“The Roman Road runs straight and bare
As the pale parting – line in hair
Across the heath.”
— Thomas Hardy.
It’s hard to describe the beauty that greets you as soon as you catch your first glimpse of the city of Bath. Nestled between hills and winding roads, overlooking rivers and decorated with cottages and strategically placed bridges, no matter how extensively you research prior to your visit, it still gives you a shock. A pleasant one though. An indescribable feeling descends, and I can’t help but wonder for a moment whether I have accidentally travelled back in time.
Having sat down to write this article, I’m not proud to confess that I’m lost. Should I start by describing the excitement as I made my way to the tourist information centre? Or should I attempt to express the beauty of the solo singer whose musical notes rang clearly through the square? Perhaps avid readers would appreciate my endeavors to track down Jane Austen’s residence and delve into literary history. Or maybe historians would enjoy my impression of the Bath Cathedral?
No – as interesting as these may be, nothing comes close to holding a candle to the jewel in the crown: the Roman Baths. Whilst in the queue for the entrance tickets, I am made aware of the local folklore that surrounded these baths. Supposedly, King Bladud (father of Shakespeare’s King Lear) contracted leprosy and decided to leave and travel the countryside, while disguised as a swineherd. The pigs he managed also eventually contracted the disease from him too. One day, whilst travelling the Avon countryside, Bladud noticed the pig bathing in warm spring water, subsequent to which they appeared to be cured. Deciding to take a chance and follow their example, Bladud himself bathed in the hot spring water and found himself free of leprosy. I wasn’t sure if this was fact or legend but took the story at face value and found it intriguing.
Walking around the courtyard surrounding the first bath, I looked down and couldn’t help comparing it to a large swimming pool, albeit a green one. Nothing particularly catches my eye and I couldn’t help wondering what all the fuss was about. A green swimming pool? Surely they just painted the tiles. However, walking down the stairs and making my way down to the bath, I was surprised to find no evidence of this.
The uneven stones beneath my feet transported me back in time. Intrigued by history, I ran my fingers along the walls just trying to absorb it all. Unlike many historical venues where safety ropes are strung across to keep visitors at a safe distance in order to ‘preserve’ the monuments, here we were given free rein to explore and no one appreciated this more than I did. Standing at the edge of the first outdoor bath, I look down at the water and am instantly transported back to the mysterious green waters of Halong Bay, in Vietnam. Although, I must admit, instant time travel would definitely have sounded and felt much cooler. Ah, but I digress. Standing there, surrounded by history, I felt serene and calm, the same feelings which are evoked whenever I make my trips for green waters.
The water is just part of what beckons me there. The hidden treasures and concealed troves – it is irrelevant how many times you visit, there will always be some little delight which you will discover during your trip. The same feelings of curiosity and anticipation swept over me and I traced the carvings in the stone pillars, and for a moment I could swear I felt it tremble. Speak to me dear stones, tell me your tales. Take me back in time so that I can explore your secrets; unburden yourself to me, I whispered to it. Alas, my pleas fell on stony ears. The stones remained silent, but my inquisitiveness drove me forward.
There were exhibits and statues, paintings and tiny stone figures on display, but these didn’t interest me. If I wanted to be a complacent observer, I would have visited a museum or watched a documentary. No, I was here for the olden times, the history, the reconstruction of the details and the surrounding mystery. I was here for the essence of the spirits haunting these walls.
I was here for the smell of the minerals which gave these waters their unique properties, for the sight and feel of the steam rising naturally and condensing on my cold skin. I was here for the feel of the stone cold floors beneath my unclad feet, as I walked around barefoot, vaguely aware that the other tourists were giving me quizzical looks. I was here for the sentiments and sensations.
There were other attractions to explore too. I came across a magnificent floor painting of what appeared to be a dragon and it reminded me of a scene in the “666 Park Avenue” TV series. Whether it was an original restoration or whether it was done recently was not clarified and I chose not to ask; some things are just more appealing with the mystery remaining.
As I ventured deeper into the various passages, I came across old maps and recent illustrations attempting to depict how the Roman baths were originally structured; the smaller baths gave off a more cozy feel and reminded me of hidden alcoves and structures that a decent Shakespeare’s novel brings to mind.
With a bit of free time in hand, I exited the Roman Baths and walked around until I came across the magnificent Bath Cathedral. The interior was magnificent – everythings from the pews, to the flowers and the stained glass windows. The ceilings were an absolute work of art!
The afternoon blended away and the people moved on, but I remained. Leaning against a pillar in the corner of the bath, I soaked in all that I could. I tried to imagine King Bladud and his pigs making use of these waters to cure leprosy, to imagine the discovery and beginning of the city of Bath and its surrounding civilization. I tried to pictures scores of people bathing together within these baths. Did they walk in somberly and bathe in silence? Or did they all jump in with a splash?
And let us also not forget those mysterious stained glass windows at Bath Cathedral..
There was no doubt that my quench for travel will not be ending anytime soon but, right then and right there, Bath was where I belonged and wanted to stay.