Sunday, September 14, 2008

Stonehenge and The Golden Georgian City of Bath

Friday and Saturday, September 12 and 13, 2008
Stonehenge and Bath

In all my travels in the UK, I have never been to Stonehenge. Avebury many years ago, yes, Stonehenge never. So, it was with anticipation that I arrived at this ancient site of mammoth sarcen and blue stone hoping to grasp at some of the mysteries of its creation and its significance. I left disappointed--in that I was able to understand neither. However, the aura of the place, the fact that so many centuries after it was created, so many tourists stopped there to encircle the wide grassy path and make something of the structure intrigued me and by the time I was halfway through the circle, I was awed too.

In and of itself, the ring of Stonehenge can seem like nothing more than just that--a ring of stones. But when you consider the massive effort it took to get those stones there from faraway Wales, the end-product is breathtaking in the same way that the Pyramids of Egypt are. By the way, the story about Druids creating the ring and coming there each year for ritualistic worship of the elements has been disproved. However, there is enough astronomical precision in the way the stones have been placed and the way the shadows of the earth and the sun lengthen and criss cross one again at strategic points for us to know that this was not a spot chosen at random nor was the placement of the stones a mere whim. There is enough scientific evidence to suggest that ancient man had a method to his madness and this is what makes the site enthralling.

On a humorous note, it was fun to see more teenagers take pictures of the sheep that went about their business, i.e. grazing on the pasture that surrounds the spot, than of the monument itself! But, as they say, there is no accounting for taste... or interest!

Then, we were driving on the wide and picturesque Salisbury Plains past the Weston Horse, a great engraving on a white chalk cliff, to arrive in the golden Georgian city of Bath that is, like Rome, perched on seven hills. No wonder the Romans embraced it and built a splendid city here over 2000 years ago. As if the location were inadequate, the Romans who came from a balmy and sunny clime to invade this cold and rainy little island, felt rewarded by the warm and abundant waters gushing from the earth and promptly named their new settlement Acqua Sulis dedicating the resort to the goddess Minerva. Given their penchant for communal bathing, the town became a spa especially as its muddy waters were said to have cured King Bladud (father of Shakespeare's King Lear) of leprosy. Well, the rest, as they say, is history, and Bath has a fair share of that stuff.

On the many occasions that I have been to Bath, I have always gone on horseback--well, not literally, but what I mean is, in a hurry. I've combed the main sights--the spectacular fan vaulting of the Abbey, the romance of the Roman Baths, the elegance of the Pump Room with its Jane Austen and Beau Brummel associations and have posed by Pulteney Bridge...and then I was off.

This was the first time, I stayed in the city long enough to be able to embrace it as the Romans did. And I left with an affection for the city that I had never felt before. Walking through its golden streets--golden because the entire city is constructed of the famous warm honey-colored Cotswold stone with which the city of Oxford is also built--I felt a rare delight in the sheer uniformity of the color and the style of the buildings.

The entire city was designed and constructed by the father-son duo of John Nash--since they both had the same name, they are distinguished as The Elder and The Younger. Their love of classical architecture and clean Roman lines is evident everywhere you turn, from the Royal Theater which Jane Austen frequented (where I felt so fortunate to get a seat unexpectedly to watch Vanessa Redgrave play Joan Didion in The Year of Magical Thinking, an account of Didion's grief-management when her husband John died while her daughter Quintana lay in a coma), to the Crescent (a semi-circle of plush mansions) to the Circle, a perfect circle of colonnaded homes built around a park, to the Assembly Rooms where the rich and famous gathered to dance, discuss community affairs, gossip and make matches, to the fashionable Pump Room where they basically did the same thing while sipping the medicinal waters of the hot spring--which I did too and found to be foul-tasting but warm.

On a past occasion when we had arrived as a family in Bath, Llew and I had attended a cocktail party in the Roman Baths, lit by giant fire torches at night, and had supped to the accompaniment of a classical quartet in the candlelit Pump Room--this was part of the recreation provided by the organizers of a conference at the famous University of Bath where I had presented a paper. This time, I was a tourist, with map and camera in hand, clicking away at the many centuries of history and architecture that lay ensconced in that one space--the Baths--and at the many lovely arches, crescents, bylanes, towers, steeples, bridges (I actually walked on Pulteney Bridge, this time, only one of two bridges that is lined with shops--the other being Florence's Ponte Vecchio).

I also visited the Jane Austen Center (I mean how can you escape from old Janie when you are in Bath?) and saw costumes from a range of films in which her novels and her own uncomplicated life have been portrayed. I went to the Assembly Rooms and saw the Costume Museum, a wonderful receptacle of clothing through the ages. I also visited No. 1 Royal Crescent, a home that has been turned into a museum created to look exactly the way an interior of a privileged home night have looked when Bath was at the height of its popularity and appeal.

I strolled in the same gardens that Jane Austen and her family loved, saw her homes on Gay Street and Queen Square, window shopped in Milsum Street (reportedly the favorite shopping venue of Princess Diana) and in the covered Guildhall Market whose heyday had been the time of the Regency. I had looked forward to browsing through Bath's many antiques shops but alas, the recession in America and the fallen dollar has affected the UK's antiques market so badly that dozens of the shops along Antiques Row have closed down. However, I did my share of poking around a few multi-dealer locations and saw nothing to catch my fancy.

I could not leave Bath without doing two things: tasting the famous Bath Bun, a roll studded with raisins and stuffed with sugar cubes and visiting Sally Lunn's establishment which also happens to be the oldest house in Bath, dating from Roman Times--or so they say. Inside, you listen to the story of a French Huguenot woman, escaping from persecution in the 1600s who arrived in Bath and set up her bakery. She began to bake a bun that was unlike anything the English had ever eaten--brioche-like, this soft confection stole their hearts away and the Sally Lunn Bun was born. Today, you can eat in or take out--a bun costs a pound and a half--and was the best little souvenir I took out of the city. Oh, but I favorite souvenirs of the city were the genuine old coins I bought at the shop run at the Roman Baths. These coins from a bygone Britain included florins and half-crowns, farthings and shillings and a whole set of genuine copper pennies, one each from the reigns of all the monarchs that have ruled England in the 20th century, i.e.Victoria, Edward VII, George V, George VI and Elizabeth II. I intend to set these in silver and create an exquisite bracelet and necklace for myself.

I could not leave Bath without attending a rugby match, for Bath's team is famous and superior to most, and I was able to catch a match in progress while standing on the lovely Pulteney Bridge and watching the teams as they moved in and out of my line of vision.

At night today, especially on weekend nights, Bath buzzes with a plethora of young people from all over the world who frequent its many pubs, clubs and restaurants, then get home sozzled and swaying along its uneven cobbled streets. The low lighting reminds me of the gaslit days when equally sozzled young dandies returned home from the gaming tables and fell drunk in their beds, attended, the next morning by their long-suffering servants. I caught a glimpse of this side of modern-day Bath as well on the late night stroll I took through the city and I was grateful to return to the comfort of my bed at the Travelodge just off Broad Street, where I awoke the next morning to streaming sunlight and the start of one of the first truly sunny days I have had in England since my arrival here.

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