Bath has five pubs.
1. the one we went to.
2. the one we walked past because it looked rather shoddy (even by my standards).
3. the one we couldn’t enter because there were too many people.
4. the one which called itself a vegan bar.
5. the one which had turned into a “club” for the benefit of students in halloween costumes.
Perhaps all the others were in hiding. Like 6 Grimmauld Place. All un-plottable, accessible only via a secret password. Wishful thinking, really.
It’s difficult for me to like a place that has more tearooms than bars, but Bath is lovely. We arrived by coach from London and had to hide in the station waiting for the rain to stop, but even grey skies and drizzle couldn’t take away from the gracious elegance of the town. After checking in to our hostel (a friendly place, but oh lord, the bed bugs), we walked around trying to get a feel of the place. Bath is small; everything within happy walking distance, and life revolves around its gorgeous Abbey that stands over it like a watchful angel. I don’t know whether its Roman origins have anything to do with the fact that the buildings are constructed in beautiful earthy stone that reminded me immediately of Rome. All that was missing of course was the sunshine and pristine blue sky.
Yet Bath unfolded itself nicely over the afternoon – one winding alley to the next, flanked mostly by boutique shops and cafes. The Roman Bath we decided to leave until the next morning, seeing that a long line wound its way around the square from the ticket office. Instead we ducked into cobblestone piazzas, and anything else that happened to catch our fancy, including the ancient indoor Guild Hall market where we picked up secondhand books and drooled over candy. Further down the road was the Victoria Art Gallery, which had a show on English landscape painters, and a fantastic retrospective on Ben Hartley. This insanely reclusive artist painted the most colourful, candid works on country life, each with its own slightly skewed perspective – he painted mostly on parcel paper and among his favoured motifs is a pair of suspended legs.
A walk over the Pulteney Bridge took us to a row of shops and art galleries – “Found” was an extremely stylish design store full of hand-printed stationery and cool home ware stuff. White Room Gallery had an exceptionally manga-inspired art show in its basement room. Another place sold wooden toys and bric-a-brac; this was where we found wooden wands (remember, the wand chooses you) and rattled off all the Harry Potter spells we knew. Our favourite? “Expecto Patronum”, of course. Alright, so we’re losers.
By now, though, my Japanese flatmate Ayano and I had both realised that Bath is a pretty posh place. Everything was Prometheously priced beyond our meagre student budgets. We settled instead for walking (for free) by the River Avon, overhung on both sides by oak trees in the midst of changing colour. Later, to warm up, we stepped into one of Bath’s famous teashops – all pink and floral-patterned, each boasting homemade “Bath buns” baked with a lump of sugar in the centre. While Ayano settled for that, I tucked into a plum and almond cake, washed down by a pot of Earl Grey. How terribly genteel.
At about five, we made our way to the Abbey, which has stunning stone fan-work on its ceiling, lovely stained glass windows and rows of epitaphs on its walls and floor. We were the youngest people there for an organ recital scheduled that evening.
“You may leave halfway if you get bored,” said the elderly gentleman who handed us our programmes. But we didn’t. Roger Sayer, Director of Music at Rochester Cathedral, played pieces by Dupre, Vivaldi, and Mozart among others – and now I’m convinced that the pipe organ is possibly the most difficult instrument in the world. Or at least the one that requires the most amount of coordination. You’re handling four keyboards and also pressing on the pipes with your feet. Somehow, guitarists, even drummers, pale in comparison.
Since it was a Saturday evening, we were prepared for a riotous night out – a pint and dinner first at the Crystal Palace pub and then perhaps some live music and more drinks at another place. Our plans were crushed as we tramped through street after quiet street. “We’d love to live here,” we’d said earlier that afternoon. Now that changed to “We think this is where people come to retire.” It didn’t help that through every open window we glimpsed a little old lady reading, a little old man watching TV. We walked a long while that night, eager for the succor of warmth, ale and atmosphere. Then it started raining. Again. We came across a group of drunk students peeing on the roadside. We gave up, headed back to our hostel, and slept.
After our rather unadventurous night out, we surfaced early and arrived at the Roman Baths before anyone else in town. We spent almost an entire morning there and it was worth it. Although little remains of the original Roman structure, the audio guide does a good job of imagining it all for you, helped along by video projections, artifacts and reconstructed models. Bath has its appropriate beginnings in a pool of hot water that bubbles mysteriously from the earth (at a temperature of 46°C and the ridiculous rate of 1,170,000 litres per day), believed by the Romans who discovered it around the second century AD to be the abode of Sulis Minerva, the goddess of healing. Not only did they build a huge bath house around the spring but also a temple dedicated to the goddess. It was once a bustling place – clearly the centre of a thriving community. Many things were discovered in the sacred spring – precious stones, pieces of metal, offerings, and also “curses” written on metallic squares, harshly condemning suspects or a particular person for stealing a cloak, a slave, a few pieces of silver, even a favourite pot. Human nature has changed but barely.
While the weather still held, we took a walk to Circus (a circle of terraced houses built around a cluster of tall oak trees) and the Royal Crescent, a row of thirty exquisite Georgian houses that probably serves as Bath’s most iconic image. It is truly magnificent, and reinforced our view that the town is definitely a posh place for posh people. What we didn’t like, however, was being unceremoniously thrown out of a lovely little restaurant we picked to lunch in. “Hole in the Wall” had a roaring fire going, and while we warmed our fingers, we were told that we had to leave unless we had a reservation. Which is fair enough if you have clients spilling out of your windows, but all around us were empty tables and chairs. We settled for a sandwich on a bench by the river, which, come to think of it now, was a much nicer option.
By early afternoon, we’d run out of things to do. Yes, there was the Jane Austen centre but considering the lady hadn’t been fond of Bath despite living there for five years (from 1801 to 1806 when she didn’t produce a single novel), it didn’t make sense to visit the place. We spent a couple of hours in the Holbourne Art Museum, which to be fair has an interesting collection of miniature painting and other period collectibles, but our legs hurt from all the walking so we sat on a bench in a corner until one of the guards walked past us over and over again, looking like she suspected us of plotting a heist. So we left. And walked around the town centre with its elegant pillars (you can see how Connaught Place in Delhi was designed with this in mind), and then found another place to take high tea. This time we settled on cupcakes heavy with colourful, glittery icing. All we needed were frilly parasols and pastel empire waist dresses.
Our coach back to London was at half past six, and we soon realised we’d overstayed our visit. Bath is lovely but there isn’t that much to do. Also, it didn’t help that I had a strange hankering for home. The lights on the hill reminded me of the view from my bedroom window. The coal fires from the long barges on the river smelled of winter evenings in Shillong. How strange, this perpetual longing for elsewhere. For a place with more than five pubs.
Image © Bec at Clouds of Colour