A September 2003 trip
to Bath by actonsteve
Quote: Venerable, stylish and not a little vain - if Bath were human she would be an aristocratic old lady. A fading beauty with a cut-glass accent, natural polish and ancient breeding. Her bearing would be graceful,her manners impeccable and her entire being exceedingly charming...
Diary of Sophie Carey, visitor to Bath in 1726
Bath is a city which returns you to the age of elegance. It is a city of graceful Georgian architecture, leafy crescents and bubbling ancient bath's. Here, in the 18th Century, English fashionable society would descend for 'the season' to take the bath's. Surrounding them is one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. A jewel of Palladian architecture made entirely out of grey/yellow Oolite stone. A confection of terraces, domes, gardens, portico's and one of the most beautiful cathedrals in England. In fact there is a wealth of things to see and do in Bath - and some of it's attractions are world famous - the Roman Baths, Pulteney Bridge and the Royal Crescent are pieces of architecture par excellence.
But it is the sense of times gone by which is so seductive about Bath. It's been around for time immemorial. Legend says it was founded by Bladud, father of Shakespeare's King Lear, who was exiled. Working as a swineherd he noticed his pigs seemed healthier when rolling in the warm mud of this part of Somerset. Cured himself he asked for a temple to be built to the Celtic Goddess Sul. The Romans built the greatest baths and named the city - Aquae Sulis - and constructed a great temple to the goddess Minerva. Their great Bath complex was rediscovered by the Georgians and Bath in the 18th Century was a place of great fashion. The cities status as a trendy playground was enhanced by the fantastic Georgian architecture of John Wood. Bath positively glowed with honey-coloured crescents, circuses, and squares.
Some would say it is still the most beautiful city in England.
But the countryside surrounding Bath is equally beautiful. It starts at the ancient green Mendip Hills and roads lead through quaint villages to Wells and Glastonbury. Wells, itself, is a charming little city with a smack-in-the-mouth Cathedral. And Glastonbury is where witches and warlocks come out to play. The village is home to every kind of magic. New age mystics and healers come to worship the pagan ways of Glastonbury Tor and the Chalice Well. Whilst historians and the curious come to see where King Arthur and Queen Guinevere are laid to rest. Not to mention the last resting place of the Holy Grail.
Without private transport seeing the surrounding countryside is tricky. Somerset buses do a 'rover' ticket allowing unlimited travel all day within the county of Somerset for £5. Bus #173 leaves Bath bus station for Wells and from there you can catch a local bus to Glastonbury. The excellent bus station also travels to Salisbury, Oxford and Avebury and their tourist information centre is second to none. There are also direct buses to and from Heathrow airport.
Attraction | "The Crystal Palace pub - "Mine's a Scrumpy Cider!""
Bath is only 170 miles from London but with a completely different accent and sometimes I thought I was in another country. The accents out in the West Country have different consanants and vowels. They tend to talk like Sam Gamgee out of 'Lord of the Rings'; rolling their 'r's' so Somerset becomes 'zummerzet' and Bath becomes 'Baarrrthh...".
No more was this more apparent then in the beer garden of the 'Crystal Palace' pub. This was a neighbourhood pub where tourists occasionally wandered in from a visit to the Abbey. Locals would come in on their lunch hour - order up a 'Ploughmans Lunch' and a pint of bitter and chat to friends in the garden. The pub itself dates from 1710 and is built in the yellow stone of Bath. Originally on the site was a tavern called 'The Three Tuns', this version dates from 1851 and is named after the 'Great Exhibtion' in Hyde Park. The square that it stands on - Abbey Green - is exquisitely beautiful. Lined with seventeenth Century buildings the square glows with yellow stone. To the east a passage leads to 'Sally Lunn's' - the famous bakers. Steps lead up to Georgian buildings and boutiques line it's southern side. 'The Crystal Palace' is on the western side and is a quaint looking pub with hanging baskets of flowers (see photo).
Inside is very Victorian decor with dark wood and panelling. Wooden chairs and tables spread around the room overlooked by a Grandfather clock. There are no jukeboxes or TVs, so the punters can relax and enjoy the surroundings in peace. Food is available and ordered from the bar. This is circular and has a good range of beers, stouts and spirits. The barstaff, when I was there, seemed to by very young--probably students from the University of Bath--and were very friendly and efficient.
The food isn't bad. They can rustle up 'Steak 'n Kidney' pie, 'Chicken Wrap's', 'Shepherds' or 'Cottage' pie or a 'Ploughmans Lunch'. I opted for 'Salmon goujon and salad' which was served outside in the 'beer garden'. Here you can enjoy the sun in an open area with ivy climbing up it's back walls. The 'Salmon goujon' was beautifully arranged with cucumbers and lettuce and served with light mustard and salad cream. The best thing about this pub was the range of Ciders (Cider is an alcoholic drink made of fermented apples). I was spoilt for choice - 'Scrumpy' is farm produced, flat, cloudy and usually very alcoholic, there was also 'Kingston Black' which was very bitter and sharp and my old friend 'Yarlington Mill' which is sweet and sharp and is enough to knock you off your seat.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on September 16, 2003
Crystal Palace Tavern
10-11 Abbey Grn
Bath, England BA1 1NW
Attraction | "'King William' pub - Tradition in a mystical town"
This pub had a chubby black labrador. Getting on in years it held court in the middle of the pub. It's tail wagged when regulars walked through the door and when they wern't there it would lie in front of the stone fireplace. Nose twitching with the smells from the kitchen.
And the 'King William' was definitely a neighbourhood pub. A Tudor timbered inn situated at the Stone Cross at the confluence of the High Street and Magdalene Street in Glastonbury. In this village of mystical religions, alternative theraphy's and organic restaurants this was definitely a pub for the local's. The landlady knew everybody's name and even strangers, such as I, got a smile and an enquiry, while the neighbours would sit on stools discussing the issues of the day.
