Friday, July 17, 2009


Two weekends ago found us in the lovely city of Bath. At various points in its history, Bath has been home to King Bladud, the ninth English king, Jane Austen, Leah's favourite author, and a whole lot of Romans bathing in a whole lot of water. It is conveniently only 90 minutes from London (if you get the train; it's three hours if you get the bus), and is legendary for its healing powers.

The first historical location we visited was the Jane Austen Centre, home to the Jane Austen museum and the Regency Tearooms. The Centre is a few doors down from one of Jane Austen's many homes in Bath. Jane and her family moved to Bath from the country, but unfortunately she didn't like it very much and her writing suffered - she didn't write any books during her 5 or so years there. While they were in Bath her father died, and with that their pension disappeared so they gradually slipped down the social ladder, eventually ending up in Trim St which was not a very desirous neighbourhood. Once Jane left Bath her writing picked up again, but she died in 1817 aged only 41.

Aside from her life story, the Centre also told you about society at that time, and let you practice fan language (see photos). They also serve traditional high tea, and cream teas, up in the Regency Tearooms, so we felt we should try and be proper English people by having scones and tea. They were delicious :)

We also visited the Roman Baths, and did so in the evening as they have late nights in summer (closing at 10pm). There's an audio guide which gives you heaps of detail about everything you see, and the history of the site. They have found parts of the Roman Temple to Minerva that was there, and have reconstructed the entire pediment from just a few remaining pieces. They have recovered all sorts of things from the spring and surrounding areas, like notes to the goddess that were thrown in, cursing people who had stolen things. These survived because they were written on metal and folded up. They also found beautiful engraved gems from signit rings which had either been thrown in as a sacrifice or lost from the bearer's ring as the water dissolved the cement.

The baths are a couple of metres below street level, and the foundations, floors, pieces of the walls and roofs are still intact. Apparently the roof would have stood 20m above the baths, which is as high as the surrounding buildings. Today the bath is open to the air and is a lovely green colour due to the sunlight encouraging algae to grow, but back then it would have been more appealing. You could see the under-floor heating system that they built, as well as the drain that takes the overflow from the spring out to the river -- it's big enough to walk down.

After visiting the baths you get to try some of the spring water (renowned for their healing powers), so of course we did, and you can see the effect it had on us.

The Bath Abbey was founded in the 7th century, and most recently rebuilt in the 1600s, and was the last church to be built before the Reformation. It's quite big and has some lovely stained glass, as well as lots of tombstones in the floor and walls. We did a tour of the Bell Tower which was very interesting, and told us all about how the bells are rung. They have 10 bells, the largest of which weighs 1.5 tonnes and once fell off its framework causing a bit of damage and meaning that it had to be recast. There are several different ways that the bells can be rung: manually by ten people (the traditional way), manually by one people (just a matter of pulling strings on the wall), automatically by a fancy box on the wall, automatically by a music box type arrangement, and automatically by an engine (this one does the quarter hours and hours).

We got shown the back of the clock which was something you don't see every day, but it had what looked like a very simple mechanism. We also got to stand on the top of the vaulted ceiling, and looked down through a hole all the way down to the Abbey floor. Then we went up to the top of the tower and took lots of photographs.

The council runs free walking tours of Bath twice a day, so we took advantage of that and went for a two hour informative walk of the city. Highlights included:
  • Pulteney Bridge, one of not many bridges that have shops on it. In fact, when you walk across it you can't even tell you're on a bridge -- it just looks like a normal road.
  • The Guildhall. From the outside it has seven windows across it, but on the inside there are only six: the middle one is a fake to make it look nice, and in fact has a fireplace behind it, with a chimney disguised as a decoration on the roof.
  • The various styles of architecture. Most of the houses are Georgian, which is very regular and geometric. There is also some Elizabethan architecture, which uses irregular stones, has small panes of glass in the windows, and has steep roofs to throw off the rain and snow. The Circus is a fine example of the city's architecture, and has houses in three levels with columns (Doric, Ionic, Corinthian) going up and getting slimmer to make the building seem light. It also has acorns on top of it which is pretty awesome*. The Royal Cresent is a huge crescent of buildings looking like a big palace, and is very impressive. Also, almost all of the buildings are made of Bath stone, which looks like Oamaru stone, so they're all the same colour and style and therefore a bit repetitive if you're not a fan of architecture.
While we were in Bath we visited some distant relatives in the nearby town of Bradford-on-Avon, which is a charming wee place with narrow winding streets, a Saxon church, and a big old barn. While we were there we enjoyed playing with a tiny puppy, and watching one of their daughters learn to ride a bike. We also had our first 99 icecream, which is vanilla icecream in a cone with a flake. It doesn't cost 99p though, so we're confused about the name.

All in all, we enjoyed our trip to Bath. Although it lacks some of the quaintness that other historical cities have, it is still a friendly city, and certainly easy to explore. And if you're curious about the water -- it tastes vaguely eggy, like you'd expect the water to taste after you boiled an egg in it. It's served warm, too.

* The legend goes that Mr Bladud, then a pig boy, was walking his pigs when they found some mud and wouldn't get out. The only way he could entice them out was by laying down a trail of acorns for them to eat. As they came out of the mud he noticed they were all miraculously cured of their ills, so he had a dip and noticed the same. He then went on to reclaim his rightful position, become king, and learn to fly. We're not making that up.

