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A lovely day in Bath

Posted on October 2, 2005 by Holly Hayes
Part of: Graduate School in Oxford

We spent today in Bath, and had a wonderful time. Beautiful town, gorgeous abbey, historic Roman baths, delicious afternoon tea, and acrobat-comedians with sparklers in their butts. Yeah, we didn't expect that last one, either.

We chose to go to Bath after a failed attempt to find convenient public transportation to the Cotswalds or the Chilterns for a nice nature walk. Both areas, renowned for their beauty and good walking paths, are so close to Oxford that it would probably take 15 minutes by car, but the trains and buses to get there are so complicated that we bagged it for this time. We may rent a car sometime to go there.

I've been to Bath once before and loved it so was excited to go back, and David has heard nothing but good things about it from his mom and several other people, so it was a good second choice.

We left on the 9:30 train from Oxford and arrived in Bath at around 11:00. Bath is southwest of Oxford, and probably wouldn't take more than about 30 min by car. But the train route there is not direct at all, and we had to change trains twice. Still, an hour and a half isn't bad, and the round-trip ticket was pretty cheap.

On one of the train changes, we met a guy who was from Portland! Pretty nutty. He's actually from Beaver Creek, which isn't far from Oregon City where David grew up. He just graduated high school and was traveling for several weeks by himself, first through the UK then down to southern Spain once it starts to get cold. Fun! We sat by him on the second and third legs of our trip and he was interesting to talk to. He was also very interested in my studies, as he had loved ancient Greek philosophy in high school.

It was a very short walk into town from the train station, and we started out by checking out the outside of Bath Abbey, a gorgeous cathedral-like church. As it was Sunday morning, a service was in progress and we couldn't visit the inside until noon.

So we wandered around in the vicinity, and came upon a pair of comedy street performers doing something with fire. So we stood watching for a bit and got sucked into the whole show. Quite a crowd gathered with us, and they were indeed quite funny and entertaining. And things really got interesting when, shortly after the show started, they peeled all their clothes off except for tiny G-strings. We all thought they were just bluffing as they pulled their shirts off, and then off came the pants!

As you can imagine, this new outfit gave them endless opportunity for jokes, and they also made lots of funny remarks about French and Germans (sadly they had nothing derogatory to say about Americans). They did a few acrobatic balancing tricks which were actually quite impressive, but the main focus was clearly the comedy. What made it even more funny is that they were performing right outside the windows of the very fancy Pump Rooms (where we later had afternoon tea).

After that unexpected detour, we went for a short walk across the Pulteney Bridge , which has a very pretty little waterfall in the river beneath.

That led onto the nice residential Great Pulteney Street, where we were stopped by a very cute old lady who wanted to tell us that awhile back a very big period film was filmed on the street (she couldn't remember the name, but I would bet it's one of the Jane Austen adaptations). She described how the whole street was transformed to the 19th century, with mud in the streets and the doors painted over. I don't know why she wanted to tell us this, but it was interesting!

It was now past noon, so we walked back to Bath Abbey and went inside. Fortunately, it was free and photos were allowed. It is really beautiful inside and out, and the inside ceiling is known for its unique "fan vaults." The giant organ was playing while we were in there, and we took our time just taking it all in (and taking a ton of photos).

After the Abbey we went to the Roman Baths, which are literally next door to the church. This is the main attraction of Bath, as it is the best-preserved ancient Roman baths anywhere, I believe. The baths, which served as part of a temple (the hot springs were sacred to the goddess Minerva) as well as a social meeting place, date from the 1st century AD.

The rather hefty admission price (about $15 each) gets you access to the baths (not for swimming, but you can get right up to the water and dip your fingers in) as well as a large museum displaying artifacts discovered at the site and models and explanations of what the temple complex originally looked like. It was very interesting, especially as that's the time period I'll be studying. David is also quite interested in the ancient Romans, so he enjoyed it, too. It was crowded, though.

After the baths we were mighty hungry so we had lunch at the Pump Rooms, which are connected to the baths. This is where 18th-century high society came to see and be seen and "take the waters" that were believed to cure all your ills. Today, they sell the water for about $1 a glass, and it tastes pretty nasty. But it is supposedly 10,000 years old, pumped from a hot spring 3km below the surface, and has 43 minerals. Iron is the one that gives it its "distinctive flavour."

After tasting the water, we had a traditional English cream tea in the wonderfully elegant surroundings (complete with live classical music), and it was so much fun. We shared a pot of jasmine tea and then the traditional 3-level stack of finger-sized treats that arrived shortly after. The bottom level had really delicious mini sandwiches (crustless, of course) of various kinds. The middle had the best scones I've had anywhere, with berry jam and the most indulgent and wonderful topping - fresh clotted cream. It's somewhere between cream and butter and is wonderful. The top tier had various bite-sized pastries that were also fantastic. Nearly all of them involved cream or custard, so by the end of the meal I felt quite sick. But it was absolutely worth it.

After that delicious experience we wandered around town some more, including a walk up the hill to see the Royal Crescent, a famed work of residential architecture that overlooks a beautiful park. In the center of the crescent is the Royal Crescent Hotel, and as its door was open I wandered in. A nice young man with a European accent greeted me and I asked if I could just look around. Happily, his response was, "What would you like to see?" I said, "Anything!" So he took me through the lobby and out back, where a garden path led to two other buildings, one of which was their five-star restaurant, the other was their private baths, featuring both hot and cold baths. He said it was 250 pounds ($450) per person, per night. Wow. I told him we'd be back when we're rich, and he said, "Never stop trying." Words of wisdom from a hotel employee who was probably dreaming of being a guest one day as well!

We wandered back down through town and caught a 7:17 train back to Oxford. The first two trains, which had an eventual destination of London, were very crowded. We got good seats at a table across from a cute Italian (or Spanish?) couple on the first leg, and then stood in the corridor on the second leg. The last leg to Oxford was much more roomy, and we caught a bus right away from the train station and were home shortly after 8:45.

We were very tired from all the walking, but it was such a fun day. I had an apple for dinner as I was still feeling a bit sick from the richness of the afternoon tea (David had an Indian dish with rice), we downloaded the photos (about 500 of them!), and went to bed.