Stories of this Canadian girl's adventures exploring Europe & beyond...join me!

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

bath, somerset...5 must-sees and a mistress named popjoy

The honey-coloured houses welcomed me first, as I left the train station and began the walk through town to the inn we were going to be staying in for one night in Bath.

An easy 1.5 hour train ride, this day trip from London should be on your list, not just because it's a pretty town, but because it is full of the most interesting history going way, way back.

Pubs are ubiquitous here, and with names like ‘The Raven’, The Griffin’, 'Home of the best pie!', 'Local Ales!' they offer the most wonderful invitations to stay and rest for a while, which we happily took advantage of every 2 hours or so.

A large plaque caught my attention in the centre of town, dedicated to Beau Nash. With a mistress named Juliana Popjoy how can anything go wrong? The so-called ‘King of Bath’, Nash and his mistress, Miss Popjoy (could there be a better name for a mistress?), ruled the town in the late 1700’s. 

The organized “entertainments” and made Bath the ‘it’ place to be, not just for its healing waters, but for fashion and fun. It is said that Miss Popjoy’s ghost occasionally pops by (pardon the pun) to check if guests of Bath are being entertained to the degree she and Beau Nash would have approved of, over 200 years before.

So, in order that you are as entertained as I was on my recent visit (no mistresses involved), here are the five must-sees in Bath, along with a little story: 

Royal Crescent

The Royal Crescent is where I experienced Jane Austen. I could absolutely imagine her walking the lawns overlooking Bath, and the hilly countryside, as she contemplated her next book or wrote her sister letters. The Crescent was never her address in Bath, when she began spending time here in the late 18th century. Her family didn’t have the means for such a home (few do), but the energy here feels romantic and storybook...just like Jane. 

A fascinating architectural feature of the Royal Crescent is the uniform, terraced housing which one sees from the front, which completely betrays the chaos and unevenness from the back. This design is apparently common in Bath and bears the whimsical name of “Queen Anne fronts and Mary-Anne backs”.

Add to this the fact that the sloping lawns in front of the crescent are cut by a ha-ha, and Bath could really be straight out of a novel (not surprising that it’s the setting for so many). A ha-ha is an actual term for the ditch, which on one side is a steep slope of lawn, betraying the other side which is a stone wall. The effect is one of a continuous green slope. Ha-ha! 

The Circus

Much quieter than, say, Piccadilly Circus, this circus on the north-end of Bath, easily walkable from the centre of town, is a residential square...but yet a circle...and surely not for your normal resident. A completely round circle of elegant townhouses, with 3 entrances into in, the circus was designed in the mid-1700’s by John Wood, to mimic Stonehenge.

The Royal Baths

Be prepared to spend quite a bit of time here if you are inspired by the stories of the past, like way in the past (AD 43). The 3D holographs which appear in the many excavated rooms of the bath describe in detail the normal routines of the Romans, and the importance of these communal places... to catch-up with each other, to visit and share experiences, to rest and rejuvenate together, through hot, cold and healing waters.

At the end of the self-guided tour you can taste the earthy, mineral water for yourself and ponder the worth which was placed upon it over the past hundreds, if not, thousands of years. There was even a Royal Mineral Water Hospital!

Bath Abbey

Founded in the 7th century, the Bath Abbey is home to thousands of people who were buried under the cathedral's stone floor, with over 800 stone tiles dedicated to prominent city members hundreds of years old. The current abbey, which sits on the remains of a Norman cathedral, has been undergoing gentle excavations and reconstruction in order to stabilize the ground beneath, which has deteriorated due to the crumbling bones of upwards of 6000 people. Walking over the engraved stone floor, I felt like a trespasser, treading upon the gravestones of long-gone souls.

Pulteney Bridge across the River Avon

I saved the best for last, in my opinion. As you walk across the bridge it feels like you're walking along a cute lane, with quaint storefronts and a tourist or two (huh!). But, peeking around the side and looking over the waist-high stone wall, you see a construction so beautiful, with the greenest of waters flowing beneath its rounded arches. And, then there is the River Avon...which brings every book-lover's heart to swoon.

Now, back to Miss Popjoy, because I just can't resist. Her paramour, Beau Nash, was a dandy. This is a word that we should absolutely bring back into colloquial language. Do you know what the definition of a 'dandy' is? I didn't! But, oh does it make me laugh. 

A dandy, historically, is a man who places particular importance upon physical appearance, refined language, and leisurely hobbies, pursued with the appearance of nonchalance in a cult of self. (wikipedia)

Mostly, a dandy was a man pretending to be more than he impersonator of the upper classes while actually coming from a much lower class. Essentially, a betrayer...a ha-ha.

By all accounts, Beau Nash was the Kanye West of his time. A fashion innovator, a host of great balls and parties, a bundle of chaos mixing himself up in politics, nobility and the normal folk, and crossing boundaries and pushing limits. Nash was bewondered by many, achieving a high-flying life of women and influence, leaving his last mistress so distraught upon his death that she lived most of her remaining years in a hollowed-out tree. Now, that is what I call leaving a mark on someone! Alas, Miss Popjoy was joyful no longer.

Either along the cute lanes, among the imposing historical sights, or inside the cozy pubs, a trip to Bath will no doubt leave you entertained, and possibly even inspired.

If you go:

- For tickets from London Paddington to Bath Spa - 1.5 hour trip one-way

- Bath is very walkable, with all the sites easily reachable on foot. You don't really need a hop-on, hop-off bus or tour. Stop for a pinto or pie in any of the great pubs whenever you need a refreshment

- If you stay the night, I highly recommend The Griffin cozy, with excellent pub fare, run by super-nice people

- Where to eat, The Raven has the best pies (IMO) having won awards for them! And it has the coolest history. Ale and pie...what could be better!

- We skipped going into the thermal bath in Bath, because let's face it, it's super expensive (36 Pounds for hours, on a weekday). So, we toured the Roman Baths instead (18 Pounds, on a weekday), and were not disappointed! It was an incredible experience, so interesting and pretty. So, if you have to pick one or the other, go with the original :)

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