Back to Britain, Part 9
Drive Across England to Bath
June 10-25, 2003 (Updated Dec. 4, 2003)
By Lewis Nolan
Wednesday, June 18, 2003 – To Bath
The day started poorly when the Dolphin Square’s concierge discovered that we did not have a reservation for the Hertz rental car. After being stung several times in the past with rental car screw-ups, I had asked the concierge desk last night to check on the Hertz reservation I had made weeks ago.
The car was part of the Northwest vacation package deal. Hertz had somehow put me down to pick up the car on June 24, which was a week later than the date on my Northwest voucher. I took a black cab to the nearby Hertz office at Victoria Station, where a polite young man of Indian ancestry sorted it out. I paid about $200 more than the voucher price to buy extra liability and theft insurance, putting the total rental above $500 for the week. They upgraded me to a comfortable Vauxhall sedan with only 2,500 miles on the odometer.
|Lewis at Bath's Great Bath|
|Click Colored Type to Enlarge Photo
In another Hertz screw-up, a young Arab attendant did a lousy job of prepping the Vauxhall. He had failed to vacuum a large pile of crunched “crisps” on the back seat, which he remedied when I pointed it out to him. Much worse, he had failed to fill the gas tank. That oversight – which I didn’t catch until later since I read the gas gauge of the British-made vehicle in reverse – initially cost me about $50.
I drove through light, mid-morning traffic around Victoria Station two or so miles to the Dolphin Square, where I collected Betty and our baggage. By carefully following the route suggested by the Hertz counter personnel, we were able to skirt around the £5 surcharge zone and avoid paying for the daily “congestion fee” required to drive for even a minute in the busiest sections of Central London.
It took an hour and a half to get through moderate traffic to the outskirts of the city, where we picked up the M4/A41 Motorway, a multi-lane, divided highway in excellent repair. The Motorways are the equivalent of America’s Interstate Highways - only faster. Traffic was heavy around lunchtime, whizzing along at 70-to-80 mph. We stopped at a Mojo Service Area that includes fast food, sit-down restaurant service, convenience store, motel and gas stations for both cars and trucks (or lorries). It was spic and span. A sign proclaimed that Mojo had won the “loo of the year” award for cleanest restrooms (or WCs as they are sometimes called in England).
We arrived at Bath about 1 p.m. and we stopped at an Esso station for gas. It was 40 pence per liter, which translates to about $65 to fill up. Unlike in the U.S., the combination gas station/convenience store had no restrooms. An attendant said British law only requires public WC facilities in stations that serve food.
It seems the Brits favor air-blower machines over paper towels in their facilities, which are generally clean, well supplied, conveniently located and free of graffiti. Even pet waste seems to be managed well, with special containers for such strategically located around parks. In London, signs warn of £500 fines for pet owners who do not clean up after their pets. Piles of dog droppings do not litter sidewalks and public areas in London like they do in parts of Paris. A Brit remarked that the Gallic attitude of “it’s somebody else’s problem” prevails with pet waste just as it does with other aspects of the sometimes maddening French indifference to matters Americans and the British think important.
We checked into the Hilton Bath City. We had the smallest room I’ve ever seen in any major hotel or even economy motel. There was barely enough room to walk around the bed. Furnishings and equipment were minimal. There was no air conditioning – surprising for a hotel charging $200 a night. At least a small fan and open window cooled things off at night. But the shower didn’t work properly – the water was either cold or scalding. The tiny desk in the room was buried with an armload of promotional material – including guest comment cards I put to good use. The Hilton’s business center had but a single Internet terminal – with a dialup connection that was dead-dog slow.
At check-in, I quickly saw first-hand why the Hilton brand is struggling with an image problem of uneven quality. The reception staff was young, pleasant and not very well trained; they kept guests checking in waiting in line while they patiently chatted up walk-up backpackers asking about rates and accommodations. A Hilton concierge gave us confusing driving directions for a “shortcut” that ended up costing us nearly an hour in lost time the next day. Desk staff allowed a walk-up to jump ahead of my requested time slot at the Internet terminal.
But in fairness I must add that we’ve also had some good experiences with other hotels managed by Hilton (which has its operations center in Memphis). I should also say that the Hilton Bath City had a particularly nice bartender on staff, Matt. The hotel also had an obliging restaurant manager, who arranged for us to sit at a table with a great view of the Avon River and the picturesque bridge just downstream.
