement kitchen to the bedrooms on top. Faintly, I imagined I heard, “Oh, I say, Poppy. It’s time for my bath. Be a good girl and fetch 43 gallons of hot water to my third floor bedroom right away. Off you go!”

(Images courtesy of Google)

The townhouse is furnished with what a gentleman of the day would require. There is the well appointed Dining Room, the Parlor with his bookcases and breakfast table, the Gentleman’s Retreat with display cabinets spilling over with his collections; then there is the Withdrawing Room for the ladies which housed the harpsichord and a table for tea, all on the first two floors. The other floors contained the bedrooms and servants quarters, and the basement housed the large kitchen, pantry and servants entrances. There are no bathrooms. Period. Don’t ask me what the ladies did, but one docent indicated a leather folding screen in the Dining Room and said, after clearing her throat, “A Gentleman only needed to excuse himself, go behind the screen and do what nature required in the chamber pot provided. Shall we move on?”

After the tour, I decided to walk the length of the Royal Crescent and pretend I was Jane Austen strolling arm and arm with my sister, Cassandra. I would incline my head slightly to the other passing gentry, who like my sister and me, enjoyed a promenade on a lovely summer’s day. As I reached the other end, I noticed a young man dressed in 18th century costume and asked him if I could take his picture. He said that I could, but I must realize that he worked as a tour guide and this was his livelihood. If I wanted his picture it would cost me one pound (about a dollar and a half, in US money). I dug around in my coin purse and pulled out a two pound coin and handed it to him, happy enough to help out. Well, that turned out to be the best two pounds I spent in England. Surprised that he got twice what he asked for, he said, “You know, I have about a half an hour before my next tour. If you like, I could show you around the Royal Crescent. By the way, my name is Thomas Powe and I’m an 18th century historian.”  Thomas Powe

Putting Up A Good Front
“The most interesting thing about the Royal Crescent is that John Wood only designed the façade. It was then up to each original owner to build his own house! The buyer, purchased how many feet of the façade he wanted, and then employed his own architect to build a custom house behind, so what may look like two houses may in fact be only one. Walk with me around to the backside and I’ll show you something few people ever see.”

Thomas led me around to the rear of the Royal Crescent and showed me what looked like just a collection of cobbled together tenements. “Because these were built before bathrooms, plumbing and electricity, everything had to be added to the back. Then, of course, there are the various and sundry expansions, garages and what not added over the centuries.”

Walking back to the facade, he continued, “This sort of construction  occurs all over Bath. It's called, Queen Anne fronts and Mary-Anne backs, a metaphor for the fact that most of the houses here have fancy fronts but common backsides!”

Continuing our walk around the curved face of the Royal Crescent, Thomas continued, “Many notable people have either lived or stayed here since it was first built over 230 years ago. One might have easily seen the likes of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Gainsborough, and all manner of royalty over the years.”

“Who lives here now, Thomas?”

“Many of the flats and houses are privately owned but a few are owned by a housing association. The middle section is the Royal Crescent Hotel, and of course, the Georgian house museum is on the end. You can imagine how expensive they must have been when first built, but now they are even more so. Priceless, really.”

After a few more minutes of showing me around, I said good-bye and thank you to Thomas who had to run off for his scheduled tour. I turned to look at the Royal Crescent one last time then retraced my steps back through the Circus and down Gay Street.

Jane Austen’s Bath

I didn’t realize until I saw the Jane Austen Center on Gay Street that Jane lived in Bath for five years, from 1801 to 1806. The Center, located a few doors down from her actual home at #25 (now privately owned), is identical to hers. I immediately crowded in with the rest of the star-struck tourists for a tour. 

I learned that her years in Bath were mostly happy ones. She, along  with her parents and sister, Cassandra first lived in a very nice area in Bath, across from Sydney Gardens. While there, she filled her days and nights with non-stop socializing, parties and dancing. So much so, she had little time for her writing. Then her father died and left the Austen women without an income. Having to rely on the charity of her brothers, they ended up on Gay Street. 

Gay Street was and still is the busiest street in town, being the main thoroughfare between the center of Bath and the Circle and Crescent. During Jane’s time, it would have been noisy as well with sedan chairs marching like ants up and down the steep street all day long. The Austen’s stayed only a year then moved to a country cottage in Chawton, not unlike the one seen in the movie “Sense and Sensibility”.  It made me wonder if her experience in Bath inspired the book...

Although Jane didn’t live in Bath long, the town, its residents and routine profoundly influenced her writing. No longer having the distractions of living in a city, she resumed her writing, setting two of her novels in Bath, “Northanger Abbey” and “Persuasion”.

I came away happy to know that one of my favorite writers loved Bath as much as I do.
                                                                                  Jane Austen's home, No. 25 Gay Street

Friday, October 3, 2014


 Map courtesy of Trafalgar Tours

Earlier in the day, we said goodbye to Plymouth and headed north across Devon into Somerset, finally ending our day in Bristol. It was a long day of driving, but we broke it up with two side trips along the way; one to Glastonbury and its enormous Abbey ruins, and Wells, a tiny town with one of the best cathedrals in England.

Glastonbury Abbey

“Welcome, Pilgrims, to Glastonbury Abbey! My name is Alice Cleaves. I was a serving wench here of late, but now I’m out of a job, thanks to Henry VIII, and I’m not very happy about it.” We arrived at Glastonbury Abbey just in time to join the delightful “Alice” (a living history presenter) for a tour.

