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Saturday, August 4th:
We had another lovely full breakfast at The Burford House Hotel before checking out. I had a discussion with the owner about how to go to Castle Combe (not on our original plan), a small village purported to be the loveliest in all of England. He not only gave excellent directions, but explained how to navigate the roundabouts that have been giving us so much trouble. I thanked him profusely; he added that our hotel in Bath is quite nice and has a “lovely brassierie in the basement.”
We didn’t get lost once on our way to Castle Combe! We parked about a mile outside the village and enjoyed a lovely walk. The village is described a a typical example of a Saxon street village, although there is much evidence to show its earlier occupation by Neolithic man, Celtic tribes and later, the Romans. “Combe” is an old Saxon word meaning a valley overlooking a castle. There was a castle built here in 1140 by a Norman knight, Walter de Dunstanville, who is said to have come to England with William the Conqueror. That would, however, have made him extremely old at his death – is this myth or reality? None of the castle remains today.
In the 14th century, the village became a center of great importance in the wool industry. Between the 1400’s and the mid-1800’s the Barony of Castle Combe was held by a family whose heraldic shield may be seen both in the church and on other buildings in the village. The 900-year feudal system of Castle Combe ended in 1947 when the village was sold; all the properties are now privately owned.
The road we walked upon as we went into the village itself had trees on either side that were so thick they formed an arch as we walked beneath them, blocking out nearly all the sun (and rain on our way back!). It is charming and bucolic; my love for walking definitely comes from walking in England.
We’ve just now walked into the village proper, which is about two blocks long. We can see St. Andrew’s Church and the Market Cross, which is where the Saturday sheep markets were held. I’m not sure how old the Market Cross is, but it has a Norman look to it.
The Market Cross
St. Andrew’s Church
St. Andrew’s Church is quite a lovely church as well. It costs 16,000 pounds a year to maintain the church. We gave a donation as we wandered in, where it looks as though a wedding is being prepared. The church has beautiful stained glass and is of gothic design. It was built in the 13th century, although the building was extended over a long period of time. The earliest part is the chancel; the nave was added in the 14th century and the towers begun in the 15th century, although not completed until the 16th century. In the 1850’s it became necessary to rebuild the church because of damage to the foundations and fabric. Except for the tower, the whole building was reconstructed in its original form.
Further along we can hear sheep bleating and start to walk in the direction of the sounds. We’re walking down a beautiful, tree-lined street of small cottages joined together. Everything is quite narrow and small here – one wonders why they didn’t build wider streets when there was no population reason for them to have been built so narrowly.
Although not on our original itinerary, Castle Combe was a great place to stop. One thing I noticed is that there is definitely a whole lot less thatching than there used to be. We only saw two thatched houses today and one when we left Oxford. When I was here 24 years ago, there was a whole lot more than that in villages this size.
As we made our way towards Bath, we drove down a hill and saw beautiful farm countryside to the right and then it would seem like a relatively large old city called Box, which isn’t even in the guidebook and yet, was very lovely and looked prominent.
We had trouble navigating in and around Bath. We actually saw the street our hotel is located on twenty minutes before we could make our way back there. We did finally get there and checked into the Queensbury Hotel, designed by John Woods, who is famous for designing the Royal Crescent here in Bath. On our second try to actually get to the hotel, we passed the Hole in the Wall restaurant, which I can remember played an important part in both of my prior trips to Bath. I asked the concierge to make us dinner reservations there tonight. This one’s for you, dad!
Though it’s been raining off and on, we’ve decided to check Bath out this afternoon and start at the Royal Crescent, which isn’t far from our hotel.
My husband decides he likes the Circus better than the Royal Crescent, because all three streets having that same building design is more impressive to him.
It’s started to rain and we’re trying to find the Assembly Rooms now (when we walked home later, we realized they are literally down the street from our hotel).
The Assembly Rooms were the leading center for social life in Bath in the 18th century; at an earlier time in a more southern part of the city, there were older assembly rooms. Jane Austen wrote about this place in Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. It was built by the younger John Woods, who built the Royal Crescent in 1771. The Assembly Rooms were built for the 18th century form of entertainment – the assembly, where a large number of guests met together to dance, drink tea, play cards, listen to music, and take turns around the room. Dances were held twice a week. It was damaged by WWII bombing, but has since been restored. The highlight of our tour is the Museum of Costume, where, once again, it is possible to learn about society and its mores through the clothing worn through history.
