It is a truth universally acknowledged that any self-respecting Janite in possession of the good fortune to be in England must make her pilgrimage to Bath. Despite the majority of my planned British literary tour proving impractical, Bath remained a requirement. It was well worth the trip. Ironically, in the city most closely associated with her name, Jane Austen was quite unhappy. She was a country girl enclosed in a city. It was the place of her Father’s sudden death. The city sort of seems to know it too. The tour guide at the Jane Austen Centre sheepishly explained in her introduction that Jane Austen wrote very little, if not at all, during her stay in Bath. The contrast between her two novels set in Bath, Northanger Abbey written when she was a young woman only visiting and Persuasion after she’d lived there, are endlessly analyzed and politely blushed over. There is a general feeling that as pleased as Bath is to be associated with the famous authoress, it is rather embarrassed it couldn’t give her a better experience.
My decision to travel there, though long in the making, was still a last minute one. On Tuesday I went to the Ashmolean with Spencer, one of the girls in our Summit program, and saw the remains of a dodo bird. It was quite entertaining.
After that I paid a visit to my absolute favorite bookstore, the famous Blackwell’s, and managed to leave without buying a single book. Quite the accomplishment. My third errand took me to the Oxford Public Library. Oxford is known for its libraries, but only through the colleges. The Oxford Public Library has made me immensely grateful for the Mukwonago library and even the Dayton Public Library, which I never thought I’d say. Besides having the smallest teen section I have ever seen (the entire ‘section’ fits on a shelf in the adult fiction section), The Oxford Public Library charges money to rent a DVD or audio book (that is to check it out, not including what late fees might be) and putting a hold on a book costs a £1.20. If I had to pay money to the library every time I put a hold on a book back home, I’d owe the Mukwonago Community Library enough for them to build another building. On the plus side, the library card I got has quite a beautiful picture of Oxford on the back and the library contains a large collection of Georgette Heyer books, unfortunately I’ve read them all. Picked up two books in the Stravaganza series (City of Flowers and City of Secrets) but didn’t enjoy them as much as the first two.
That all said, I came back and decided on a whim to go to Bath the next day. I booked a bed at a hostel and double checked bus times. I would arrive at the bus station nice and early and hope to buy a ticket. Unfortunately, I arrived too early! Ended up sitting in the bus station for over an hour before the ticket office opened and another before the bus arrived, late. The bus ride itself was actually quite pleasant for a 2.5 hour drive. I bought a bag of candy for the trip on a whim, which seemed like a good idea at the time but the end result was that I felt more like an 11-year-old going to Hogwarts than a 20-year-old self-proclaimed Janite visiting Bath. Our bus driver apparently was new to his job, because there was an older gentleman with him giving directions. They mostly sounded like this, “Go right. I SAID RIGHT. What are you doing? Get in the right lane. You have the right-of-way! Keep going. Speed up!” They both wore an expression of long suffering.
Bath is a city of Georgian architecture. Even the more modern buildings are built to mirror that fact. A city of Georgian architecture and scaffolding, actually. The scaffolding is everywhere, presumably to spruce up the architecture. The result is lovely. It is an easy city to get around, with maps conveniently placed at the more touristy spots (though clear street signs seem to still elude them. Is all Europe this way, or are the British particularly paranoid about letting you know where you are walking?) It is not very big, but comfortably laid out and there is always a bus if you don’t feel like walking. The city is great for relaxing. Even for visitors not interested in Jane Austen, there is plenty to see. There are Roman baths, townhouses from the late 1700s, pretty architecture, and shops. Lots and lots of shops! Though my experience is rather limited, it is one of the best places I have ever been for vacationing. Not to overuse the word, but is comfortable. Slowed down. Obligingly frozen in time to give visitors a chance to catch their breath and ‘take in the waters’ like their predecessors before them. It is a city of history, of Celtics and Romans and fashionable British aristocracy, of people coming to drink and bathe in the hot waters. It is well worth the visit.
Arriving in Bath around noon, I decided to make a bee-line for the Jane Austen Centre. Except it was more like a figure eight, several times over. If walking down the street right next to the one you wanted is a super power, I am a natural. However, I eventually did find it and quite happily entered the world of Regency Austen for a blissful few hours.
The tour included….
Costumes and sets as might be seen during tea or at a ball
Though the museum has very little unique to Jane Austen, with the exception perhaps of the building, it is well worth the visit. The immersion into her world is brief and fun, full of details and commentary about her life in Bath and her two novels set there. It was less pretentious than I expected. It gave a good glimpse into the woman she was and offered lots of little things, like the chance to write a note with a quill pen, that made the trip worth it. It indulges the Janite yet remains grounded as a pleasant museum trip. Highly recommended.
