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The International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Bath

Breathlessly beautiful Bath
Marianne de Nazareth

It was the end of my two marvelous years in Europe, doing my Master’s in Journalism as a fellow with the EU. The end of looking at the world through the rose tinted glasses of a student, funded with a generous stipend which enabled me to travel the length and breadth of Europe and the UK. But, there was one last wish, one last desire to fulfill before I came home to Bangalore forever. I had to visit Bath, in Somerset, UK.

Bath, which is today a world heritage UNESCO site, famous for its Roman Baths and Georgian architecture. Bath which I have always connected with Mr Darcy from Pride and Prejudice as Jane Austen had lived there. Bath which is pronounced phonetically like the British and we Indians do with a rounded ‘ah’ sound and not like the Americans do. The Brits will pretend not to understand you, should you make that faux pas!

So three of us, Cuckoo, Rose and I bought discounted tickets on the First Great Western, British Rail, after checking on the weather of course and sped off to Bath from Swansea, in Wales. We had to change trains at Bristol and had the most comfortable ride into Bath’s quaint heritage railway station, filled with tourists and a very helpful information centre.

For a change in perennially rainy UK, it was a sunny day and along with other tourists we headed towards the Roman Baths, which the city owes its name to, on foot. Like anywhere in Europe, its better to wear stout shoes and walk around the town you are visiting to enjoy the ambience of the place. Considered to be the jewel in the Crown of the West country, the Georgian buildings in Bath glowed like golden topaz as they are all built with the honey coloured Bath stone. Small and compact, Bath’s bijoux size makes it perfect to be seen in a day, like we did. It’s a walker’s city, unfolding its delights round every bend and up every tiny cul-de-sac. Tucked among the hills along the banks of the River Avon we hitched our backpacks firmly on and walked straight from the station towards the Baths. Fom a distance the glorious Gothic Abbey made a great photo opportunity while tourists sat around the lawns immediately in front just relaxing and enjoying the beauty all around. We too sat down to devour our packed lunch of sandwiches and fruit juice while the pigeons hung around at a safe distance, for any stray crusts that might come their way.

There’s a romantic legend behind the founding of Bath. Apparently it was founded by Bladud, the eldest son of the legendary King Lud. As a boy, Bladud contracted leprosy and was banished to become a pig farmer. One day as he was morosely watching his pigs, Bladud noticed that some of the pigs were rolling around in the thick mud and he went to take a closer look. The mud was hot, and he found that the marsh was fed by a bountiful hot spring. Noticing that the pig’s scurvy had been cleared up by the mud, Bladud himself started to roll in it, smothering his whole body from head to foot and to his great delight, his leprosy soon disappeared. Soon he returned to his father’s court and in time was made King. In gratitude he built a temple by the hot spring and that’s how legend has it he founded the city of Bath.

Just outside the baths in the weak sun, were a group of buskers’ serenading the tourists who sat in the sunshine eating their burgers and dropping coins into the musician’s violin cases. The prices of tickets to enter the Baths are pretty steep, but as usual, students get a discounted rate which is great. Along with your ticket you get a snazzy sort of phone which you just click on and can avail of a self help tour of the Baths. There was a choice of languages to be had and everyone from the Chinese to the Russian tourists seemed satisfied.

This World Heritage city began life as a Roman spa built around its hot springs, between the 1st and the 4th century. Soon Bath became an aristocratic resort town. The nobility and gentry flocked there in the bathing season to relax in the spas until seaside resorts became more popular. We were only allowed to walk along the sides of the baths. No dipping feet in or sitting too close to the edge of the bath, though the bright green colour of the hot water did not make them too inviting! The Roman Baths are below the modern street level and have four main features, the Sacred Spring, the Roman Temple, the Roman bath house and finds from Roman Bath.

At the very heart of the site is the Sacred Spring. Hot water at a temperature of 460C rises here at the rate of 1,170,000 litres (240,000 gallons) every day and has been doing this for thousands of years. In the past this natural phenomenon was beyond human understanding and it was believed to be the work of the gods. In Roman times a great Temple was built next to the Spring dedicated to the goddess Sulis Minerva, a deity with healing powers. The mineral rich water from the Spring supplied the magnificent bath-house which attracted visitors from across the Roman Empire.

The Terrace overlooks the Great Bath and is lined with statues of Roman Governors of Britain, Emperors and military leaders. The statues date to 1894, as they were carved in advance of the grand opening of the Roman Baths in 1897. What is strange is that the Roman Baths were not discovered and explored until the late nineteenth century. The view from the Terrace is the first view you have as a visitor to the baths, but there is a lot more to the visit. The Roman Baths extends under the modern ground level, beneath adjacent streets and squares, so many visitors are surprised when they discover just how big the site really is and how grand it must have been in its hey day.

For a writer Bath is a sort of pilgrimage site as well, since it’s Jane Austen country. Bath is where she wrote two of her novels , Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. Her most famous offering Pride and Prejudice is what she is remembered most for and the dark and smouldering Darcy, who broke my school girl heart, is brought to life in the Jane Austen museum. All that is different today in the city of Bath from Jane Austen’s 1801 to 1806 is that the women who walk the streets are dressed in jeans and tees and not flowing gowns with tightly corseted waists. The city that Jane Austen knew was a genteel place of retirement, today it’s more a tourist destination. The museum is of course tailored to interest the female tourist with heaps of expensive Jane Austen merchandise on sale in a sort of tea room. Everyone (read women) stands next to a life sized statue of Austen at the entrance to have their picture taken!

All the way back in the train to Swansea we sat silently together, letting the beauty of our visit wash over us. For me I think, Bath is one place everyone should go to if you travel to the UK. It’s beauty will remain with you, imprinted on your memory forever.

© Marianne de Nazareth Feb 2009
mde.nazareth at
Asst. Editor
The Deccan Herald,
Bangalore - 560025

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