'The Billy' doubled as an inn as well with rooms for not more then £40 a night. But we concentrated on the bar area which is really an entertainment area for the entire street. A stone bar had a good selection of ales, stouts and ciders. Available were Caffreys, Courage, and 'Stonehouse' Cider which is one of the most refreshing and delicious I have ever tasted. Food is available and usually consists of chips, pizzas and lasagne (the usual English pub fayre) I settled on a ham and mustard baguette which did not come to more then £1.75. And I had to fend off the inquisitive labrador whose nose had smelled my food.
I think the pub really comes into it's own in the evening. Blackboards advertised live bands which being Glastonbury are probably folk singers or rural musicians. And there is a TV, jukebox and snooker table to keep people occupied. But the big surprise was in the back room. I had not seen 'skittles' in a pub since I was a child. 'Skittles' is an olde English version of bowling. A wooden alley took up the back room where wooden balls are bowled at 'skittles' lined up at the far end. Scores are kept using an old fashioned blackboard and chalk.
The 'Billy' is about the simple things in life - ale, 'skittles' and spending time with friends. No wonder people come to Glastonbury and never want to leave..
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on September 16, 2003
King William pub
36 Thomas Street
Bath, England BA1 5NN
.Sophie Carey, 1726
One of the great things about visiting the Baths is participating in the ritual that accompanies them. A visit to the Pump Room is to indulge in the activities of fashionable 18th Century society, a trip back in time to the age of elegance - you can eat dinner overlooking the Roman baths, listen to the chamber orchestra or imbibe the spa water and treat your body to fifty known minerals. But best of all you can enjoy living history in what may be the quintessential Bath experience.
During the 18th Century this was the focal point of exclusive Bath. The creme de la creme of English society would visit after immersion in the healing waters but it really was a place to meet, mingle and gossip. People came here to cure their gout or respiratory problems but more came here to be seen. There was a strict dress code, enforced by "Beau" Nash where women were always elegant and men had impeccable manners. It was a world devoid from reality where women were always the 'perfect ladies' and men the 'perfect gentlemen'. It was England at it's most English.
The 'Pump Room' is in the same Georgian building as the Roman Baths. Built by Ralph Allen in the 1720's they are designed in the classical Georgian style. The main entrance is on Stall Street under a columned portico and often buskers, acrobats and a small market surround the baths to catch the eye of the tourists. The Pump Room occupies the eastern end of the complex with entrance to the Roman Baths along a corridor. The main drawcard for the room is that it overlooks the bubbling green water of the Kings Bath. A balcony next to the pump room allows visitors to gaze on the emerald waters and surrounding incorporated medieval architecture. If you partake of the Baths then you must taste the spa water for 50p. A costumed talkative yokel mans the spring and dispenses small glasses - to my surprise it is an effort to finish being very warm, and had a metallic twang.
The actual room is about 100ft long. You can enter from the 'Abbey Yard' but must wait until a waiter can seat you. Decked out in ivory decor the room sports a huge chandelier and a parquet floor. At one end is a stage for the orchestra and the other end contains column's, statues and portraits of Nash, Allen and Wood (the three main creators of Georgian Bath). There are over fifty tables covered in white tableclothes and tea and biscuits are served all day and cost £4.50. We indulged in 'Afternoon Tea' which cost £7.50 and consisted of biscuits, cakes, and scones with lashings of jam and cream not to mention a teapot the size of a football. The accompanying chamber music is free and on Sunday's there is a pianist. The effect of the music makes the diners feel even more civilised.
Best of all is the evening meal. Quite expensive at £20.00 this is a limited menu but the attraction is that the diners eat out on the terrace overlooking the Roman Bath. As night falls they illuminate the waters by lighting flaming sconces and the Roman Baths come alive once more. It is like stepping back two thousand years......
The Diary of Sophie Carey, 1726
I bent down and dipped my hand into the Great Bath, and to my surprise the green waters were wonderfully warm....
The milky emerald water of this ancient Roman pool comes from far underground. Aeons ago a lake of water got trapped in a sub-surface bubble and one of it''s few escape arteries emerges in Bath. And the Roman Bath''s are the best reason to visit this lovely city. They dominate the city, and were once the primary focus for the city when English society came to take the cure. A visit to the Bath''s takes you back in time not only to the time of Jane Austen and Beau Nash, but further back when the centurions and legionnaires of Rome''s vast empire relaxed in the therapeutic waters.
And I did have a few Roman moments when I wandered around the Bath''s. A couple of times I could have been back in the Italian capital. Maybe it was the gurgling of two thousand year old pipes, the carvings on ex-temple altars or the sight of the King''s Bath waters bubbling away like cinema screen special effects. When you visit here you visit one of the most well-preserved Roman ruins in northern Europe. There were springs here over two thousand years ago, the nearby Celtic tribes discovered them long before the Romans. To them they were places of great mystery, the abode of pagan gods and spirits. It was the Romans who turned them into brick and marble and they became an attraction for each Roman who was stationed here. They appreciated the reminder of sunny Italia in the savage blustery island province of Britannia. A temple to Minerva was built near the Bath complex and sacrifices were made to the goddess Aquae Sulis.
After the Romans left Britannia the Baths fell into disrepair. During the dark ages the buildings still stood and the green pools still bubbled. To the superstitious Saxons and Danes they were a place of dark magic and avoided at all costs. While during the middle ages monks from nearby Bath Abbey used them to cure people of ailments and diseases. Their reputation as a pilgrimige site continued but it wasn''t until 1704 that they really became fashionable. Lone ruler Queen Anne came to take the Baths and with royal approval their reputation and trendiness spread. In the 18th Century it certainly was ''chi-chi'' to take the Baths and anyone who was anyone came down here. When Jane Austen visited in 1805 the fashionability of Bath had declined and it became a backwater again. Until rescued in the 20th century by mass tourism.
And you will meet alot of tourists at the Roman Baths. It is the busiest fee paying attraction in Britain outside London and most tourists when they arrive head to the centre of town where it stands. They lie just under the Abbey''s shadow and the entire complex not only contains the King''s and Great Bath''s but also the elegant ''Pump Room'' as well. It is often this room that you may have to move through to get to the entrance to the Bath''s. Admittance to the Roman Baths is £8.00 and the best way of exploring is with a free audioguide. As you move along the exhibts, punch in a number into the audioguide and you will get an expert explanation. There are also free guided tours, every hour on the hour.
