Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Bath Abbey, the Assembly Rooms, and the Pump Room (and The Waters)

Heather---I woke up this morning with a sore throat. Looked like I had caught Dad's cold, drat it. Fortunately, we had prepared for just such an eventuality and I dug out some stuff to "dose" myself with. Then I bipped on down for breakfast.

Dad and Gramps were outside in the beautiful morning, sitting at a table and sipping coffee while reading the newspaper. They were both in hog heaven.

Mom and Dad's room was right across from the dining room, so after popping in to say hi to Mom, I stepped across to give my breakfast order. The bacon was usual European fare, about as thick as a slice of ham. Actually, over here we would call it ham. We also ordered shredded wheat cereal (we did our own shredding, it came in two enormous chunks), scrambled eggs and toast. And grapefruit juice. And hot tea. Dad ordered a traditional English breakfast every morning, which meant he slurped up baked beans as well as bacon, eggs and toast. He did, however, skip the cooked tomato.

The original plan for the day had been to go to Cardiff, about an hour away. However, every was SICK of being in the car after the previous day's fiasco, so we opted to rearrange our schedule and go to Bath instead. Bath was a mere ten minutes away.

To make things easy, the B&B proprietor suggested that we go to a nearby car park and take the bus into Bath so we wouldn't have to deal with parking. This sounded excellent to us, so that's what we did. It had been a warm, sunny day when we left but it was a little brisk when we arrived at the car park. Dad hadn't worn a sweater, so he dug out his heavy raincoat instead. Later in the day, it warmed back up and he got a little tired of that ole raincoat!

Once in Bath, we blinked our eyes and wondered where the heck to go. And how to get back to the bus stop. And whether this was the correct bus stop to come back to. (Bus systems can be very complex and confusing over there.) Fortunately for us, a sweet old lady took us under her wing and walked with us, explaining where to go, what to see, and how the bus system worked. We thank her profusely and headed first for the visitor's center.

Raquelle--there goes Heather, leaving out all the details again. :D This same older lady walked with us part way after we got off the bus. We walked past an enormous construction scene right downtown--the entire corner of the block was cordoned off and a variety of Big Machines were flinging dust and concrete chunks around with great gusto.

"I do apologize for the mess there," the lady said. "They tell us 'twill be many years [I forget how many, it was appalling] till it is finished. It used to be a grocery store and the outcry was that 'twas ugly and should be torn down. There's no doubt," she said quaintly, "that the previous building was hideous. But this 'tisn't an improvement." Giggle.

Heather--Once the guys had figured out the map of the city, we decided to visit Bath Abbey first. It was right next to the visitor's center.

Bath Abbey was beautiful, which is a pitifully understated way of describing it. We enjoyed wandering around, reading the inscriptions on all the plaques on the wall. Some where for folks buried there, some were just memorials of people buried elsewhere. As I was making my way down one side, one of the docents accosted me. "You know you just passed the most interesting plaque, don't you?" he said. Everyone gathered round as he continued with a grin to point it out. Seems it was for a centuries-deceased lawyer and it mentioned his "immortal soul." Unfortunately, the original had been misspelled as "immoral soul." I guess the lawyer's family didn't want to spring for a new plaque because they had simply put the proper word over top of the old word. But you could still see the original version. Heh heh.

The docent turned out to be an older fella who had studied abbeys in general and Bath Abbey in particular for most of his life. He was amusing, entertaining and a wealth of information. For instance, he showed us a small chapel that had been built in one side of the abbey by a mucky-muck named William Byrd. There were W's and birds cleverly worked into the designs everywhere.

Raquelle--He explained that, of course, building a chapel and spending oodles of money on was thought a good way to ingratiate yourself into heaven and give you something impresssive to tell St. Peter when you arrive at heaven's gate. I didn't hear the rest of his comment very well, but I think the gist of what he said was, "Pehsonally, when Oy arrive in heav'n, Oy expect to see Mahgaret Thatcher and Oy think she'll tell me to pay more taxes." :D

Heather--He told us lots of fascinating history behind the designs. He also discussed with Gramps how the stone masons did the work. Gramps had been amazed at the intricate detail that had been chipped out of stone and wanted to know how they did it. Something I found interesting was that stone masons were considered very skilled workmen (no kidding!) and were paid an exhorbitant salary compared to most people of the time.