Our dinner at the Hilton’s restaurant was marked by a wonderful view, satisfactory service and so-so food. With Bath’s proximity to the ocean, I had been assured that the swordfish was fresh caught and just off the boat. It was not and the portion was skimpy. Betty had a decent ham Calzone. But at least the Hilton is in an excellent location. It is within a few hundred yards of the scenic bridge and river weir, the Roman Baths, the Medieval Bath Abbey and the main shopping area of the ancient town.
|Betty by Bath Abbey|
|Click Colored Type to Enlarge Photo
Important dates in the history of Bath include the following:
- About 60 A.D., Romans begin to develop Bath as a spa and center of Pagan worship around the hot springs near the Avon River.
- 5th Century, the end of Roman rule in Britain.
- 676, convent of Christian nuns founded.
- 973, Edgar was crowned king of all England in Bath Abbey.
- 1090s, Norman bishop transfers his throne from Wells to Bath and founds cathedral.
- 1611, Abbey that was largely destroyed in 1539 is repaired.
- 1701, Queen Anne visited the hot springs, re-establishing the city’s prominence. It soon became a place where fashionable artists, intellectuals and political figures would come to meet, to convalesce (Admiral Nelson was among those who took the waters) and to relax in spa facilities built over hot springs.
- 1942, German warplanes bomb Bath and damage Abbey.
- 2000, Ten-year restoration of Abbey completed.
The Roman ruins at Bath are a wonderful sight, and indeed one of the most visited tourist attractions in England. The Medieval Abbey also offers much. But I was turned off by the very heavy crowds and the grime and litter that seems to accompany them. Service at the lunch shops was excruciatingly slow. I have the idea that those who work in the shops serving tourists know that most visitors will not return – and they certainly give them no reason to come back. Since Bath is a World Heritage Site (like Egypt’s Pyramids and Rome’s Coliseum), there will always be a steady stream of fresh visitors.
One of the guidebooks warns about the crowds, particularly in the mornings and early afternoons. I was astonished by the foul language shouted by two young, punkish women embroiled in separate, verbal fights with young men. Passersby pretended to take no notice as the women screamed obscenities on the busy sidewalks. I might have a more favorable view of Bath (pop. 83,000) had we visited at a different time of year.
We toured the Roman Baths late in the day to escape the worst of the crush of school groups and other sightseers.
The Romans built the bath complex over a natural, hot spring in 60 A.D – just 17 years after their legions invaded Britain. They named the combination temple-spa Aquae Sulis in honor of the Celtic Goddess Sulis and also of Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom. The Romans loved their baths, which formed important social centers in the fabric of the empire – like the pubs of modern day England and Ireland. Most Roman citizens visited the public bath at least once a day to exercise, to be bathed and massaged by slaves and to visit with their fellow citizens of all classes. A guide told us that one Emperor was asked by a non-Roman why he bathed twice a day. “Because I’m too busy to bathe four times,” was his response.
|Betty by Bath's Royal Crescent|
|Click Colored Type to Enlarge Photo
Three centuries after building the baths at Bath, the Romans pulled out of Britain. As the millennia passed, the Roman bathing tubs, mosaics and sculptures were forgotten and eventually covered up. By the 17th Century, members of the English aristocracy came to Bath to convalesce and to be seen. The healing, hot spring water pours out of the earth at a steady temperature of 116 degrees F. The spring that filled the Roman tubs also filled the English tubs. The English built new bathing facilities nearly on top of the buried Roman ruins. There is no evidence that the 17th and 18th Century English knew what was beneath.
It wasn’t until late in the 19th Century that archeologists discovered the Roman baths that had been hidden by several feet of earth for centuries.
In 1880, workers digging a sewer uncovered the first glimpse of what subsequent excavation revealed to be a splendid model of advanced Roman engineering. The elaborate baths had central heating and plumbing – conveniences that were not seen again in England for centuries. Among the treasures unearthed during decades of archeological digging was a full-size bust of the patron goddess of the temple-spa, Sulis Minerva. The gold headdress that adorned the bust was long gone. I bought a small, scale model of the bust in the souvenir shop.