Once you have your audioguide you are ready to step onto the Terrace and take your first look at the bath''s.
A glance at the ''Great Bath'' and you will catch your breath. A great bubbling green pool of water will be directly below you. Surrounding it will be a yellow cracked marble landing with crumbling steps. The landing is littered with column''s, carvings and enscriptions while caramel columns hold up a viewing terrace (see photo). You will move around the terrace and as you do crumbling lichen covered statues of Roman generals line it''s sides overlooking the water. But the best part is the nearness of the steeple of Bath Abbey. It looms over the baths, almost within touching distance, and looks magnificent set against the golden colour of the Baths and the clear blue sky.
From there you move into the museum. The bath''s were not just for relaxation they were also a shrine to a Roman goddess and housed the Roman temple to Minerva.The Pediment of the Temple had some superb carvings - pieces of the temple had been found in the ruins including a rather scary gorgons head. The altar of the temple had been propping up a Norman church in nearby Maiden Bradley. And the theory about the Romans thinking the world was flat is debatable on this pediment as a carved globe of the earth is clearly visible. Then you move down to the underground temple precinct. Cracked enormous flagstones covered this area and Roman columns could be seen on their side. Pride of place went to a statue of Minerva found in the ruins. Two thousand years old it may be but this statue of the goddess consisted of the head of a very beautiful woman. Despite it''s ancient age it sparkled as the light bounced off her golden but very attractive face.
From there you follow the trail into the organs of the Baths. Magnificent Roman statuary overlooked what could only be discribed as an ''overflow pipe''. It was still taking excess water away from the Great Bath as it had done since the time of Christ. One of the springs that the Bath''s get their hot water from was not far away and looked scarlet as it poured from the ground. The heat and humidity from this water hit you before you approached and people had thrown little coins into it''s bowel. Then it was back to a ground level look at the Great Bath. Here you can stoop down to touch the warm water before moving into the ''East Rooms''. These contained the relaxation and health rooms and saunas. Unbelievably, the ''tepid'' pool was still there and fed by luke-warm water. This was where both men and women came to bathe. Gambling was a big vice here with dice and cards played on it''s tiles, while massages were performed by special slaves.
Beyond are the biggest sauna''s you have seen in your life. And then you are climbing up to the smaller Kings Bath. This bath is nearer the source of the spring then any other and you watch bubbles pop and burst on it''s green surface. There is something mysterious about this bath. It is surrounded by medieval cloisters where monks would bring the sick to be immersed. And of course it is the abode of the goddess of the spring - Aquae Sulis.
Maybe she still lives there? As you look down into the bubbling water you can almost believe that to be true.
Diary of Sophie Carey, 1726
There is a touch of high society about Bath Abbey. This magnificent Cathedral was the worshipping point for the ''beau monde'' when they came to do ''the season'' in Bath. It dominates the entire city. It can be seen from the train window as you arrive, it''s great steeple can be observed from boats floating down the river. And when the great bells toll the sound can be heard miles away from the city in the hamlets of Iford and Dutch Barton.
After the Roman Bath''s this is probably the sight you will head for first. It stands at the centre of things - on the same square as the Roman Baths and only a stones throw from the river. The rear of the Abbey does overlook the flowerbeds of Parade Gardens and you can walk around it''s gothic walls to the entrance on Cathedral Square. The Georgians added pillars and a portico to Cathedral Square where it heads into Stall Street and the paving stones laid down are the same honey colour as the surrounding buildings. The Square itself is a very pleasant place with benches, shops, cafes etc and always a couple of buskers to entertain the crowds. When I was there one violinist was playing the theme tune from ''Fawlty Towers''.
The facade of the cathedral towers over this square and on the two towers you can make out carved ladders leading up being climbed by cherubic angels. This was based on a dream by Bishop King who oversaw the construction of the new Abbey. In fact the whole facade is impressive wth gothic flutes, gargoyles, ornate carvings and fronted by colossal stained glass windows. It is open daily from 10.00am to 16.00pm and a donation of £2.00 is required to enter. My advice is to walk around the entire perimeter of the Abbey before you enter. Then you can admire those huge gothic vaults and flying buttresses and the beautiful carved detail that all great cathedrals have.
Surprisingly, it is not as old as other English cathedrals being completed in 1499. But the actual site is probably about 1500 years old. The very first king of England - Eadgar - was crowned in the Abbey by St Dunstan in 973 AD. But for most of it''s life it was an Abbey/monastery with land for the monks to till stretching down to the river Avon. But the big change came at the end of the 15th Century. The old saxon cathedral was worn out but the diochese of Bath and Wells was rich and a new one was constructed on the site. This is the last example of English Perpendicular Gothic built in this country and is one of the best. But they only had about thirty years to enjoy it as Bath suffered under the ''dissoloution of the monasteries'' in 1539. Most of it''s idols were destroyed and it''s gold plate made off with to finance Henry VIII''s wars or palaces. His daughter, Queen Elizabeth I was stunned at how low it had fallen in 1571 and started an appeal for it''s restoration and it is this version that you see today.
Inside is alot lighter and airy then you would have expected. They have used a white stone and the whole vast interior looks spacious and delicate. As with most cathedrals it will be the scale and size of the nave which will catch your attention. The transept vaulting soars to a great height then spreads over the ceiling in fan vaulting. Hundreds of pews face towards the choir stalls and the walls are decorated with statues and tombs. Stained glass windows cover the west and east walls and show scenes from the old testament and as you approach the choir stalls the lectern (wooden balcony) stands overlooking the nave and is where the bible is read to the congregation. But the overall feeling is one of lightness and spaciousness - not for little reason was Bath Abbey called ''The Lantern on the West.''
But I can almost guarantee that you will dawdle in Bath Abbey. The reason being is the thousands of plaques and memorials that adorn it''s walls. You cannot help but stop and read some of them and wonder what life was like for the people mentioned - John Betty 1704-1770. How come he ended up here? More famously are Governor Phillip, the first governor of Australia and Riccardi Nash - Beau Nash - the famous master of ceremonials in Georgian Bath. There was a beautiful marble tomb to ''Lady Waller'' who fought for her husband in the 1642-45 civil war and a tablet to Isaac Pitman - the inventor of Pitmans shorthand. Near the altar the ''Gethsemane Chapel'' contains a lighted candle to ''Amnesty International'' the worldwide organistation for peace which the Abbey has strong links.
