Bath is the oldest of England’s principal tourist destinations and has been welcoming visitors for centuries, I had read up on some where. So, my trip to England wouldn’t have been complete without a visit to this historic city.
I believe in ‘rise and shine’.
Likewise, one fine Saturday morning, after a satisfying night’s sleep, I left at 5.55 am sharp along with my colleagues. We were to meet our tour group at the Victoria centre of London for the 8.45 am departure. Upon arrival, we were greeted by fellow tourists, all heading off on various tours around the countryside. Our guide Mal was a knowledgeable chap who was very linguistically enriched, combined humour with facts throughout the day for a perfectly enjoyable commentary.
One-and-a-half hours later, our Mercedes bus rolled into Bath. Walking the streets of Bath is like stepping into a time capsule of England’s past.
Bath is the only area in the UK to boast natural geothermal springs, which flow from the ground at a temperature of 45˚C. And no one knows why. The popular theory goes that it is rainwater that fell 10,000 years ago, seeped through the earth’s layers and was eventually trapped due to the faults of the limestone beneath Bath. The natural spring baths were used by the Romans for socialising and also injury/illness therapy during their occupation of England.
When the Thermae Bath Spa was commissioned — a modern bathing complex at the heart of the city where you can soak in the mineral-rich waters — extensive investigations could neither prove nor disprove the theory. It’s a mystery still.
After taking in the ‘baths’ of Bath, we occupied our remaining 40 minutes with a stroll around the scenic streets of the city which were filled with beautiful old Georgian architecture. Combined with the surrounding lush green countryside, Bath was truly a spectacular place. Standing at the altar of what was once a vast temple complex accompanying the Great Bath, built between 60-70 AD, I hear that the Romans would sacrifice animals atop it and read the future in the creature’s entrails.
The first shrine at the springs in Bath was built by the Celts and dedicated to the goddess Sulis. After the Roman invasion, Sulis was identified with the Roman goddess Minerva, but the name Sulis continued to be used. This led to the town’s ancient Roman name of Aquae Sulis (‘waters of Sulis’). It seems the Romans were also a spiteful lot. I see a series of curse tablets, dug up by archaeologists from the Sacred Spring. On these sheets of lead, bathers inscribed the names of people they suspected of great crimes such as nicking their bath robe and then tossed them into the water in the hopes that Minerva would wreak bloody vengeance.
The city is full of stunning Georgian and Victorian architecture. Bath is built almost exclusively from limestone mined from the hills around the region, giving the city what I would call a sandy yellow hue. ‘Handsome’ seems an archaic word to use, but the honey-gold Georgian structures so iconic of this town really are. The Royal Crescent — voted Britain’s second-most picturesque street in the Google Street View Awards after The Shambles in York– is home to a great little museum that preserves a Georgian townhouse’s resplendent interiors.
The new Bath (new being relative, Bath was probably around when dinosaurs roamed the Earth!) is a few meters above the old Bath. It is hard to believe that not only was I walking in and around history, I was also walking on history. Bath has been labeled as a World Heritage Site, meaning that all old buildings (and their inhabitants) must be constantly restored and all new buildings must look like the old ones. Basically like the Beetles, Bath is in a perpetual time warp.
Next we moved on to Stonehenge. The enormous pillars sat in a lush green field on the top of a slight rise with nothing else of note in the vicinity. Icy winds buffeted us as we took in the stone arrangement, pondering the history of it all.
Why would people go to the trouble of moving such massive rocks and arrange them in such a way?
The rocks were not from the area in which they are located today, which leads historians to hypothesise that they were transported many miles to arrive at their final resting place. We are talking stones that weigh between 5 and 20 tonne here. One of the types of rocks used was bluestone so named because of its blue interior. The theory goes that ancient English descendents arranged the rocks into a primitive form of a calendar to assist with farming decisions such as when to plant crops. A more sinister belief purports that the stones are arranged for pagan worship and human sacrifice. Whichever theory you take, there’s no denying the energy surrounding Stonehenge; there’s definitely something eerie about it.
Stonehenge keeps its mystery since there is not one super theory yet, explaining the whole structure. And now we are talking about just one monument that has been well preserved. For whatever reason, practical (agriculture) or religious (astrology, astronomy) they build it, our ancestors found it important enough to carry out such immense projects in a time that survival was taking up most of the time.
During our day-long tour, the last destination was Salisbury, 90 minutes west of London. Here we visited a Gothic cathedral that was an impressive spectacle; particularly on the inside the scaffolding on the exterior reduced the visual impact slightly.
We were still impressed when we drove to Salisbury, although Elisabeth couldn’t help to say that Stonehenge obviously couldn’t be compared with the ancient Egyptian buildings and of course she was right about that. Still the effort the people put into it, with less knowledge and resources, was no less and may be even more amazing.
In Salisbury, one must visit the large cathedral. One of the unique things there is the oldest, still working, clock from about the year 1386. The spire of the Salisbury Cathedral is the tallest in England– 123 meters (404 feet).
There used to be another cathedral in the nearby town of Old Sarum, which was built around a castle. But the Bishop decided it was better to put some distance between the worldly and clerical powers and he build a new cathedral here. As a result all people moved from Old Sarum to this new place which then became Salisbury. It is a nice town to stay for some time and we have lunch there and make a walk through the town.
Our tour ended with another 1.5 hour commute back to London.