Friday, June 8, 2012

When I finally wake up this morning, I roll over and look at the time. It feels good to sleep in, but it’s late and it suddenly occurs to me that I’ve missed one of Sue and Derek’s wonderful homemade breakfasts downstairs.

When I head out the door of 3 Abbey Green, I have to brace myself against the pounding wind and pouring rain. By now, I’ve grown weary of wearing the same black raincoat day in and day out, so I on a whim I buy a new mint green scarf with a butterfly pattern at a small boutique called Pink Lemons Too. It’s the least I can do elevate my mood, and it will help to keep me warm.

On my first visit to Bath in 2007, inclement weather and a cranky mood drove me back to London early, so this time I am determined to be more resilient. I want to visit the Abbey and a number of small museums in town. The church is what’s close, so after pausing for a moment to admire the stone angels that rise and fall upon Jacob’s ladder on either side of the west front entrance, I pull open the heavy wooden doors and walk in.

In truth, I’m not a religious person. I am, at best, a lapsed Catholic with an interest in art history and architecture. Nevertheless, I find myself drawn to Europe’s cathedrals time and time again for reasons that speak more to the heart than the head, and Bath Abbey is no exception. It is a glorious space—open and flooded with colored light, even on a gray and dreary day, owing to a plethora of stained glass windows. The small guidebook I purchased from the gift shop on the way in says that the Abbey gives pilgrims “a glimpse of Heaven from their places on Earth.” In craning my neck toward the fan vaulting high above the nave, it would be hard to disagree. The carving is delicate and beautifully proportioned, rising between tall windows and splaying out like the pleats of a scallop shell.

By now, my stomach is growling. I stop for lunch at a branch of the West Cornwall Pasty Company and then wander aimlessly about the streets of Bath for a while, looking in shop windows. At the Makery Emporium, there is a folksy bust of Queen Elizabeth knitted entirely of yarn, and at the Uttam Boutique there is a gaudy pair of Union Jack panty hose on display.

I walk further to the Bartlett Street Antique Centre, and then on past The Circus to John Wood’s Georgian masterpiece, the Royal Crescent. It is a graceful arc of thirty townhouses, all crafted from the same honey-colored stone in the same conservative, Palladian style, dressed in rows of Ionic columns and stone balustrades. The overall effect is somehow greater than the sum of its parts, a triumph of order and symmetry that stands proud against a massive lawn in front. Because of all the rain, Britain’s lawns have never looks so green.

To escape the howling, wet wind, I duck into No. 1 Royal Crescent, a small house museum operated by the Bath Preservation Trust that presents a typical, wealthy interior from the period, with a sumptuous dining room and an elegant drawing room with green damask walls.

By now it’s mid-afternoon, but still cold enough to wrap a scarf tight around my neck. I retrace my steps back toward the Abbey and decide to stop at Hands Tearoom for a bite to eat. As I wrap my frozen fingers around a hot cup of tea with milk and bite into a fresh Bath bun to find a melted lump of sugar inside, I sigh and marvel at how easy it is to find pleasure in the smallest of things.

I walk across Pulteney Bridge and down Great Pulteney Street to the Holborne Museum of Art and finish the day by exploring its eclectic galleries of Old Master paintings, majolica dishes, and portrait miniatures.

For dinner, I settle into a cozy table at Tilly’s Bistro and order a plate of Pork Dijonnaise— tender meat in a rich, mustard sauce. On the short walk back to my hotel afterwards, I stop to enjoy the stained glass windows in the Abbey. The sky is growing dim, a stormy cobalt blue, and the colored panes of glass are glowing from light within, which makes the imposing old church look warm and inviting. Perhaps there’s a service or a concert inside, but my brain is too tired and my muscles too sore. For now, all I want is sleep.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Oh, bloody hell. When I get home I really must commit myself to learning a greater variety of British swear words. What little I know I learned watching “Billy Elliot” last night! More would certainly come in handy. Take this morning, for instance. I’m groggy from my late night at the theatre and the cumulative effect of three days of solid walking, but I am determined to make the 9:07 AM train to Bath. Actually, my original plan was to take the 7:37, but even I know that is sheer folly. I stumble across the street to the Gloucester Road tube stop only to find that the District and Circle line trains are not running, which means trouble if I’m going to get to Paddington Station on time. For a moment, I consider my options. “I could take the Piccadilly line to Green Park and then transfer to…”  But that would take time. I opt for a taxi instead. The driver gets me to the station with time to spare, but I can’t believe what this is costing me. Nearly $25 dollars. 