Wanting more? Then head for the Bath Abbey Heritage Vaults held underground in the Abbey''s cellars. Costing all of £1.00 this is a collection of relics collected over the centuries. First of all is a stone coffin containing the skeleton of a woman which may have been the old prioress. A map shows Bath in 1942 when the Luftwaffe came over for bombing in Hitler''s spiteful ''Baedeker'' raids. The bombs ripped the guts out of the rear of the cathedral and tore the nearby houses apart.
The amiable old duffer who collects your money says he remembers that night. He is very useful and has lots of interesting bits of information but did tend to like the sound of his own voice. Still it gets him out of the house, he must be the best preserved relic in the Abbey.
No where is this more evident then at the Pulteney Bridge which looks like something out of a Da Vinci painting. The Florence connection is also backed up by the fact that this is the only bridge - apart from the Ponte Vecchio - that has shops, restaurants and galleries along its length. The view of the bridge from the footpath on the river Avon is one of the best in this lovely city and one that you will return to again and again.
This whole area is very impressive. The river Avon cuts through the eastern part of the city of Bath, carving through parks, meadows and rows and rows of Georgian houses. But the part we are interested in lies between the Abbey and the river. This always formed the border of Bath and in medieval times housed the market gardens and fisheries of the Abbey monks. Nowadays the whole river bank is a good place for strolling with its pubs, parks and even river trips taking you under the bridge and up the river Avon. The river Avon is particularly idyllic here. And below the bridge is a gushing weir which sometimes has fishermen standing in frothing water waiting for trout or breen to go through. Also mallard ducks can be observed on the Avon as well as families of white swans gliding slowly by.
To get there just take all roads east of Bath. From the bus/train station walk up Pierrepont Road. At its northern extent the Georgian Terraces have been turned into luxury hotels. These border the greenery of Parade Gardens, but if you head east a little you will find the river banks and another Georgian bridge crossing the Avon. This is about 100m downstream of the bridge and is a good point for photographs catching its entire width.
But you will probably approach from Bath town centre. Just east of the Abbey comes Terrace Walk. A stonewalkway looks over the Parade Gardens and the Victorian Imperial hotel overlooks both. One of my few quibbles about Bath is the Parade Gardens. Granted, they are very beautiful and set at water level they have extensive views of the river - but does Bath Council really have to charge £1.50 to visit? Most cities in the world do not charge for visiting their public parks. The park itself is beautiful with statues, flowerbeds, deckchairs, topiary covered lawns and a bandstand; perhaps the charge is due to the upkeep? Or maybe it goes back to the times when they wanted to keep them exclusive and the resort of the beau monde?
Grand Parade curves above the river and gives even better views. Now you can get a better look at Pulteney Bridge. The entire bridge is enclosed in stone with only a few windows. Three colossal spans cross the river and the amount of grey weathered stone is staggering. There is no doubt that it is delicate. This elegant structure was designed by Robert Adam in 1770. Once you step onto the bridge the river disappears. Cars can drive across and it is still lined with the original booths for shopkeepers. The shops and restaurants are worth a look. First of all is a Cornish pasty shop whose delicious smell hits you as you approach. Further on are galleries, souvenir shops, Indian restaurants, tea and antique shops. On the other side a step of stone steps descend to the river bank. From here you are just below the bridge and can view its great span from another angle.
This is where the footpath along the Avon starts and there are superb views across to the Grand Parade. From here you can actually see the baroque columns that support the Grand Parade from beneath. The footpath also houses the 'Boater' pub whose wooden benches are set outside for patrons to enjoy their beer in the sunshine. Further along the footpath the Bathonians really make the most of their river. The weir was under renovation when I was there but there were plenty of people messing about in boats and cycling along its banks. There was a sense of relaxing and letting off steam in this part of Bath. It's a good place to take a picnic and relax.
Back on the bridge head east along Great Pulteney Street. An 18th Century fountain greets you at the end and here Great Pulteney Street is truly epic. It was the widest street in Europe at the time and its cream coloured Georgian buildings make it look as elegant as any boulevard in Paris. Just off this is the very English Henrietta Park. Green lawns stretch forever and are covered in flower beds, duckponds and shrubbery.
Henrietta Park is a good place to relax and dwell on what you have just seen. Bath is a very open spacious city and the inhabitants have lots of room to let off steam. Despite having high house prices it may be one of the most enjoyable places to live in the whole of the United Kingdom...
Sophie Carey, 1726
The Mr Nash she is referring to is the Master of Ceremonies at Bath for over fifty years - Richard "Beau" Nash. He ruled Bath with a rod of iron, it was he who decided which cravat was fashionable, as well as outlawing duels and swords from the city and engaged good orchestra's for his Assembly rooms. He was so powerful that he could tell Duchesses, Countesses and even the Prince of Wales how to behave. Half the fun was probably obeying him and then laughing about it afterwards.
The centre of his kingdom was the Assembly Rooms. This was the social hub of the city from the 17th Century onwards where everyone came to be see and be seen. The great rooms housed the city's famous balls where the upper classes would parade and preen in front of each other in surroundings of exquisite splendour. Bath, to me, is a city where you can still conjure up the past in your minds eye and a visit here is to revisit Bath in it's heyday. To experience Bath at it's elegant best and go back in time to to the period of Jane Austen and and Thomas Gainsborough. The Assembly Rooms, along with the Roman Baths, are the highlights of this charming city.
As Bath became more and more popular so did the need to build a place where all could gather. The old Assembly Rooms were down by the river where the Parade Gardens are now. It was perfectly something that something bigger was needed, preferably in the upper town where most of the fashionable lived. So John Wood the Younger was commissioned to build in 1769. They were built in the Palladian fashion just off 'The Circus' and a short walk from George Street. Here they were the social hub of the city until the end of the 19th Century when Bath became a place for retirees rather then fashionable visitors. Their nadir came in 1943 when a Luftwaffe incendiary bomb set fire to the building. The buildings were restored but in the Tea Room the plaster is streaked pink from where the effects of the fire could not be fully eradicated.