One of the most entertainging plaques the docent told us about was one that described a man as "a perfect gentleman: kind and generous to his friends and affable to his inferiors." We all got a huge chuckle out of that and the rest of the trip we made remarks to each other about feeling affable towards our inferiors!

At last we reluctantly tore ourselves away from the Abbey and headed up the hill to the Assembly Rooms. I had read several books that were set in Bath so I got a kick out of walking the streets and recognizing street names and places.

The Assembly Rooms were built at a time when people would often gather in the evenings for balls, tea and socialization. The Bath Assembly Rooms became quite famous, as Bath was considered a high society "watering place." In other words, society folks came to drink "the waters" of the hot springs as well as bathe in the hot springs. The waters were very mineralized so they were considered healthful. Thus, many society people, feeling somewhat "gouty" or "consumptive" after eating city dinners and breathing city air, would come to Bath for a two-month (or so) holiday and take a "course of the waters to set them up again."

There was a fashion museum in the basement of the Assembly Rooms, but I found it boring and skipped it. Instead Raquelle and I got the recorded guide of the rooms upstairs and stood up there, imagining all our favorite stories from Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and GA Henty there. There weren't many people there so we could stand in quiet and pretend it was 150 years ago.

The rooms were laid out with a ballroom on one side (that reportedly could hold 1000 people) and a tea room on the other. In between was the octagon room, where the men smoked and played cards. However, it was distracting to the men to have people continually processing between the ballroom and tea room, so they later built another card room in the back and made the octagon room a concert room instead.

The Assembly Rooms sustained a direct bomb hit during World War II, so some of the original statuary and such were gone. But the rooms looked mostly as they would have originally. One of the funny incidents that the recorded guide told us was that when the dancing stopped and folks were called for tea and refreshments, there was often a regular free-for-all as people fought to get to the food. They had a reenacted recording of such a mob of "high society" people, and in the background you can hear the Master of Ceremonies crying out, "Decorum, ladies and gentlemen! Decorum!" For some reason, that tickled all of us and we used that line the rest of the trip whenever someone committed a faux pas (such as flinging tomatoes on people in the train!).

At last, we were all done at the Assembly Rooms and voted to go find some lunch before attacking the Roman Baths. We had intended to do tea at the Pump Room for lunch, but tea wasn't served until 2:30. So most folks ended up getting sandwiches but Dad, Raquelle and I opted for some good ole British pasties--chunks of meat and vegetables inside a breaded shell. (By the way, we pronounce it "paste-ee" over here, but it's properly pronounced "pahst-ee".) The hard part was finding a place to sit. We finally thought we'd found the perfect spot, only to be kindly informed by a waitress that we were sitting at outside tables belonging to the Pump Room.

Raquelle---She was commendably tactful.....she approached us with menus and asked if we would like to look at them, even though it was obvious we were stuffing our faces with pasties and sandwiches. :D When we politely declined she said, "Ah, I'm sorry.....these tables are strictly for the Pump Room."

Shucks. So we stood to finish our lunch.

Heather---Then, on to the Roman Baths!

The hot springs had been there in Roman times too, of course. And the Romans had built some baths as well as a temple there, the hot spring being considered something sacred and magical. Over the centuries, the Roman baths had been covered over and people forgot about it. But in the 1700s or 1800s (can't remember which) they were accidentally rediscovered. They have now been excavated to some degree and you can see much of the original Roman bath system. In fact, the Roman drain system was so good that they are still using it today. The interesting thing is that all of this bath and temple complex is about two stories below the city street level. Of course, it wasn't that way originally so you have to use your imagination to see what it had been like. The displays for the baths were a lot better than the last time we visited here. They had all kinds of computerized stuff to help you visualize how it would have been. Of course, they can't excavate all of it because the city is sitting on top of it now.

One feature I found particularly interesting was the sub-floor heating system. The floors had been built on lots of small piers so the heat from the hot springs could circulate underneath and warm the rooms. Neato! Apparently you would have had to wear shoes (although nothing else would have been worn!) in the bath rooms because of the floors being so hot.

Dad in particular enjoyed this site because of all the neat engineering involved. But I think we all enjoyed it as well.