Alice, with staff in hand, proceeded to show us the Abbey as it once existed in 1538, the last year before Henry VIII had it destroyed (but not before parceling out its riches to his supporters). Soaring arches and parts of walls are all that is left of one of the largest churches in all of England. At one time, it was the richest and most influential of them all, outranking even Westminster Abbey. Encrusted with gold and paved with expensive handmade tiles, it was the burial place of four kings, including King Arthur and his Guinevere. (Glastonbury Abbey)

Abbey Grounds

After showing us the general layout of the Abbey’s massive footprint, Alice pointed to an imaginary sign and firmly announced,

“Don’t think you can come ‘ere without any money, all right? I hope you all brought a few groats. Don’t matter how poor ya are, but you may have to pay for a few things. You Pilgrims come for many reasons. Many of you have come here to be forgiven, yes? ‘Ere by the door is the Magna Tabula, for those of you who can read. It’s written in Greek and tells how many years and days you can pay to knock off your time in Purgatory. In truth, we can offer ya 64 years and 169 days. Take it or leave it!”

How to become a Monk

“Now some of you have come for another reason.” Grabbing the arm of one of the men in our group, she continued, “Mister Richard ‘ere, has come to be a Brother, haven’t ya? He was sent by his family—at that time it was a wonderful career. It will take Mister Richard three years to become a Brother, and if he’s noticed by the Bishop, he could be sent to Cambridge or Oxford, if he’s bright. Can you read, Mister Richard? All right, then. You just might make it!” She said, as she handed him his monk’s attire to put on.

Slipping the cowl over his head, Alice proclaims, “Brother Richard, you’re now a full-fledged monk! So, come over ‘ere, I’ve got a little job for ya. Most of these Pilgrims have come to see the shrines and tombs, but you will notice that there are large boxes covering them up. Your job, Brother Richard is to pull up the boxes, by rope and pulley, to reveal them—for a donation, of course. All right! Pull the rope, Brother Richard! No, no! Not the rope on your robe, the rope to the box! Oh, he’ll never get to Cambridge that way!”

King Arthur’s Burial Place

After getting the measure of Brother Richard, Alice takes us over to a grave-site in front of what would have been the high altar. Pointing at the grave, she explained,

“It is said that Arthur of the Britons located his Camelot close around Glastonbury, and when mortally wounded in battle in 537, he was brought ‘ere to be buried in the Abbey cemetery. In 1191, King Henry II asked the Bishop to locate his bones for reburial in the cathedral. The monks eventually found a large hollowed out tree trunk with the remains of a very large man and a woman with golden hair. They moved them ‘ere in the South Transept where they remained until the Abbey was destroyed in 1539. Since then, what happened to the remains of King Arthur is a mystery. Someone dug him up, but where they put him, no one knows…”

Alice concluded her narration with us by saying, “I hope you’ve enjoyed the tour. Feel free to wander the grounds. All except you, Brother Richard. You have to stay here!”

The Abbott's Kitchen 

The only building left intact on the Abbey grounds was the kitchen, probably because Henry's men had to eat somewhere while they were busy destroying the Abbey. In its prime, the kitchen could provide meals for 500 people at one time, having four huge fireplaces in all of its corners.

The Abbot's kitchen. The only building left intact.

 Only men were allowed to cook in the great kitchen.

 Our tour group at Glastonbury Abbey. Steve (our guide) is on the extreme
 left hand side, Alice and I (I'm the one in the yellow), are on the right-ish 
side in front. Brother Richard is the tall one between us.

Wells Cathedral

Not far from Glastonbury, is the city of Wells. It’s a tiny place, one of the smallest cities in England, but it contains the most breathtaking cathedral I’ve ever seen. Steven (our guide) promised that we would see some hidden gems on our tour, but I was unprepared for the stunning beauty of Wells Cathedral.

Wells Cathedral is a classic Gothic church, built before spires were standard equipment.
Without them, it almost looks like something is missing.

It’s a crime that we were only given 15 minutes to see this extraordinary jewel. As soon as the bus stopped, I jumped out with just my camera and took off running. I took a few pictures of the façade then went inside to snap a few pictures just to say I’d been there, but what I saw took my breath away. Bathed in brilliant natural light, every surface looked illuminated from within. Carved entirely out of the local honey-colored limestone, its interior is clean-lined and inviting, and to me, almost modern.

Besides the light, what immediately demanded my attention were the enormous scissor arches that towered several stories over the altar. Added in 1338 to add support for a tower addition, they are the main focus of the cathedral. Modern in design and aesthetics, and a product of ingenious engineering, they are marvelous.

The beautiful scissor arches of Wells Cathedral.  

Because of the time constraints, I missed seeing many other unique and beautiful things about Wells Cathedral, like the Vicars’ Close, one of the oldest and best preserved streets in England. I hope if you are ever in the area, you won’t miss it. It’s one of England’s finest gems. (Photos and History of Wells Cathedral)

 (photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

**To see a complete performance by "Alice", click this link: Alice and Glastonbury Abbey 
**A big thank you to Ross B. for this picture of Brother Richard (actually Richard T. from Australia). Thanks for the laughs, Richard! You were a great sport!

 Next Time: Bath