It is situated in the Upper Town, a little bit of a walk from the Roman Baths and the river. They are combined with the excellent 'Museum of Costume' which costs £3.50 to enter, a combined ticket to the Roman Baths costs £11. The best way of reaching it is to walk up the main shopping street of Milsom Street. Take a left at the top at George Street, and carry on to where Gay Street heads uphill. This will take you to 'The Circus' and the street heading east is Bennett Street. The Assembly Rooms are just off this and are very noticeable with their orange colouring and columned portico (see photo). It is owned by the National Trust so entrance is free and I strongly recommend the audio tour. This has won tourist awards and brings the rooms into brilliant 18th Century life.
The building is divided into four rooms. Once past the entrance vestibule takes you to the Octagon Room. As per it's name it has eight sides and is decorated in light blue. The three other rooms were visible through the doors and this was where the visitors would gather under the chandeliers before deciding how they would spend their night. Most headed for the 'Ball Room' which was colossal at least one hundred feet long. It had a very high white ceiling and windows set 40ft up into the air. Supposedly, the high ceilings were to help ventilation. Chairs were set around the outside and a balcony housed an orchestra. This had to stop at the stroke of eleven even if they were half way through a piece. Most of the music they played were 'country dances' and the audiotape spoke of Austen's 'Northanger Abbey' where Mrs Moore panics that her daughter doesn't have a dance and rushes around saying 'I wish I had a dance...I do wish I had a dance..."
Between this and the cafeteria was the 'Card Room'. Gambling was a big part of Bath and this was where the men headed to play whist, poker and cribbage whilst their womenfolk circulated and gossiped. The room was beautifully decorated with portraiture and four enormous fireplaces heated the place in cold winter nights. To the north of this is the cafeteria where smart waiters waited and there were huge pictures of women in crinoline. Even the background music was elegant with vignettes from 'My Fair Lady' and the like. The cafeteria serves light meals but mainly snacks such as cakes and tea. The restaurant when the Assembly Rooms were at their height was the 'Tea Room'. It was decked in an ivory cream colour with a pink ceiling. Four colonnades took up one part of the room and there was yet another balcony for the musicians. This was where tea was served and they could partake in jellies and sweetmeats. According to the tape Tobias Smollett tells of a very undignified, elbowflying scrum for the dessert one evening.
Downstairs is the Museum of Costume. Housed in glass cases are mannequins wearing the fashions of the 18th Century all the way up to the 21st. The audiotape tells the story of each one and some of the ballgowns are so big that the women could not have managed to squeeze through door. The wigs that they wore grew ever larger and corsets not only accentuated the curves but must have been agony. The men wore waistcoats, britches, gloves and periwig's but seem to have had an easier time then the women. And in the 21st century section eveyone was surprised to see a blue/green cleavage-showing evening gown worn by Jennifer Lopez.
But it was the sense of elegance that pervaded the exhibt. It was easy to see these women squeezed into ballgowns up in the Assembly room with with ostritch feathers and glittering jewels. The minuets were so slow that they could move, smile and flirt with their partner while dancing. They must have been quite a sight...
This was a century to have fun. This was a century which valued elegance and aesthetics. It was a time of great liveliness where people were more natural and down-to-earth. Especially when you compare it with the religious fanaticism of the 17th Century and the po-faced Victorian morality of the 19th.
The apogee of this has to be Bath. Built in yellow-white stone the city epitomises the civilised way of life of those times. The houses, rows and crescents of Bath still retain their Georgian splendour. The blackwood doors of these caramel coloured buildings once housed Jane Austen or Thomas Gainsborough. Those that used Bath as an 18th Century playground stayed at hotels in the leafy crescents and would have snobby competitions with each other to see who stayed at the more fashionable addresses. But three addresses stood out - 'The Circus', Queens Square and the spectacular Royal Crescent. Even today they are some of the most presitigious addresses in the country and a visit to any of these is to see Bath at its most impressive.
Of course to make a city as beautiful and cohesive as Bath then one man must be at the helm. Sir Ralph Allen was the local postmaster, property tycoon and more importantly stone magnate. He knew a good thing when he saw it and he saw that Bath was reaching dizzy heights of fashionability in the early 18th Century. It was time to cash in. He employed the architect John Wood to totally transform Bath from a damp backwater to the glorious Georgian city that it is today. Of course it helped that he owned nearby Combe Down quarry where all this Oolite stone could be found. He even built a canal from the quarry to Parade Square so that his stone could be moved cheaply. As Bath's popularity soared Allen became extremely rich and he built the baroque paradise of Prior Park as his own (outside Bath in Widcombe, £4.00 entry).
But wandering around Georgian Bath has its own pleasures. Life is a lot slower out here in the West country and you may find yourself meandering aimlessly around the streets of Bath. The city is divided into the upper and lower town. The lower town is by the railway station while a walk uphill will take you to the residential area around the John Wood crescents. This was the more fashionable place to live and stay. But the visitors needed something else to do rather then just mingle and gossip so Bath's shopping streets are second to none. Outside the Baths is a traditional, though very elegant, High Street called 'Stall Street' - it houses 'Arding and Hobbs' mens outfitters, GAP and Laura Ashley. As you move west from this area between here and Queens Square the streets get very narrow and twisty. The shops are more individual here and some of them are hundreds of years old. 'Paxton and Whitfield' is a very pungent cheese shop selling 'Red Leicester', 'Blue Stilton' and nearby Cheddar cheese. 'The Salamander' pub/restaurant has a good reputation and concentrates on fish dishes while only serving good quality English ale such as 'Olde Peculiar' and 'Ruddles Old Wallop'.
There is another recent attraction which may be of interest in these streets. Along Hot Bath Street is the 'Thermae Baths'. The idea is to bring people back to the city for modern day baths. The first of these is 'Thermae' which is a reinvigorated 18th Century bath. For £17 for two hours or £35 for all day you can enjoy the bubbling Georgian Hot Bath or the slightly cooler 'Cross Bath. According to the notice outside it also contains Turkish baths, bars and a beauty treatment centre. The rooftop contains a modern-day open-air thermal pool. Perhaps Bath will come back to fashion?