By the time I finished my visit it was nearing 3….and what better location could I ask for to take tea?
The Regency Tea Room was surprisingly snug. It is in the upper floors of the house, in Jane and her sister’s old bedroom. The menu carries titles like “Lady Catherine’s Proper Tea” or “Tea With Mr. Darcy” (if you want to up the price, you can also get ‘Champagne With Mr. Darcy’.) Though “Mr. Darcy” does not make an appearance with the teapot, there is a portrait of Colin Firth’s Mr Darcy staring out over the room. It really makes you wonder what Jane Austen would think having a character from her novel hanging in her old bedroom.
I ordered the Ladies Afternoon Tea, a filling combination of finger sandwiches and a scone with clotted cream at a fairly a fairly good price. The tea was lovely too. By that point, though, I was desperate for a cup of tea so I might have found anything lovely.
I was the youngest person I saw visiting the Jane Austen Centre unaccompanied. There were a few teenage girls being dragged around by their Moms, and in the tea room were two ladies in their twenties taking tea together. Mostly, though, the clientele were older woman, in chattering groups comparing notes about Persuasion and the use of muslin, or a poor husband dragged around the Centre by his wife. The most hilarious part of taking tea in the Regency Tea Room was watching those same poor husbands inform the waitress that they wanted “The Mr. Darcy Tea”, all the while casting baleful glances at their wives.
It started to drizzle not long after I left the Jane Austen Centre. A drizzle is a nasty business. It isn’t quite a rain, so you think to yourself ‘I can wade this out’. However, it’s damp and dreary and even the most cheery optimist must feel slightly daunted trying to tackle a new city when all there is to see is gray skies. The only bonus is that when it is rains I get to pull up the heavy hood on my raincoat, and I like to think at first glance it makes me look mysteriously like I belong in a Cassandra Claire novel. The reality is probably that I look exactly like I what I am – a wet, bedraggled, and lost tourist in a dark purple raincoat. After attempting in vain to find the Fashion Museum, I gave up and decided to take the first city tour bus I could find. It turned out to be a good idea. The driver was an older fellow, the kind of Brit who absentmindedly says ‘Everything alright, then, dear?’, and he apparently took a liking to me. At any rate he went out of his way to point out that I needed ear buds to properly enjoy the tour and that my ticket would get me on the skyline bus when this trip was done. Unfortunately, the timing was off and though he insisted another bus would be around soon, ‘just wait here a bit where I am, it’ll come, dear’, the skyline bus had taken off on its last tour long before we arrived.
The city tour was well worth it. Shielded from the rain, I got to relax for an hour and enjoy information I’d never have picked up on from the ground. Like that awful park I kept running into while wandering aimlessly in my attempt to find the Jane Austen Centre was actually quite important and contained a monument to Crown Prince Frederick…who died after getting hit with a tennis ball. I also learned that the 11-year-old Princess Victoria made one of her first public appearances at the opening of the park that bears her name in Bath. However, as one journalist wrote the next day that her curls made her look dowdy, she never returned to Bath. In fact, she scorned the town so much that when her train went by 60 years later she had the curtains drawn so she wouldn’t have to see it. There was a woman who could hold a grudge.
The tour over, I decided my best bet would be to find the youth hostel where I had booked a room previously before it got dark. I started walking at 5:30. I finally reached Bathwick Hill closer to 6:30, by this point footsore and weary of the drizzle. According to the directions, it was simply “YHA” on Bathwick Hill, no street address. And so I started up the steep hill. And I walked. And walked. And walked. Eventually I noticed a street sign that said ‘George Street’, so I figured I must have missed the place. I walked back down. Couldn’t find it. I went into a grocery store to ask for directions. The cashier hadn’t heard of the place, but his manager said there was a youth hostel, up the hill, on the left, I couldn’t miss it. So I started walking again. I don’t know how long I walked. It felt like much longer than it probably was. Passed the mysterious George Street for sure. At one point I decided that if I couldn’t find the place, I was just going to fall asleep in this person’s driveway….
And then I saw it. In neon green….the “obvious you can’t miss it” sign.
However, my journey was not done. The sign indicated entering a dark, creepy drive with trees and bushes on either side. Though in the daylight it looks only mildly spooky, it was long passed dusk when I walked it. Little to no lighting. No people to be seen. Random driveways forking the road.
Suddenly, the building itself:
A most foreboding and intimidating place in the dark. I was only mildly reassured by the sight of The Big Bang Theory playing on a TV screen through the window. I half expected to see Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys as I walked around the corner to the main entrance. Three young people sat outside, smoking. They paid no attention to my arrival, eyes glazed as I passed them into the building (which really makes you wonder what they were smoking). The man behind the desk had bug eyes and wispy blond hair. He was trying to help the woman in front of me sign up for a membership card, but he wasn’t entirely sure what he was doing. At any rate, he got up and walked to the kitchen several times during their interview, coming back only to leave again with a burning question about wifi or booking online.