The chandeliers in the Assembly Rooms are really beautiful. One of the rooms has a very Wedgewoody-look to it; it’s one of the ballrooms and could hold up to 2,000 people.
We are in the Museum of Costume within the Assembly Rooms. We have just seen a Restoration outfit, which is very opulent. The women’s clothes, and probably the men’s too, truly celebrated the Restoration in the fact that they were allowed to wear finery and show off parts of their bodies that they couldn’t during the puritanical era of the Commonwealth which is when Cromwell and the Parliamentarians held power. We have also seen a section of 18th century dress and the kinds of clothes a wealthy woman would wear and the kind of problems that her maid or lower class woman might have if she received them as hand-me-downs. I never thought of that. There is a reading of a section of Pamela, the first novel ever written, which describes this dilemma.
Regency-era dress was far different from the type of clothing worn in the Georgian era. There are several reasons for this. Both the U.S. and France had recently gone through revolutions against the ruling classes, which partly explains the looseness of dress and its less aristocratic look. And, with these revolutions of power came study of older, democratic systems such as the ancient Greek and Roman societies. Many would say a woman’s clothing in the Regency is reminiscent of the columns adorning Greek and Roman buildings in ancient history.
Also at the end of the 18th century, fashion magazines began to be published. Before this time, fashion dolls were the usual method of spreading news of changing styles. With the advent of the fashion magazine and its illustrations, fashion began to change more quickly.
We’ve left the Assembly Rooms – it’s raining pretty badly now – and have walked to the Roman Baths and Pump Room.
After waiting in line for some time, we are now having our second “tea” of our trip. We are listening to a trio play music. The Pump Room itself is very lovely, and even though it’s not precisely as it was described in many of the historical romances I’ve read (Deborah Simmons’ The Gentleman Thief comes to mind immediately), it’s easy to imagine what the Pump Room would have been like in Jane Austen’s day.
The Roman baths were not unearthed until 100 years ago; two hundred years ago the wealthy who frequented Bath frequented a different set of baths in a nearby location. BTW, if anyone wants to know, Dundee Cake is fruitcake.
We are rather curious about the scones we’ve had here in England, which seem more like buttermilk biscuits than the scones we eat in the United States. Wonder why that is? My husband would also like to know why they are not served warm.
The Pump Room is connected to the Roman Baths, which we are now touring. They were built after the Romans came here in 43 AD. The warm water was very welcome in this cold climate. After 400 years, the Romans were basically booted out of England. Shortly thereafter, the roof covering the Baths caved in and until about a hundred years ago, they were covered by rubble and time. When they were rediscovered, they became a major tourist attraction and contributed to Bath’s popularity.
Originally, the Celts who lived in the Bath area prayed to a goddess name Sulis, who was very similar to the Roman goddess Minerva. This is one of the reasons, in addition to the discovery of the hot springs, why the Romans decided to settle here. The Baths were a religious and sacred place – what better omen than to build a temple than in a place where the locals prayed to their own version of Minerva?
The temple and baths were built around 65 to 75 AD. They formed one of the finest structures in Roman Britain. A stone reservoir was built around the sacred spring to collect the hot water and feed it to the baths. The reservoir was in the corner of a courtyard and the center of this courtyard was the classic temple of Sulis Minerva.
We saw a wooden model that shows things as they were in Roman times. It was called Aquae Sulis and the temple and baths were built in the center of the Roman town. All Roman towns had a temple and bathhouse, but Bath was different – it was greater and considered a source of healing. Over the next 300 years, the sacred spring was roofed over and new buildings were added to the temple and the baths became more elaborate. The temple was a place of worship and sacrifice. In medieval times, one of the carved cornerstones of the temple ended up in a church eight miles away. It was returned here in 1997. The belief is that part of the structures of the baths and temple were unearthed during the Middle Ages when they were digging for stone to build the church.