Not far west of here is Queens Square which is one of the great 18th Century set-pieces of Bath. Ornate Georgian houses surround a small park with iron railings. An obelisque stands in the park and the green lawns are used by people walking dogs and relaxing. Featured in many Jane Austen novels the square is authentically Georgian along with wrought-iron lamposts although very expensive. A flat in one of these buildings goes for a million sterling each. That's why most of them are taken up with offices, hotels or music academies.
Then it is a slog north uphill along Gay Street. At the top it opens out into the famous 'Circus' (see photo). Caramel coloured buildings stretch in a great circle around a gigantic oak in the middle of a park. The yellow-brown townhouses are symmetrically proportioned with the same Greek columns and bay windows in each (see photo). Completed by John Wood the younger in 1767 they had some very famous residents such as Gainsborough the painter, David Livingstone the explorer and Clive of India. As the crescent/close is a perfect circle there are only three ways out: south down Gay Street, Brock Street and Bennett Street which leads to the Assembly Rooms. On a warm sunny day the giant Oak in the middle of the 'Circus' is a great place to kick back and relax.
But most people head for Brock Street for a small walk to the sight which is on all the postcards - The Royal Crescent'. Even though you are expecting it - it still comes as quite a surprise when you turn the corner. Stretching in a great half-moon is the most glorious Bath crescent of all (see photo). Twenty townhouses combine in a colossal arc over 500ft feet long and overlook the Somerset Hills. The architecture is so overpowering that you need to step back to get it all in and it is even better as the area in front is a public park with wide green lawns. To walk to one end of the crescent to another takes about ten minutes and by now your feet may be hurting. The park in front of the Crescent is a good place to relax or you can take in the musuem at 1 Royal Crescent or check out the five star Bath Crescent Hotel
You would be in esteemed company if you did. Earlier in the summer the 'Three Tenors' - Pavarotti, Carrera and Domingo performed with the Royal Crescent as a backdrop. The concert was meant to be stunning and I can't think of a better piece of scenery for Opera then this magnificent sight.
This tiny town in the middle of the Somerset countryside was exquisitely beautiful. It is England's smallest Cathedral city and is a reminder of a time when English provincial towns were more manageable and cosy. It is very picture-postcard with the twin towers of the magnificent Cathedral looming over the High Street, the pubs serve real ale and are hung with hanging baskets and the idyllic Mendip Hills start at the edge of town. Wells resembles a town in an Anthony Trollope novel - it is straight out of the pages of the 'Barchester Chronicles'.
The jewel in the crown has to be the Cathedral. Even if you are not a great fan of churches you cannot not be bowled over by this amazing structure. Firstly, it's setting is regal enough to set off it's magnificence. It is surrounded by a vast Cathedral Close, echoing cloisters and the superb Bishops Palace. But there is such a sense of spiritual awe about the place. It's a prayer in stone,marble and glass. But also there is a sense of welcome, a sense that real life goes on here and it provides a spiritual need for the people of the town. Wells Cathedral has been a house of god for nearly a thousand years and has to be one of the best sights in this part of England. If you are passing through then do not miss Wells Cathedral.
And it is really a place to pass through. Wells is notoriously hard to get to and there is a sense of isolation there as if the entire town has been bypassed by the 21st Century. There is no train link and by car take the A37 from Bristol and turn off at Shepton Mallet. It is much trickier by public transport but luckily lies on the route to Glastonbury (see other journal) so you can combine the two on a day trip. Bus #173 leaves from Bath bus station at five minutes past each hour, and unfortunately there is only one an hour. It takes another one and a quarter hours to travel to Wells taking in Radstock, Chilcompton and Midsomer Norton which are exceedlingly pretty villages made out of Bath stone. From the bus station you can catch transport to Wookey Hole, Cheddar and the seaside resort of Weston-Super-Mare.
But if you are changing buses you can visit the Cathedral during the gap. To get there turn right out of the bus station and walk uphill. You will soon reach the twee High Street in Wells. This is very pretty, many of the original medieval buildings remain and there are a number of channels trickling down the High street gurgling with water from the springs in the Bishops Palace. These were a gift to the city in the 15th Century from Bishop Bekynton. There are a number of attractive pubs along the High Street as well as cheap restaurants, banks and shops. Wells, itself, is kept immaculately clean, and it's prettiness is enhanced by flower arrangements and hanging baskets. As with most provinical English cities the population is made up of young families, retirees and teenagers who are bored out of their skulls by the slowness of life there.
At the top of the High Street is the entrance to Cathedral Close. A market cross stands on the cobbles with spring water gushing from it's stone and a number of interesting shops surround it. Galleries, souvenir shops and a strore selling reproduction astrology equipment overlook the square which also leads to the Bishops Palace. Through the gates and you are in Cathedral Close. All great Cathedrals need a huge open space in front of their facade so visitors can appreciate the whole scale of the building. The one in Wells is a massive green lawn over a hundred feet in diameter. Deacons, parsons and rectors have their homes in medieval buildings around the edges and kids kick footballs over this immense space. But as you would expect - it is the Cathedral facade which makes your mouth drop open (see photo). It is over 100ft high and 150ft wide and was built between 1209 and 1250. It may contain the greatest amount of medieval sculpture in the world. Row upon row of medieval kings, saints, apostles and bishops stare down as you crane your neck upwards.
There have been temples of worship on this site since Roman times. But this current wonder was started in 1180 and not finished until 1488. It was built in bits and pieces as the churche's fortunes came and went. The recommended voluntary amount to enter the Cathedral is £4.50 and the building is open from 7.00am to 6.00pm. Morning prayers take place at 7.30am and Evensong is at 5.15pm. The first thing you notice is the colossal nave which stretches into a hundred feet into the air and supports a carved ceiling. The real surprise is over the altar, there stone crosses stone in a pair of unique scissor arches. These look very modern but are in fact a way a medieval way to halt sinking tower foundations. In one of the side chapels is a clock dating from 1455 which on every quarter hour strikes and jousting knights appear go round in tournament.