Raquelle---Something else that was interesting was the display of things that had been found in the baths. There were coins, of course--coins from practically every nation that existed during Roman times. There were also curses written on small bits of metal, folded, and thrown in the water. The gist of most of them was, "May whoever stole my whatchamajigger perish horribly and incur the disfavor of the gods and be forever deprived of chocolate in the afterlife." Well, okay, maybe not the chocolate part. :D

Bathing was quite The Thing To Do in Roman times and they made quite a production of it at baths like these. There was the steam room where you get nice and sweaty, the cool water room where you shock your system, the room where various flunkies put various scented lotions on you, etc. It was said that someone asked Caesar whichever-it-was why he bathed once a day and he apologized, saying he didn't have time to do it more than that. :D

Heather----Now it was finally time to head for the Pump Room itself! The Pump Room had been the original assembly room for the city before the Assembly Rooms were built. It remained a fashionable restaurant where you could have tea and taste the waters while listening to good music. So that's what we did.

We decided the tea here was even better than Harrod's tea. Everyone pigged out on tea, hot chocolate, sandwhiches, scones (which are sort of like biscuits with currants or raisins in them), and desserts. Lots of desserts! Gramps made the observation that he never in a million years would have imagined himself enjoying tea. "It's just such a sissy sounding thing I just figured it had to be bad!" he chortled. However, he quite enjoyed the experience and was not slack in polishing off the edibles.

Raquelle-----Vastly Important Detail....don't you want to know what flavor of tea we had? Heather and I shared a pot of lemon chamomile. I've always pronounced it "CAM-oh-meal" but the waitress pronounced it something like "Cam-ILE." Mom and Gramps shared a pot of ceylon tea and pronounced it very good. Dad and Grandma shared a pot of Earl Gray.

I put sugar cubes in my tea because it is SO FUN to pick up sugar cubes with those cute little tongs and plop them into your tea. Makes you feel desperately elegant. :D

As for the munchies, among the desserts were some itty-bitty berry parfaits in glasses that were only about 2 inches tall and an inch across, some kind of fruit bread, chocolate-glazed cream puffs, caramel-glazed cream puffs, and, of course the enormous fat scones with clotted cream and jam.

Heather----Of course, then we all had to taste the waters. Dad got a glassful for each of us. He downed his and thereafter insisted that it cured him of his cold. (His cold was almost gone anyway, but he remained firm in his diagnosis.) Raquelle drank all of hers too. But I only gulped half of mine before deciding I had drunk enough nasty water on this trip and wasn't drinking any more! We all had fun posing with our glass of the waters, with pained expressions on our faces. If you haven't seen our photos yet, those might be some entertaining ones to look at!

Raquelle-----Actually, it wasn't as bad as I expected. I had heard it tasted terrible but, though it certainly wasn't great, it was more drinkable than water I've had at other times. It had a definite sulphury-mineralish taste and was, of course, warm (it's from the spring you know!), but it wasn't too bad.

So finally, stuffed and tired, we headed for the bus to take us back to the car park.

It was early enough in the evening that some of us wanted to go on a walk. So after briefly refreshing ourselves, Mom, Dad and Heather and I went for a stroll, aided by directions from the proprietor. We strolled down a grassy meadow, opened a quiet little gate or two, and found ourselves walking along a meadowy path that paralleled what used to be a canal. You could still see where the canal had been--a softened, grass-grown large ditch by now, but you could use your imagination. The path we walked along is where they would have walked to help tow the barges, if I remember right.

After awhile we came to a picturesque low stone wall, where we posed for pictures in the sunset. (Dreamy sigh...)

On our way back we stopped to look at the old mill and surrounding buildings...heavy stone structures that looked quiet, dignified, and as if they possessed many secrets of the ages.

And on arriving back at the B&B, I found the only thing that had heretofore been lacking at this charming country residence....a pussy cat! Such a sweet pussy cat! A nice little black and white, rather homely, creature, who magnanimously condescended to let me pet him, scratch his ears, and pick him up and cuddle him. More, he scorned the advances of anyone else who attempted similar familiarities, so I felt quite flattered. :D

Heather----It was getting chilly, so we went in and relaxed in the B&B sitting room and played the guitar and quietly sang songs together while waiting for supper. Raquelle sang "Fields of Athenry" and we sang "Lorena" and had switched to "The Rose of Alabamy" when we were summoned for supper. I'm telling ya, this was a rough life!

Supper the night before had been so good that Raquelle and I ordered the exact same thing except I substituted ice cream for the apple cake and she tried a chocolate brownie. The ice cream was very good!

And so, to bed in my lovely, springy, pillowy cot! :D

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