The Roman baths are now subterranean. Underground passages and walkways have been excavated and rebuilt. Wireless headphones and self-guiding brochures make for easy touring. The electronic narrations have multiple levels of information that are accessed through a simple menu selection; the visitor can learn a little or a lot, depending on interest. Some fascinating artifacts contain curses written by Roman bathers wishing their enemies ill fortune. They believed that curses tossed into Minerva’s spring had a good chance of coming true. They also believed that if the curse floated on the water, it would be visited on the writer. Consequently, the Romans wrote their curses on thin sheets of lead, which of course sank and were preserved.
Above the Roman Baths is one of the most photographed spots in southern England, the so-called “Great Bath” that served the English aristocracy. It is open to tour and is also open to the elements. The Great Bath is the size of a country club swimming pool. It is filled with warm water that flows in from the underground spring. The pool is surrounded by a two-story, open terrace. The stone terrace is decorated with neoclassical sculptures.
Tourists are welcome to look but not enter the water of the Great Bath. We were told the warm water is colored by traces of green algae and teems with bacteria from bird droppings and whatever else the wind and open sky brings. I’m not sure I buy all that. Many outdoor pools in America are heated; chlorine controls both algae and bacteria. Nonetheless, it’s a neat spot and a fantastic setting for photography, like that of the famous Neptune Pool at Hearst Castle in California.
The nearby Bath Abbey also provides a much-photographed backdrop. It dates to 1499, when the Abbey Church was built to replace the ruins of a Norman cathedral constructed in the 1090s. Admission to the Abbey is free but a £2 donation is suggested. The Abbey is an imposing, stone block structure that contains expansive, stained glass windows that rival the beauty of those in the great cathedrals of France.
The interior walls and floors are lined with memorials to various persons of note over the centuries. A plaque lists the names of the Bishops and others who led the Christian community in Bath since 676. Very few names were familiar to us. One that was is the name of Queen Elizabeth, who visited in 1973 to mark the 1,000th anniversary of the coronation in Bath Abbey of her monarchal forebear, King Edgar.
Another name we recognized was that of the late U.S. Senator William Bingham of Connecticut (1754-1804), a relative of our pal Tif Bingham back home. Tif, formerly the president of the Memphis Chamber of Commerce, has many distinguished relatives. Several years ago, we happened across a plaque in Maui that was a tribute to another member of his family, the noted missionary Hiram Bingham. It’s like déjà vu coming around again. It is a small world we live in and it goes round and round.
Bath was heavily bombed by German airplanes during World War II. It was an important psychological target for the Nazis. In the 1940s, Bath was considered to be England’s second most socially important city, after London. It still is.
The town has a distinct, Georgian architectural style of stone building blocks and red brick. The best example is the Royal Crescent. The huge structure forms the first row houses in Britain. We walked a mile or so up a hill to see the 19th Century version of New York’s Trump Tower. And what a gorgeous sight it proved to be. The building is shaped like a huge, quarter-circle, hence the name. It offers residents a commanding view of Bath and valley and is framed by acres of mowed lawn.
|Wier, bridge over Avon River at Bath|
|Click Colored Type to Enlarge Photo
The Royal Crescent building is a series of 18 very large, adjoining town homes that take up most of the sweeping, block-long structure. Each of the original town homes were three or four stories high. Most have been cut up into flats. One that escaped sub-dividing recently sold for over $3 million. Adjacent to the Royal Crescent is Royal Victoria Park, which the “Let’s Go” guidebook says “contains one of the finest collection of trees in the country. Its botanical gardens nurture 5,000 species of plants from all over the globe.”
We didn’t let a light rain the next morning stop us from poking around the historic Pulteny Bridge over the Avon River in the heart of Bath. Both sides of the bridge are lined with small shops that cater to tourists. Oddly, some open at 9:30 a.m. and some at 10 a.m. A few don’t seem to pay much attention to their posted hours of operation. A couple of shops sold tiny, tin soldiers and nautical collectibles. I saw several pieces I would have enjoyed owning were it not for the hassle of getting them home in one piece.
Immediately beneath and downstream from the bridge is a weir in the Avon River that is shaped like a half-moon. The river is less than 50 feet wide beneath the bridge and no more than 30 feet wide a few hundred yards upstream. The smoothly flowing water forms a beautiful waterfall about 3 feet high when it passes over the weir. A sign warns that the harmless-looking waterfall claimed the life of a canoeist several years ago. Nonetheless, it is a spot of rare beauty. We were told that small condos along the banks of the Avon near the scenic bridge carry London prices – £500,000 and up.