When putting together our trip, I found that we needed to visit one additional spot before going to London. I scrutinized my planning map. Where to go? Once again, I consulted my Rick Steves “Europe through the Back Door”. He gave Bath a solid three red triangles, meaning that it is a definite should-see destination.
In the travel chaos that was the summer of 2022, shortly before we left for Europe, Rick posted on Facebook about crowd management options. He suggested in his post that one should consider touring the less-visited cities that are less full of tourists. One of the examples he gave was Bath. “Instead of Bath, go to Bristol.” But Rick, you told me to go to Bath!
By now we were into late August, though, and the crowds in Bath were manageable. We knew what to do: see the places with the heaviest tourist traffic in the morning, avoid shopping areas in the afternoon, and have a plan for the day. We had come from several places that weren’t heavy tourist sites, so it was a little different, but we enjoyed so many aspects about our stay in Bath.
River Avon runs through the city of Bath, and we needed to walk alongside of it to get to the city center. There was a bridge over a canal that flowed into the river, and most every time a boat was making its way through the lock. A family with two kids was coming through one morning, and even the kids were helping to operate the manual locks.
The river is always beautiful, at any time of day.
But are there really baths in Bath? Yes! In Roman times, it was considered to be one of the great religious spas of its era and the town was actually called Aquae Sulis. There are three hot springs, and the one with the most water in it is special to the goddess Sulis Minerva. She was worshipped even before the Roman era. A stone inscription dates the complex to 76 AD. We visited the Roman baths with a main bath and ruins of the temple and other bath rooms, housed in a museum with artifacts.
Lest you get a sudden urge to jump into the pool, it is sealed with lead, so your bath wouldn’t be so good for your health. There would have been a roof over this pool in Roman times, but now algae grows because it is open to the sky. For the average Roman bathing here, the baths would have been the biggest building they ever entered in their lives.
Inside, we walked under modern-day Bath through ruins of various smaller baths, cobbled Roman streets, and Temple Sulis Minerva. If we were Roman, we as commoners would not have been able to enter the rooms of the temple. There are altars and a tomb with a skeleton still in it. Many objects such as jewelry and coins that people left behind in the baths are displayed. There is even a gym.
There would have been a full gilt bronze statue of Goddess Sulis Minerva in the temple. The head is all that remains and it was splendid to see. I didn’t get a picture of it, but found a postcard in the gift shop.
Also surviving is a large ornamental pediment, which would have been over the entranceway, with a fearsome head of a gorgon. As with many of the ruins and stones we saw, it would have been brightly painted. The Romans borrowed the gorgon from Greek mythology. It is thought to be was a symbol of Sulis Minerva.
We wandered around through the maze of rooms, all under the city of Bath. These rooms were at bath level.
Of course, the spring is still here, and today there are modern baths. We celebrated our anniversary while in Bath, and took a bath in Bath at Thermae Bath Spa. We carried our bathing suits in our luggage all over Europe just so we could use them this one time. It’s not something we would normally do so it was a great experience. The pools in the baths are not heated because the water comes out of the spring and into the pools at about 93 degrees Fahrenheit. It feels like pleasantly warm bath water. A few floors up, there is an outdoor pool. It was raining so it was very strange to be in the warm water at the same time as the rain, but we could look out over the city as we lounged about. We spent most of our time in the floor-level indoor pool where there was a nice whirlpool and a lot of interesting jets.
After our bath, we had tea (lunch) at Sally Lunn’s. Dating to 1483, the restaurant is in Bath’s oldest house. Sally Lunn came to Bath in 1680 and began selling her delicious French buns, and the rest is history. A Sally Lunn bun is like a brioche. It is part bun, part cake, part bread. This really wasn’t a great place for the real “tea” experience, but our buns were delicious.
For tea, we were each served one bun. One half, cut into quarters, had smoked salmon on top. The other half was served with butter, jam and clotted cream. I was just about full after having just the one half with the salmon, but who can resist all the goodness on the sweet side?
The other unforgettable experience here was a tower tour of Bath Abbey. The Abbey was founded in the 8th century as a Benedictine monastery and, like Shrewsbury Abbey, lost the monastery during the reign of King Henry VIII. The church itself has gone through many cycles of ruin and repair since 1090, and was even bombed in World War II. She is standing proud over the city of Bath today.
It was 212 steps up to the top of the tower! Along the way, though, our guide had many things to show us. After climbing a little, we were on an outside balcony where the priest could address his congregants on special occasions. There was a long narrow walkway on the roof, some more climbing, and we were in the room where the bell ringers gather. There are ten bells, and each person needs to pull their rope at the proper time to produce the correct melody. I’d be tired from the hike to this room at least twice a week before even proceeding to ring my bell. And several of the ringers are elderly. It’s a matter of great pride to be a bell ringer.
We ducked into some narrow passageways for a look at the bells and the rafters of the cathedral. There was even a tiny peek-a-boo spot where we could look down into the cathedral below. The very top of the roof vaults are only four inches thick!
And then, we were behind the clock.
Finally, we were up at the top of the tower, and given a marvelous view over the city of Bath and the Roman baths below.
After the tour, we visited the inside of the cathedral. The very first king of England, King Edgar, was crowned at the monastery here in 973 and there is a large window with a depiction of the occasion. We looked at the beautiful fan shapes in the soaring ceiling, now more interesting since we had seen the attic. There were large flat gravestones (ledgerstones) on the Abbey floor, 891 of them in total. I don’t know if I walked on all of them. It took twelve years to repair the cathedral after World War II, but repairing the ledgerstones was a whole other project.
Cal needed some fortifications after all that time climbing around the cathedral, and we also took time to listen to the buskers on the street.
From our vantage point on top of the cathedral’s tower we had been able to see that there were three different places where the buskers performed, and they rotated around those places throughout the day. This woman was a classically trained opera singer who performed a lot of songs from musicals that I was familiar with, and we enjoyed an early lunch while sitting on a bench and listening to her.
This little piece of advertising on the cathedral plaza always caught my attention.
In a tucked-away corner of the canal leading to the river, we found this little swan family out for their evening swim.
The day we left Bath, Cal enjoyed an English breakfast. These large breakfasts had lost a bit of their excitement for me after having had haggis and blood sausage in Scotland, and all of them in the UK are similar, so he did the honors while I just had a poached egg and toast.
My next Europe posting will cover our visit to Stonehenge and the Cotswolds. First, though, I’m coming back to the present — February is a big traveling month for us, and I already have much to report. My posts will return to the United States for a little while. We’ll be on one of those travels next week so it will be two weeks before I’ll post again. I just returned from a long weekend in New Orleans, so stay tuned for the details!
Next time – Mardi Gras in New Orleans