Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Bath Time

Being in the neighborhood we decided to see the architectural splendors of Bath. The trip there was lovely – motoring along winding country roads lined wth ancient copses of trees, endless dry-stone walls, gorgeous tiny villages and astounding country houses the size of suburbs.

Bath, as you may imagine, was not designed for motor traffic. In fact most of England is not designed for motor traffic but this has not deterred the Brits who have increased their use of motor transport 80% in the last ten years. It is this kind of shortsightedness that lost them their empire, their industrial base and may soon see their invitation to join the E.U. rescinded.

A couple miles out of town signs informed us that all parking spaces were full but we carried on undeterred (perhaps because we didn't, couldn't, believe them...SS). After puttering for half an hour in ever diminishing circles and ever increasing traffic we actually DID find a parking spot and leaped upon it like a chav spotting a brand-name handbag on sale. We ambled into the city centre which was full of Christmas shoppers frantically trying to spend their pounds before they became pesos. The cathedral was our first port of call. It, we subsequently discovered, was much more impressive than the Roman baths and eleven pounds each cheaper.

Bath Cathedral is absolutely beautiful... possibly the most lovely church I've ever seen! Elegant vaulting arches in pales stone and an absolute trove of memorials for the rich and worthy added over the centuries. Many are deliciously blunt in their reminders of the inevitability of mortality (as below). There's more pics on the flickr site -- ss)

The baths are massively overrated. The Roman ruins are essentially ruinous and yet don’t compare to Roman ruins elsewhere. The Victorians (temporal not spatial) developed them in a totally cack-handed way, adding a couple floors of gift shops and, in a attempt at authenticity, lining the roof with a series of ‘Roman’ sculptures that have the proportions of Leggo figures. Gag!

Luckily JB has forgotten about the 'creative anachronisms' aka actors, intoning loudly at a drop of a camera shutter...
The rest of the town, recent development aside, is stately and impressive. The rows of identical terraces curve away diminishing in perspective like an early video effect. It is the huge streets of three and four storey houses that give you an inkling of what it must have been like in the time of Jane Austen. They exude a stolid middle-class confidence. The only poverty they witnessed must have been the household staff and chimney sweeps. Seriously, you could re-enact the entire Dick Van Dyke dance routine from Mary Poppins atop one block. The only discomfort they witnessed would have been the threat posed by the notorious ‘Boneparte’ from across the Channel.

Bath was not an industrial town like Birmingham, nor an educational centre like Oxford. It was a wildlife park for the well-to-do and beautifully expresses their desire to establish an ordered and polite society whose only threat was boredom. When the setting sun strikes the facades of the buildings marching up the hillsides amidst the dark foliage and against the inevitable grey, clouded, sky the place glows. Wonderful!

On the way home we decided to swing past Avesbury and check out the standing stones. When I was a lad I was fascinated by standing stones, barrows, ley lines. I used to read books and watch moody British dramas about the bizarre phenomena associated with them. Boy was I in for a let down. The stones are interesting enough, but some prat decided to whack a freeway right through the middle. Strangely enough, the visitors car park is about half a mile of winding, muddy path away. Anyway, if you want to indulge adolescent fantasies about the mysterious English past – don’t bother.

I particularly remember reading that England was criss-crossed with ley lines that had mystical powers to induce dreams, cure the cross-eyed or red haired or whatever. And that you could spot them by the cunning alignment of church spires, white horses, standing stones and hill tops. Frankly, if you look in any direction in the Cotswolds you will see a church spire aligning with a hill fort, standing stone, white horse, ancient Norman or whatever.

But the time had come to leave England. We would have liked to stay a little while longer but that would have been the equivalent of throwing our life savings on the fire and eating the smoke. For while the pound has dropped like a paralysed falcon, prices haven’t. We were also desperate for a decent coffee and a good breakfast. Our last night in the Cotswalds was spent with Pat and Dudley over a lovely meal in one of the many five star restaurants in the area. We ate surrounded by lovely young things who looked suspiciously like the offspring of rock stars (the bass player from Blur owns a cheesery next door to where we were staying) and well preserved older things who looked like relatives of Camilla Parker-Bowles.

I recommend a couple of days in the Cotswolds to anyone. The delight of finding little hamlets popping up out of nowhere, the constant tripping over history, the lovely stereotypical vistas…I could go on.

Just wait for the pound to strike bottom and check it out for yourself.

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