Spring is in the air! On a blissfully sunny day, I went to Bath with F and S, who are visiting from New York. F’s friend Y was kind enough to drive us all the way there even though she’d already been twice, and she also took us on a few detours to see Windsor Castle and the White Horse.
Windsor Castle: The Queen was in! We only paused to see Windsor Castle from outside while Y grabbed breakfast. Especially with the stern statue of Queen Victoria presiding over the castle entrance, the area seemed very austere, though I’m sure inside it would be lavish and charming. Life-size mannequin soldiers stand guard at the McDonald’s across the street, but I didn’t see any real ones in Windsor.
The Hackpen White Horse was a little underwhelming; I thought the real horses grazing on a nearby hillside (white ones, no less!) were more fun to see. But I should have done some research beforehand—it’s actually pretty interesting! There are a number of these white horse figures, which are made by cutting trenches and filling them with chalk. The Uffington White Horse, near Swindon, is the most famous, a prehistoric figure that takes up an entire hillside. The Hackpen White Horse is less imposing and more recently made, in the 19th century.
The morning clouds parted by our arrival in Bath. Here we were, hoping to have a relaxing day away from London, and instead Bath was hopping with activity! It was the last day of the literary festival, in addition to which there was a half marathon event that day. The collective crowd of runners, supporters, families and tourists made for much more bustle than I expected, but I suppose it’s a truer representation of the olden days when Bath was a hub of fashionable society than if the streets were deserted.
We had a quick lunch (for under £2! Prices seem to be much lower in Bath) and met the walking tour group in the Abbey courtyard outside the Pump Room. The tours are free, given by volunteer members of the Mayor of Bath Honorary Guides, who share their infectious love of this beautiful city.
At first blush, Bath seems less interesting than other cities. But enjoying Bath is more about learning the history of the place and the beauty in the details. It might also be that Bath is more experientially vivid to me because I can imagine Bath in its heyday, having read and seen it in many Jane Austen novels and movies.
We passed by Jane Austen’s residence while she lived in Bath from 1801-1806 (verrrry inconspicuous—no indication that she lived there at all!). The Jane Austen Centre is a few doors down, but we didn’t stop in. Still, the gentleman in period attire positioned outside kindly smiled for my photograph as I passed by.
Though the tour was not Jane Austen-centric, we traversed the gravel walk that she often took and where Captain Wentworth proposes in Persuasion. (If you’re a fan and want to experience Bath through Austen’s eyes, you can download a free “Jane Austen’s Bath” audio tour here.) The walk passes behind a row of Georgian houses, and we popped into one back door to see a Georgian garden. It’s a little sparse at the moment, though I’m sure it’ll be in gorgeous bloom in a few weeks.
One of the hallmarks of Bath is the limestone, also known as “Bath stone,” which was quarried nearby and used to construct most of the buildings in the city. Decades ago, the stone was blackened with time, but it’s since been given a good scrub and is about the color of a very milky cup of tea.
New stone, however, actually gleams almost a bright silver, and apparently Jane found the glistening city-on-a-hill to be rather garish, and she didn’t like it much at all. In the photo on the left, you can see a newly restored building gleaming in the afternoon light. You can kind of see what she meant; a whole city made of this bright stone could be a little bit like being in the tundra—too much light reflecting off every surface in sight.
And for all you grumpy misanthropes out there: welcome to Quiet Street.
I was especially impressed with the Royal Crescent and the Circus, designed by John Wood the Elder and completed by his son, the Younger. The Royal Crescent for its grandeur, the Circus for its almost loving attention to detail. The way our guide, Chris, described the design and the detail and all the inspiration Wood drew from in its design—I’m not even going to try to describe it all here. You just have to take the tour.
Pulteney Bridge and the River Avon. Bath is built on a system of bridges and platforms above ground level, such that you can hardly tell whether you’re on ground level or crossing the river! The confusion is especially amplified because Pulteney Bridge is lined with shops, making it feel more like a street (in addition to which, you can’t see the water below). You can see where this is going—when we first arrived, we crossed the river and were hopelessly confused for a good five minutes….
Pulteney Bridge is actually one of only three bridges in the world with shops built on it; the other two, I believe, are in Florence and Milan. Makes sense, given that Bath is Roman-inspired.
The Roman baths were originally built by the Romans who first settled in Bath in AD 50, and its ruins were discovered only a few centuries ago. It is of course one of the must-sees in Bath, but I raced through this attraction in order to have time to see the Assembly Rooms & Fashion Museum before they closed. Besides which, the algae-ridden water is a little gross.
The Fashion Museum and the Assembly Rooms gave me a very satisfactory sense of early 19th-century Bath. Above, a photo of the gorgeous chandeliers in the Assembly Rooms (where balls were held and cards were played) and of the sedan chairs used as transport because Bath’s streets were not as conducive to the horse & carriage.
A little trivia: the farewell “cheerio” is derived from when people would call for their sedan chairs by crying, “Chair ho!” at the end of a social evening.
Overall? I loved it, as a place to visit. It helped that the skies were blue and the sun was shining! But overall, I think I’d find the uniformity of the buildings boring and repetitive rather than charming and elegant if I actually had to live here. Definitely worth seeing and experiencing though, perhaps even worth a splurge on the Thermae Spa one of these days.