BATH – MY FAVOURITE PLACE IN ENGLAND
England is in a class of its own in terms of great town names. I can imagine meeting someone in a hostel and telling them I’m from Boggy Bottom. Nether Wallop would be met with blank looks, and I doubt many would care to be known as the guy from Great Snoring. At the opposite end of the naming spectrum, but no less entertaining, are places like Stone because it had stone, Coalville because it had coal, and Bath because it had baths. I absolutely love it.
I have friends in Bath; Tim, Sarah and their rabbits. We were thrown together on a boat in The Philippines and they’re exceptionally awesome people so I had a perfect excuse to go and check it out. Bath was never high on my list of places to see, but now I’ve been I have granted it the auspicious title of my favourite place in England. It is a very interesting city, the people are warm and affable, the architecture is superb, and it has a rich and interesting history from the Britons to the Anglo Saxons to the Romans, and back again.
THE LEGEND OF BLADUD AND HIS PIGS
This legend is set in 863 BC. Bladud was a young prince sent by his father to Athens to study. While there, he contracted leprosy. Knowing he probably shouldn’t be king if his face was going to eventually fall off, he ran away and became a swineherd. One day, he noticed some of his pigs were always rolling in the black mud. He also noticed they never had any skin diseases. Deciding anything was better than having his face fall off, Bladud joined his pigs for a roll in the mud. He was cured.
The newly healed Bladud returned and eventually became king. Contrary to most legends I’ve heard, instead of keeping the secret to himself, Bladud founded a city at Bath so everyone else could benefit from the healing waters. He dedicated the area to the goddess Sulis and everyone was happy.
There have been people in the area of Bath since the Mesolithic period. After the founding of the Bath, the Britons used the local hot springs as a shrine to the goddess Sulis. 900 years later, Romans settled in the area renaming the town Aquæ Sulis, though they considered her to be the goddess Minerva. Soon the settlement became a town and at its centre were the public baths fed by geothermal spring waters.
Bath, like many other cities in the United Kingdom, has a history filled with battles for political and religious power. After the collapse of the Western Empire of Rome in the late 4th and early 5th centuries, Bath’s prosperity rose and fell through the middle ages. Bath Abbey was commissioned in the 7th century with restorations every few hundred years or so, depending on who owned it.
The city became popular again in the 17th century after the legend of the healing waters was rekindled. Georgian architecture was brought to Bath and beautiful buildings were created including the Royal Crescent and the Bath Circus.
Let me start by stating you can’t swim here. Well you can, however you’re not allowed so don’t turn up in your swimsuit. The Roman Baths are a well-preserved historical site and museum. Up the road is the New Royal Spa which you can swim in for a couple of hours. Be warned, it will set you back close to £40.
After the Romans invaded Britain in the 1st century, they built a temple to Minerva at Bath. During the next 300 years, the bath complex was built, modified, and extended. The baths became a centre for healing and physical training, and long journeys were made from all over the Roman Empire to sit in its restorative waters. Of course, now we understand the lead pipes weren’t doing much towards healing them. It also probably added to the religious fervour experienced while there.
Archaeological exploration into the springs yielded a number of historical treasures and provided an insight into the people who once visited. Curses, scratched into metal tablets by victims of crime, beg retribution against those who have wronged them. Lost rings or, more commonly the stones from rings, show beautifully carved images of gods or detailed landscapes. Coins likely offered as payment or gifts to the goddess of the waters.
“The picture is not complete without some quarrelsome fellow, a thief caught in the act, or the man who loves the sound of his own voice in the bath – not to mention those who jump in with a tremendous splash.”
Seneca | Epistulae Morales, 56 | 1st Century AD
There are several sections within the museum of the baths including the baths and bathing rooms, the temple, the discoveries, and a section on the people who would visit.
The Abbey Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, or more commonly known as Bath Abbey, was commissioned in the 7th century. Since then it has been rebuilt and let fall into decay a number of times. Today the old church is beautiful, standing watch over the palace gardens and the Roman baths. It also taught me a few things. I didn’t know the definition of an abbey. I also didn’t know what fan vaulted ceilings were. Now I do.
Tours run up the tower where, for a small fee, you can stand behind the clock face, check out the ringing chamber and bell chamber, and stand above the fan vaulted ceilings. Now I know what they are, I’m more impressed by that statement.
During winter, the Christmas markets wrap themselves around the church like tinsel and Christmas lights, throwing their bright colours against the leaded windows and the tower. You can buy mulled wine and wander around admiring the old building.
It wasn’t a circus with the tent, acrobats, and creepy men with face paint. Clowns don’t scare me, because I’m a big strong man. However, I will admit to a few sleepless nights after watching the original TV mini-series of IT when I was 11 years old. This is the British use of the word, which is derived from Latin. I swear I knew that and I’m not just quoting wikipedia.
British. an open circle, square, or plaza where several streets converge: Piccadilly Circus.
Originally called the King’s Circus, the Bath Circus is a brilliant example of Georgian architecture. Designed by John Wood, the large townhouses form a circle with three road entrances. In the centre is a grass area which used to contain a well. The facade on each of the buildings is beautifully detailed and includes a number of classic designs. It is worth standing in the middle of the Circus to admire each of the buildings. Part of the design includes Gay Street and the nearby Queens Square, which together form a key. You can interpret this however you want, though it is one of the symbols of the Freemasons. Cue the mysterious music.
Also interesting to note are the blank windows at the end of the town houses. This was done intentionally to avoid the window tax. The window tax was a taxation on buildings with more than ten windows. Designed to tax the rich, it eventually impacted mostly the poor as the law was never defined properly. It was strictly enforced and had a number of unintentional consequences, including making people rather sickly as tiny windowless rooms became the norm.
Pulteney Bridge is a testament to an idea that got a little out of hand, but ended up working rather well. The original design started as a small bridge with a shop at each end. They then added more shops to the design. Then they widened the bridge. Then added more shops. After it was completed, it was immediately altered, adding more shops and widening the bridge further.
Pulteney Bridge spans the River Avon, linking the City of Bath with Bathwick and is one of only a handful of bridges that have shops along its entire length. Since it’s completion almost two hundred and fifty years ago, it has undergone numerous repairs and restorations, most recently bringing it into the state it can be seen today.
Fun fact: in the movie version of Les Misérables, Russell Crowe’s character, Javert jumps to his death after realising he’s not only the bad guy, but also a colossal asshole. In the scene, Russell Crowe slips down the Pulteney Weir (barely captured in the above photo) and is washed away.
The Royal Crescent, or as it was originally called, The Crescent, is a series of 30 houses in a long crescent in Bath. It was designed by John Wood, son of the John Wood who designed the Circus. Or at least he designed the front. The individual houses were designed by the owners and their architects, so the rear of the building lacks the conformity of the facade, which tweaks a nerve in my need for order.
The Royal Crescent is another excellent example of Georgian architecture. It also features a ha-ha. This is a type of wall similar to a retaining wall, allowing people an uninterrupted view but keeping livestock from wandering through the front door.
It looks perfectly British, so The Royal Crescent has been used as the set in a number of TV shows and movies.
I spent a few days in Bath. While that isn’t a lot of time to get to know a place, I enjoyed my time there. As an added bonus, I could actually understand what people were saying, unlike London where half the time I had no clue. Considering I’m a native English speaker, it was quite a surprise.
Definitely get along to Bath. The Roman baths are cool, but there is a lot more to see here than just those. You only have to look around!