Take a look at our photos (if you want to).

Tower of London

What trip to London would be complete without a vist to the Tower of London? Even though we plan to be here for a few years we thought it prudent to get our trip in as soon as possible, and when we found that we could go two-for-one with our train tickets we decided to go one sunny weekend.

The Tower looks very historic in amongst its surroundings. Tower Bridge is obviously nearby, but it only dates back to Victorian times. In contrast, the Tower has been around since the 11th century.

The main tourist entrance is rather traditional. It is the gate that prisoners left on the way to their beheading on Tower Hill, and also the same gate they had their bleeding corpse dragged through on their way to their headless, communal grave.

As we walked through the gate, we arrived just in time for the guided tour. The tour is given by one of the yeoman guards, who are all ex-military men. To become a guard you must have an impeccable record -- at least ten years continuous service without a blemish. Or, as our guard put it, "ten years of undetected crime". The guards tell you all kinds of stories, and it's easy to forget they were once sergeants. That is, until they give the foreigner who is interpreting for her friend a bollocksing for talking when he is, and then send them to the back of the group.

Apart from the scariness, the guards are full of colourful stories. They have the history of the place down, and can recite any number of gory stories about all the landmarks around the place. I don't remember any particular story standing out -- they all seem to blend into one, which goes a little like this:

Famous person, possibly of noble origin, incurs the anger of the King and is taken to the Tower. They are then kept prisoner there for some long period of time, living in comfort as befits their status, before they are then either taken to Tower Hill and beheaded, or released.

One example everybody knows about is Anne Boleyn, but it turns out she wasn't actually beheaded like everybody else. She instead chose to be beheaded with a long sword in the grounds of the Tower itself. This method of beheading was so effective that apparently she didn't realise she was dead, and her mouth kept moving even while her head was held up to the crowd. There is now a glass pillow where she and other former favourites of the King met their end.

Not everybody was as lucky as Anne to die swiftly. There was one unfortunate fellow who decided not to tip the axeman (the money axemen received from their charges was the only payment they got for doing the job. Essentially, you were paying them to do a good quick job). Instead of the axe landing cleanly in his neck, it instead missed and embedded itself in his shoulderblade (to which the man is reported to have turned his head and said, "if you do that again I may not be able to keep still"). I suspect this story may have been embellished somewhat, as it kept going in almost comic fashion: the axe apparently hit every other area around the neck until, one suspects almost by luck, it hit him in the neck. And didn't go through. Eventually the axeman is said to have pulled out a knife and sawn the head off with that.

There was also the tale of the two princes, who stood in the way of Richard III taking the throne. Although they were to have been trained in how to be a king, they instead went missing and were eventually found in skeleton form underneath some stairs. We saw said stairs and visited the room in which they were kept, and although there is no direct evidence that Richard was behind it, it all seems rather suspicious and he seems to be the natural villan. They didn't mention this when we visited York; indeed, they were all rather fond of Richard. This may sound strange unless you know that York is his home town.

It's not all blood and gore at the Tower; there are also the crown jewels. We queued up like good British citizens and eventually found ourselves in front of some very shiny jewels. Some of them were quite impressive, such as the Sovereign's Orb but we particularly liked Queen Victoria's second crown, which she wore with her widow's veil after Albert died. It was very small -- maybe the size of two fists -- and Leah thought it was cute.

There is also currently an exhibition of Henry VIII's suits of armour. We didn't get time to do anything more than the highlights of this, and I can report that while Henry was quite slender in his early days, by the time he died he was a porker. He probably never wore the last suit of armour built for him, which is just as well because it must have weighed a ton. The most amusing thing was the elongated codpiece, which was supposed to make him look powerful but would have really just made it difficult to go through doors sideways.

The exhibition was taking place in the White Tower, the original Tower of London. It could apparently have been seen for miles around, whereas nowadays it's not even visible from the outside unless you know where you're looking. We weren't allowed to take pictures of the inside, which was rather annoying, but if you imagine a cold draughty building with large open rooms and enormous fireplaces, you'll probably have the right picture. The fireplaces had interesting chimneys; the smoke would take a wandering path through the walls before exiting at some vent on the side, which dispersed the smoke and prevented attackers from knowing if there was anybody home.

However, the best thing about the White Tower was the royal throne room -- by which I mean the royal dunny. It had a door which must have been a luxury, as the other ones didn't. They must have been cold and breezy, and apparently they discharged directly into the moat. Archeologists have said it was the worst cesspit they'd seen (don't ask me how they know).

And finally, the thing everybody knows about the Tower is the ravens. Yes, we saw ravens, and to be honest they were a bit of a disappointment. They hopped around the grounds, and sometimes stood so still I thought they were fake ones. But as the legend goes, if there aren't seven ravens in the grounds at all time, the White Tower will crumble to dust, the King will die, and a great tragedy will befall England. So all in all, I'm glad they decide to stick around.

And if you were feeling sad for the people that were buried anonymously in that collective grave, you will be gladdened to know that Queen Victoria did too, and had them exhumed and reburied in individual graves inside the Tower's chapel.

Take a look at our photos.