Friday, 22 January 2010

Bath's Baths

From the time I started reading 'historical novels', I knew about Bath. Virtually any work of fiction involving the middle or upper classes, set in Georgian England had them going there at some point. I pictured horse drawn carriages filling the streets, ladies in long gowns and men in stockings and braid-covered jackets parading up and down the cobbled pavements, meeting up in tea rooms or at balls. I always thought of Bath's buildings and social life, however, the starting point for all this wasn't in the 18th century, but very much earlier. The most distinguishing feature of Bath -- formerly known as Aquae Sulis -- is not its architecture but its hot spring. Seeing this was at the top of Bill's list and so we went there after leaving the Fashion Museum.

The Roman baths date back to 76 A.D. and archaeological findings indicate that around the hot spring was not just a series of rooms in which one bathed, sweated or got a massage, but also a temple and a market. It was a major social meeting place even back then.

Unfortunately we arrived just after a whole load of school children, making it a bit noisy and crowded. However, there were individual handsets like mobile phones. You dialed the numbers shown on the display, and a nicely audible recording provided information. For some of the displays, Bill Bryson had added his own comments; he seems to pop up often here. I was interested to note that he has rather an English accent, actually, and like me he says ‘quite’ a lot, though I could still detect a bit of Iowa in some of his words. He wasn't as funny as I hoped he might be, though.

There is a head of the Roman goddess Minerva on display and it’s in remarkably good condition. It was found accidentally during some modern construction work. These were apparently ‘her’ baths in Roman times. Bryson noted that she’s not very pretty or

approachable, in fact he didn’t think any of the Roman sculptures of women’s faces were very attractive. I have sometimes taken some comfort from some of the Roman women’s figures, however.

In early Roman times, men and women bathed together nude and got up to all sorts, apparently. Bryson said he couldn’t reconcile that activity within a spiritual setting, which the baths were. I think he’s letting his Christian background colour his perceptions. We’re talking pagan gods here. That said, even the Romans eventually outlawed communal bathing and eventually created stairs on two sides of a pool to provide separate ends for each gender.

As part of the temple there was a sacrificial altar, next to which was an augerer’s stone. Apparently the entrails of the slain animal were spread on this stone to be examined for information; the augerer then made predictions for the person who had offered the animal. I was reminded of my Dad’s fascination with Latin as the source of many English words; in fact I still have his book, Origins, about the etymology of words.

Bryson was quite taken with some of the curses, inscribed on pewter, quite of few of which have been found at the site of the temple. Apparently one's prayers to the gods and goddesses weren't so much about asking good things for oneself as wishing bad things on others, particularly on thieves who stole one's property. Bryson noted how personal were some of these curses and for what would seem today relatively minor losses:
Docemedis has lost 2 gloves. He asks that the person who has stolen them should lose his minds and his eyes in the temple where she [Minerva, presumably] appoints.
Though much of the site was rather ugly, a couple of the pools were really beautiful,

and others were quite interesting. Like in the fashion museum, one could see layer upon layer of history. The level of the water shown was as in Roman times.

The brown marks on the wall show the level during later eras, when there was the King and Queen’s Pools, also frequented by the aristocracy. Rings on the wall were placed by grateful, healed persons. Of course the hot baths were prescribed by doctors for various ailments, via immersion and ingestion. Apparently the water temperature was the most comfortable at the edges and so the rings were useful to help one avoid the hotter centre. Above this pool are the windows of the famous Pump Room.

Along with a few staff dressed in Roman drapery, there was steam rising off the green water of this large pool and it was really

beautiful. Particularly when one could see the spires of the elegant Bath Abbey above the enclosure.

They are all there next to one another, the baths, the abbey

and the restaurant.

Like the top of the Newcastle United Football club’s stadium in Newcastle (the local place of worship), the Abbey was to be visible from any number of places we walked. One was also aware of seeing the tree line behind the houses, as Bath sits in a valley at the bottom of which is the River Avon, which Bill said was River River, Avon being a Welsh word for river.

The first night we’d gone to an Indian restaurant and so I was hoping for something a bit less spicy the next evening. We ended up having burgers and kebabs at a quaint place called the Walrus and Carpenter, listening to Carly Simon’s Tapestry album and then something Bill later identified as Joy Division. It was a funny place with very small rooms on several levels. Great music, though.


James said...

What a wonderful tour of Bath! The photos were excellent and the commentary very interesting. Thank you!

FB @ said...

Gosh this makes me want to extend my vacation in England longer so I can see everything!

It's only about 2 hours away. Maybe we can swing it :)

Shelley said...

James -- We're not done yet; you'll probably be sick of it before I finish. It usually takes me twice as long to tell about a vacation as it did to take it!

FB - How exciting! Can't wait to hear where you went and what you saw!

Boywilli said...

When you read Bryson's travel books its easy to forget his academic credentials but there is a lot of scholarly research in his etymology work and his book on Shakespeare.
He has credentials to be Chancellor of Durham University that are a lot more valid than a moderately successful career in journalism

TKW said...

Ever since I fell in love with Jane Austen, I've wanted to visit Bath. Thanks for making me feel a little big closer to that dream today.

Toad said...

Thank you for the walk down memory lane.

Shelley said...

TKW - If you're an Austen fan, then watch this space...

Toad -- Pleased you've enjoyed this. More to come! I know just what you mean about that Brigadoon feeling...I get in London, particularly around the Tower or looking at the Thames.

Jo said...

This is a great reminder of our visit to the Baths.