The best part to me was the Chapter House. You climb a set of worn uneven steps and the room at the top is an octagonal chamber where the canons met to transact Cathedral business. A central marble stalk stands in the middle of the room and lattices shoot along the ceiling to spread all over the room - everything decked out in white and grey marble. Back down, behind the altar is the 'Quire' where the choir stalls and enormous organ are situated and are the far back is the last chapel. Not one, but five stained glass windows pour light into this tiny octagonal room to beautiful effect. Lastly is the medieval cloisters that now house a cafeteria and souvenir shop. If you cross the graveyard between the two cloisters will bring you out into the exit for the Bishops Palace. This isn't just a palace but a castle with portcullis, drawbridge and moat. Built in the 12th Century the palace is one of the finest medieval buildings in England and from the drawbridge you can see stone buildings and people playing croquet on the lawn.
In the moat are a family of white swans and mallard ducks. A bell leans off the drawbridge and every time the swans want feeding they have lean't to ring the bell. Like the traditions of Wells, the trick of how to do this is handed down from one generation of swans to the other.
William Blake, 1757-1837
And did these feet in ancient times walk upon the hills of Glastonbury? The feet Blake refers to belong to Jesus Christ. Did our Lord walk the hills of Somerset two thousand years ago?
Well, it is possible. His uncle was Joseph of Arimathea who owned concessions in the nearby tin mines and there is a chance, however slim, of the infant Jesus accompanying his uncle on a trading expedition. He could indeed have visited the tiny village of Glastonbury....
For this ancient town is one of the centres of Christianity in Britain. It it in fact a vortex of many religions - pagan and Christian - and a well of legends and myth's. This is where King Arthur and Queen Guinevere are supposed to have been buried. This was where Joseph of Arimathea struck his staff into the ground and a 'holy thorn' sprung forth and is said to be the final resting place of the holy grail. Glastonbury is immersed in the mythical, even mystical, idea of Engand. Side by side with the ruins of one of the most ancient of Abbey's is a new age town immersed in crystals and spiritual healing. In Glastonbury you can be at one with nature or god, worshipping the earthmother while a neighbour worships at the shrine of St Dunstan or St Bridget. The very air of Glastonbury fizzles with beliefs and spirituality.
Part of this is due to the fact that Glastonbury is so remote. For most of it's history it was an island surrounded by Somerset marshes. King Arthur's remains were mean't to have been brought by boat to Glastonbury Tor which is a massive hill on the outskirts of town and may be the fabled 'Isle of Avalon'. A lone tower surmounts the Tor with sweeping views of the Somerset countryside. In pagan times this would have been a remote island, surrounded by mists, marshes and forests. It is still a devil to get to being twenty miles from Bath and only four from Wells - the best way of reaching it is by car. On public transport this takes some doing. The #173 bus leaves Bath bus station at five minutes past each hour, it takes a further one and a half hours to reach Wells. Buses between Wells and Glastonbury occur every half hour.A £5 bus pass allows unlimited travel in Somerset for the day and is excellent value. It can be seen as a day trip from Bath, but I think it is best to stay overnight - there are a number of cheap hotels and hostels in the town.
Early building goes back to 650AD when the beginnings of a small church appear. St Dunstan enlarged this church and by the Middle Ages this had become the great Benedictine Abbey. Glastonbury was one of the wealthiest Abbeys in England, its last Abbot, Richard Whiting, played a major part in the administration of Renaissance England. This great monastery drew pilgrims from all over the country. The pilgrims found in Glastonbury what they were seeking spiritually and brought with them wealth which was donated to the Abbey. The Abbey grew in strength and prosperity and around the monastery grew up a picturesque town supporting the the monks with local services of every kind.
Domesday came in 1539. Masterminded by Thomas Cromwell 'The dissoloution of the Monasteries' came into being. All those who opposed King Henry VIII's succession as head of the English church were ruthlessly dealt with. When Cromwells commissioners arrived they thieved all the gold plate, and Abbot Richard Whiting stuck to his guns about the Pope being god's representative on earth not the King. Richard Whiting was marched up to Glastonbury Tor then hung and beheaded. The monks were pensioned off and they reduced the mighty Abbey to dust.
Not quite dust...
The ruins of Glastonbury Abbey stand in the middle of the town. Moody and magnificent they are the highlight of a trip to this mysterious town and should be your first port of call when you arrive. It occupies the centre of town in a huge park - the High Street occupies the western part with it's crystal shops and organic restaurants. The northern road is Chilkwell Street which leads to the Tor and Chalice Well, the eastern road is Beare Street and the road which has the entrance on to the south is Magdalene Street. Here you will find the bus stop to Wells and the car-park for visitors. Glastonbury Abbey is open from 9.00am to 6.00pm and costs £3.50 to enter. Allow at least an hour to do the site justice and make sure you pick up a map of this extensive parkland and it's many ruins.
The museum will be your first stop and it is worth it to have a look at the scale model of the Abbey. But it is when you step outside that you get the feel of what it actually looked like. The ruined nave of the Abbey is absolutely massive (see photo) and stretches for 100ft. Crumbling grey stone greets you with walls still a metre thick. All windows, gates and interiors have gone leaving a windswept shell with grass growing on it's cracked roof. Even it's corpse is still impressive with transept walls over 50ft into the air and covered in carved stone tracery. Looking north towards the nave are the great arches supporting the fanned ceiling, now the walls are ragged and battered by the elements.
A small cross stands where grass now grows in the nave. This cross marks the spot where the tomb of Arthur and Guinevere were buried. They were dug up in 1278 and interred by the monks watched over by King Edward I (he of 'Braveheart' fame) but for a thousand years this is where they lay. For many years they were interred under the altar but disappeared during the sacking of the Abbey. I think that is probably the worst of the crimes committed here. It was at this point that I got angry at the vandalism of King Henry VIII - the closest England has ever got to a dictator. A little recompense came later when I found out that he repented this desecration on his deathbed.