Once inside the station, I check the departure board and all is well. The train is on time. Engrossed once again in Harry Potter, I look up when I hear the crowd groan a few minutes later. The train has been cancelled. Not late… cancelled. I listen in as angry customers approach the service desk. It’s something about lack of staff. I hang my hopes on the 10:07. When it finally arrives the crowd is even larger and more unruly. I have my rail pass in hand, but no reservation. I count heads, the seats are limited. As soon as the track number is put on the board, people dash madly to the train. I do the same. It feels like a descent into The Lord of the Flies. Panting, I collapse into the first unoccupied seat I find and rejoice for it.  

By noon, I’m in Bath at last and ready to put my troubles behind me. But trouble is not yet ready to let me go. I walk out of the station to face the glories of Bath, to see Georgian architecture at its finest. Instead I see a construction zone. Not just any construction zone. This looks like something out of World War II, the Blitz perhaps. An entire city block has been razed. All that remains is rubble. I check my directions to the hotel: “Exit station walking left along Dorchester Street to end of buildings, go around building…” OK, the building is gone.  “…over bridge, under viaduct, through subway and turn right.” Here is where things go seriously wrong. I head up the hill and look for the comfort of a street sign that says Wells Road, but see nothing. No street signs at all. I stop and ask a group of men standing outside a pub for directions. They point further up the hill and tell me to keep going. By now my legs are burning and I’m grumbling audibly about the “8 minute” walk from the train station advertised on the hotel’s website. Were they carrying luggage when they timed it? I don’t think so. It dawns on me that the men outside the pub are probably laughing by now. They have sent me seriously off course. A kindly woman points me back down the same hill.

After a 30 minute odyssey, I find Oldfields at last. I tell a sympathetic woman manning the front desk of my plight and she says “That’s not good, is it”? It’s another rhetorical question and it reminds me of the businessman on the train to York. I smile for the first time in hours. 

With a bacon, leek and cheese pasty and a bag of chips in my stomach I feel refreshed, my optimism renewed. I sit eating on a park bench by the Bath Abbey watching a changing selection of street performers. When I’m done I buy a ticket for the City Sightseeing bus at the tourist information office and pick up the “Skyline” loop to the Prior Park Landscape Garden.

I stand at a top of the hill looking down into the valley, toward the Palladian bridge and an impossibly perfect herd of cows. I stop to catch my breath, not because of the climb, or even because of the morning’s stress, but because it’s just that beautiful. I follow the path down through the woods until I come to the foot of the valley, circle around the pond and walk slowly to the bridge itself. I stop to read the graffiti carved into the stone pillars and wonder what it was like the day J.D. was here on the 26th of May, 1810. I feel that I am not just miles away from the rest of the world, but centuries as well. In my head, I imagine I am Lizzy Bennet hoping for a chance encounter with the infuriating Mr. Darcy.

Back in Bath, I transfer buses to continue on the main “City Route.” There is live commentary and on the way to the Royal Crescent the tour guide tells us about the wealthy people who made Bath fashionable in the 18th century. As an aside, he improvises a line about Americans and how we are all rich, too, aren’t we? Well, no we’re not. But there’s that rhetorical question again.

As we move on it becomes clear that Bath is justifiably proud of their connection to Jane Austen, but the more I listen to stories about where she lived, the stranger it all seems. By the time we get to the Gravel Walk, where Anne and Captain Wentworth finally declare their love for one another in Persuasion, I remember with irony that Jane disliked Bath a great deal. And so did Queen Victoria, we are told. After a critical reception here in 1819, she did not return to the area again until her Diamond Jubilee in 1897 at which time she instructed the coachmen to draw the curtains on her carriage, lest she see the city again.

Here in the 21st century, the sun is shining and the day is long. Despite the opinion of these two fine women, I find that I like Bath very much indeed.

I end what has become a lovely day with a quick visit to the Fashion Museum, dinner at the Pump Room restaurant, and a late trip to the Roman Baths which by now are illuminated by torch light. I head out of town and back up the hill on tired legs, glad to find the hotel easily this time, even in the dark.