The temple was not only a place for worship and sacrifice, it was a place for curses. Over a hundred curses have been removed from the springs. People with a complaint about someone would write out a curse and throw it into the water. One is written thusly: “Dos Emettis has lost two gloves. He asks that the person who has stolen them should lose his mind and his eyes in a temple where she appoints.” Another says: “To Minerva, the goddess of Sulis, the thief who has stolen my hooded cloak, whether slave or free, whether man or woman, is not to buy back this gift unless with his own blood.” Offerings were made to the goddess in the way of coins, libations, oils, all kinds of things. Over 12,000 Roman coins were found in the spring spanning the entire period of occupation of Britain from 1st to late 4th century.
The plumbing put in by the Romans 2000 years ago still works (see the pipe to the right) and the large outside pool most people have seen before is that largest original Roman bath to be found in the world. It was essentially a large swimming pool over 1 1/2 meters deep, fed directly from the hot sacred spring by a lead pipe buried in the pavement.
The floor of the bath is covered by lead sheets, which made it waterproof so that ground water wouldn’t seep into it from below. They discovered a bronze sluice gate, which showed the Romans had another angle covered: what to do when it rained so the pool wouldn’t flood. The main bath has no leaks at all.
The bottom of the bath is mud covered with 4 inches of concrete and then 45 plates of lead melded together. It is this construction that allowed this particular bath to have lasted so long and there are only four baths that remain of the Roman period in the world. The bath at Bath is the nicest.
What seems amazing is that the Romans had baths and sewers when later societies had neither. Every Roman took a bath every day, whether freeman or servant. The baths were very sophisticated here, with a heating system and successively hotter and cooler water baths as well, that performed different functions. First you would take off your clothes and be rubbed with hot oil and take a hot, steaming bath. Then you would move to cooler and cooler waters. The hot oil and steam would help cleanse your body; your sweat would bring up the impurities to the surface of your skin and pores. Then you were scraped down in order to remove the oil and sweat. Women traditionally took their baths in the morning and men in the afternoon; they eventually had to pass laws preventing men and women bathing together, although historians are sure there were plenty of assignations going on.
The original baths went undiscovered for hundreds and hundreds of years after the Romans left and the roof caved in. As mentioned earlier, newer baths were built in the Georgian era, when Bath went through a renaissance of sorts. These original baths were not discovered until the turn of the 1900’s.
After our visit to the Baths, we saw the beautiful Bath Abbey next door. They were having special organ recital at the time so we didn’t go in, but the outside was lovely. The Abbey dates from the 15th century and has a splendid western front with carved figures of angels ascended ladders to heaven on either side. The Abbey was built in the late gothic style on the site of an earlier Saxon abbey. Supposedly there are superb vaulted ceilings in the nave.
We’ve just made our way back to our hotel, which is also lovely. There’s no air-conditioning here, but our room and bathroom are decorated very smartly. We are pretty hot because we’ve essentially been walking for about 5 1/2 hours. It’s been another long day, but a very special one – even if my husband is disappointed that they have a Ben and Jerry’s a stone’s throw from the Pump Room. As I keep reminding him, it’s not like they can declare an entire city an historical landmark and refuse to allow its inhabitants to progress.
After resting nicely last night we went to a 9:00 dinner at The Hole in the Wall. It is The Hole in the Wall but it is very much a different restaurant than it was 24 years ago. Let me explain the story behind it. On my first trip to England with my parents, when I was 11, my father had heard about this fabulous restaurant called The Hole in the Wall. Unfortunately, it was closed for the month when we were there. When I was 16, we returned to Bath, and this time the restaurant was open and we were able to eat there. I can remember the incredibly expensive bottle of wine they decanted through cheesecloth for us to drink and my father’s total excitement at fulfilling a longtime desire. (It’s one of those childhood memories, like a summer trip to Canada when we went fishing, even though it was snowing, and my dad made us fish until someone caught one. I caught the first one – it couldn’t have been more than the size of an anchovie, but the excitement surrounding it was the same as if I’d caught a whopper.)
So, even though this was a new incarnation of the restaurant, without the grand wine list, the food was still terrific and we enjoyed another great meal. We went home and got into bed.
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