Away from the shell of the church the great park covers the site of the Abbey where the ruins of cloisters can be seen. The medieval herb garden still stands, although very overgrown. But the best thing is the Abbot's kitchen. This was the only building to survive the desecration and stands alone with a pointed roof. Inside were huge fireplaces and hooks where entire oxen were hung. Monks would live a very freugal diet of bread and wine. The Abbots, however, had time and money to entertain wonderfully. Their ingredients were laid out on a table - barley, vegetables, cheddar cheeses, malt hops and fresh meat and fish. These monks had a simple life but a contented one.
I thought on this as I was leaving. The ruins of the Abbey looked sad and forlorn in the fading light. But they were still powerful, a testament to what man can do another in the name of religion.
Attraction | "The Chalice Well - the last resting place of the Holy Grail"
The routes to Glastonbury by public transport are discussed in my journal on Glastonbury Abbey. Once there the small village is very easy to find your way around and simply consists of Glastonbury 'High Street' which paralells the western side of the Abbey. Prior to the sixties the village was in decline but then it gained an influx of new-age travellers, healers and hippies who give the town the character it has today. As you walk up Glastonury High Street you will see veterans of these days who have made the village their home. It is not unusual to see women in large kaftans and sandals, dreadlocked teenagers, and men who looked like the sixties never ended. The street itself is lined with vegetarian restaurants, organic bakeries, quartz and crystal shops, art galleries, sculpters and spiritual healers. Worth checking out is 'The Glastonbury Experience' which is a set of shops/cafes set in a little courtyard. And there are also some beautiful historic buildings down the 'High' - the Church of St John is a intricate medieval church built in 1490 and next door is an exquisite 14th Century Town Hall.But if you mention Glastonbury to anyone in Britain nowadays only one thing comes to mind - The Rock Concert. During the summer the nearby village of Pilton plays host to 100,000 people each paying £100 a head for three days of rock music. I have been there in my youth and it is an amazing experience. It still has it's hippie radical kudos despite attracting the crowds and REM, Nick Cave, Fun Loving Criminals, Blur and Oasis have all played there in recent years.Glastonbury TorAccording to the leaflet which was shoved in my hand as I was coming down from the Tor. It isn't just the resting place for the Holy Grail and home to the King of the Faeries - but is also it the manifestation of the earth goddess and a feminist icon.The Tor is a hill seen from many miles around and is supposed to represent the 'bounteous body of a woman' . Being very fleshy and full of dips and folds, and her large belly, hips and thighs are mean't to represent her sexual nature. She is also the goddess of the waxing moon and is also where the faerie folk hide with their queen. They were forced into exile when human beings forgot to acknowledge them. And believe it or not, there was a Druid college on the siteThe views are stunning from it's summit, even if your knees will ache and your breath will be short. It is quite a steep climb from the road. The trail to the summit starts from just past the 'Chalice Well' on Well House Lane. A pebbled trail leads uphill through a wood and then through fields of cattle. The incline is steep for the next twenty minutes and slowly Somerset falls away beneath you. The distinctive pattern of the terraced slops are due to medieval strip-lynching, but some have seen it as a labyrinthe to the Tor's heart.From the summit the view is exceptional taking in 360 degrees and the whole of Somerset to the Bristol Channel. There is a crumbling church to rest your feet on and from here you can see down into Glastonbury and row upon row of farmfields stretching in every direction (see photo). And remember when you trudge down, be careful where you put your feet - you may be stepping on the earthmothers 'bountiful curve...' The Chalice WellSometime in AD 63 Joseph of Arimathea fled to Glastonbury. He was leader of a new sect called Christians and carried with him, according to legend, the 'Holy Grail' - the Chalice of the 'Last Supper'. He then deposited it under Glastonbury Tor from which the blood spring ran. A fabulous legend don't you think? But if you dig deeper - then more comes apparent. The blood spring at the Chalice Well does not have red water due to a miracle but rather due to the iron oxidation of the Somerset soil. And it wasn't quite the 'Holy Grail' he brough but two cruets (small bottles) which contained Christs blood and sweat from the crucifixation. This was confirmed by ancient writings at Glastonbury Abbey.Whatever happened, a good way of getting close to the ancient soul of Glastobury is 'The Chalice Well'. Here warm spring water pours from the soil in a beautiful garden and is mean't to have healing properties. Prince Charles when he broke his arm came here to taste the water and it is a place of peace and serenity. A place to heal, rest and have your thoughts to yourself. It is situated at the foot of the Tor along Chilkwell Street. From the High Street, bear right, to the junction containing 'The Somerset Farm Museum' (free) and then head north. Past the 'Grenadier' pub is the continuation of Chilkwell Street where it heads off to Shepton Mallet. A hundred yards to your left will be the entrance to the Chalice Well.A passageway of wooden trellis' will take your to the entrance kiosk and will cost you £1.50 to come in. A cobblestone path takes you under the living archway of plants entwined around an oak pergola. All around you will be towering trees and shrubs, oleanders, pines, boudlea's, apple trees and interspersed with flowering plants. Off the main pathways are little bowers created by tall hedges with swing-seats and water features. At the back is the The Well Source which consists of a wellhole in the ground covered by a wrought iron gate. This is called a vesica piscis and is aligned with the sacred geometry of the gardens. Further down is the The Lions Head (see photo). This stone fountain dispenses 25,000 gallons of warm spring water a day and using nearby glasses you can taste it yourself.The spring water flows over a waterfall and into a collection pool in the next glade. The red colour of the water is most obvious here and it swirls and gushes along a channel. The last garden contains an overflow pool and is watched over by yew trees. The yew trees are guardians and sentinels and there is evidence that the ones standing here were once part of a Druidic grove. Even more famous are the holy thorn tree. The one here is said to have sprouted miraculously from the staff of Joseph of Arimathea and it only flowers twice a year - Christmas and Easter.I chatted to people who had come to the well to drink the healing waters. They had brought bottles to take the liquid away. To get the maximum out of it's nourishment it must be drunk 3 or 4 times a day with another drink.Oh really? OK then, I''ll have mine with a nice pint of beer...
Chalice Well and Gardens
Glastonbury, England BA6 8DD
+44 (1458) 31154
London, United Kingdom