By the time it was my turn, I was unsure if I was glad or not that they had my reservations. I got my key and the instructions “Go up a flight of stairs, then another flight of stairs, and your room is the first door on the left.” So I walked up a flight of stairs, and another flight of stairs, and the first door on the left…was a bathroom. The door next to it said “3”. Not “10.” I retraced my steps. Sure enough, there was another random staircase in the opposite direction. I tried that staircase, went up a flight of stairs. The entire building was old and branched off in numerous directions, with doors leading to bedrooms and bathrooms. I gladly found room 10 and unlocked the door…
Only to be greeted by a widely smiling Asian. Her name was Pino and she was thrilled to have someone to practice her English on. She very generously offered me grapes and a candy bar and did I want to go to Bristol with her tomorrow? Her enthusiasm and obvious comfort in the group room seemed a strange comparison with the dark, creepy environment outside. Two older women, mid-fifties, also were in the room, they were visiting from Canada. Another older lady came in, she was showing her cousin around but lived further North in England. They wanted to know why Pino and I weren’t aren’t partying…and why had I walked up the hill when I could have just taken the bus? It was the oddest contrast. My first thought the next morning was to wonder who had been murdered in the night. The place was still sound asleep when I left at 9 the next morning.
Though I had intended to visit the Fashion Museum first thing the next morning, I decided there was another place that I really ought to visit…
The Roman Baths were incredible, well worth the visit to Bath in their own right. There is so much history inlaid in the hot, bubbling water. Sometimes it was hard to tell what came from where. The statues surrounding the bath, for example, were created in late 1800s after the baths were discovered, though they look like they belong with the set.
From the baths , the great Medieval church, once a monastery can be seen from the backdrop of the pool where the Romans would worship their goddess Minerva, and where the Celtics worshiped Sulis (the two later combined into one goddess, Sulis-Minerva).
It is something, huh?
The water from the springs was not that bad. That is, I expected something more distinctive. The water at Yellowstone National Park, for example, was nasty. This stuff left hardly an aftertaste, didn’t smell weird, was in fact…water! If anything it was just strange drinking it slightly warm. However, for years doctors prescribed drinking and bathing in this stuff as a cure for everything from gout to arthritis. It’s very mineral rich. It was fun to give it a taste.
Following the Roman Baths, I peeked into the Pump Room (which has been turned into a very posh restaurant) and finally found my way to the Fashion Museum, which happens to be the building the Assembly Rooms were in! For those not in love with Jane Austen or Georgette Heyer, the Assembly rooms were where the public balls took place.
It was a very fun museum, I loved all the dresses and watching fashion change. I learned more about bustles and hoop skirts and corsets. Hard to get good pictures, because everything is behind glass, but I did take a few….
But I know what you are thinking! How on earth would they wear these things? Never fear, I have provided a demonstration.
1. Start with the corset. It is a necessity for giving a lady her hourglass figure
2. Add the hoop skirt (even more challenging to get into than the corset)
3. Add the dress
4. Pick a bonnet
4. One may now be seen in public.
From a more Victorian look the museum moves on to recent fashions….which apparently includes this lovely combination from a 2013 Spring/Summer Fashion show
Following the Fashion Museum I had a late lunch/early tea at this adorable and wonderful little place called “Bea’s Vintage Tea Rooms”. “High tea” included for me a sandwich, soup, cheese crumpets, cake, and lots of lovely tea for a great price. Decidedly one of my favorite places in Bath, it was a perfect cure for the decided downpour of rain outside. It’s cute and pleasant and the staff were very friendly. The other visitors included a sweet British couple who were out for the day to have ‘tea and toast’, a French couple (the man wearing a beret and the wife with hair past her waist), and two guys with faint accents who left soon after I arrived. There was a charm in it all.
Following tea I decided I should figure out when the next bus was leaving to return to Oxford. I hadn’t planned on staying another night. I chose to make a quick detour, though, to visit:
A famous house in the Royal Crescent kept up to look like it would in the Georgian period. Though quite interesting, and holding several beautiful pieces from that century, I did not think it was worth the admission price. I’m being a bit cheap saying, that, though. It was a neat experience, certainly gave a certain tone to what the famous inhabitants of two hundred years ago would have experienced.
Overall, my trip to Bath was lovely. The only thing I didn’t get a chance to do that I had wanted to was visit the Bath Spa. I guess I will just have to go back! 😉