November is not my month. For some reason, I just don’t like it. I quite enjoy October with the golden light shining through the leaves as they make the change from green to yellow to red. I quite like December too. Christmas carols, the crisp air promising snow, and the expectation of school letting out for holiday. November is a bit like the Thursday of the year. It’s not yet winter and it’s past the pretty time of autumn. It’s not yet holiday time and it’s not the fun part of the early semester. It is an awkward time when the sun, if not hidden by dense clouds, is always in your eyes and the weather never seems to know what it is doing. As I was watching the news this morning, the weatherman stood in front of a screen predicting the weather for the week, “rain likely, light fog, heavy clouds”—simply dreary. This pretty much sums up November to me. November is made even more awful by the fact that every single November I get ill.
I remember the first November this pattern began. I was fourteen and I was in my school’s production of Amadeus, the rather intense play about Mozart’s life. A bit too intense for teenagers I think. The week before the show, the first week of November, I got a nasty head cold that slowly made it’s way painfully down my throat and into my lungs. Luckily, my role was the silent role of “maid #1” so I didn’t exactly need the use of my vocal chords. Nevertheless, this inconvenient illness made staying up til midnight or later every night on stage quite dreadful. What makes these illnesses worse is that they last. They don’t just come and go like a normal cold. These November colds remain the entire month. They just never seem to leave, completely ruining the joys of Thanksgiving, the one bright spot of the month. Not that this annoying cold is exactly the Black Death, but it certainly has plagued me. It happened when I lived in Colorado, stuck around in New York, perpetuated in San Francisco, and has now followed me across the pond to Oxford.
I thought, hoped, and wished, that maybe as I now lead a much healthier life than my teenage years that I could end this pattern of illness. No such luck. November 1st arrived and almost immediately I felt a tickle in my throat and a slight throbbing behind my right eye. And so it began. After a week, once again the little monster had made its way into my lungs and no matter how many oranges I ate, how much tea I drank, or how many hours I slept, I just couldn’t kick it. So I resigned myself to the cold, bought a fresh pack of tissues, and put on a thick scarf and carried on with life, as I have done for the past six Novembers.
It came to pass that some of my friends were taking a day trip to the city of Bath. After a bit of convincing, and the promise of a free meal, I decided to leave my warm bed and join them on this venture.
There is a certain magical quality about Bath. A certain mystery that draws people today just as it did 100 years ago, 400 years ago, and 2000 years ago. I wanted to see what it is about this city that makes it so special. This magic is not so much magic as it is a result of geological phenomenon. The hot springs that give this small city renown, allegedly curing severe illnesses and holding the power of wisdom, are the result of geothermal forces deep under ground—it sounds a bit like magic. When the rain pours down, as it often does, on the nearby Mendip Hills, it soaks into the ground and percolates down through limestone aquifers to about 10,000 feet below ground. Deep in the bowels of the earth, the “geothermal energy” raises the water temperature and under the immense pressure of being that far under ground, the heated water rises to the surface along fissures and faults in the limestone. The water emerges at ground level at around 46°C, perfect for bathing. In 863 BC this geological process was discovered by Prince Bladud, the supposed father of King Lear. After bathing in the muddy waters, being cured of leprosy, he founded the city proclaiming its magical powers and soon after became the ninth King of the Britons—that is if you believe such stories.
Sitting in the window seat, fifth row back, of a rather rickety bus, I rest my head against the fogged up glass and attempt to nap. My head is aching and I am beginning to question why I thought waking up at 7 on a Saturday only to sit on a bus for two hours was a good idea. Next to me Arianna looks attentively ahead of her out of the front window of the bus. She is pretending to listen to the tour guide as we pass Prince Charles’s estate but I can hear the banjo of the Indie Rock music playing through her headphones hidden under a felt hat. Resigning myself to the fact that I won’t get a nap in this tin can of a vehicle and that I am not in bed, wrapped up in a fleece blanket, listening to the rain patter on my window, I watch the rolling hills pass us by. I’ve never been particularly good at directions, especially in a foreign land. Growing up in Colorado it was pretty easy, the mountains are always West. Unless of course you are in the mountains, then you just have to figure out where the bigger, snowier mountains are and that is West. San Francisco it wasn’t too bad either, the ocean was to the West. That is of course unless you are on the pier next to the bay, in which case the ocean is pretty much all around you except behind. Here however, on this foreign little island, I am in a perpetual state of lost. I am told that Bath is 97 miles West of London and 13 miles South East of Bristol. That doesn’t mean much to me. I do know that it is south of Oxford. And I know that as we drive I can see the rolling hills of the Cotswolds.
It’s no wonder really that when the Romans, or Celts or who ever was here first, found this land they thought it was special. It is really. With the Cotswolds, homes to dragons, fairies, hobbits, and all manner of imagination, to the north, and the hot water bubbling up from below, Bath is situated in a kind of geographical sanctuary. The road dips down and we pass under a bridge, the windows, or my mind, are too foggy for me to be able to truly see what the surroundings look like. The bus pulls up in front of the Bath Abbey and we all clamber off, eager to move our legs. My head still hurts and Arianna pulls out her umbrella for us to stand under. It’s not raining too hard, just that drizzle that you don’t notice until you are completely drenched. The tour guide gives us directions to meet back in front of the Abbey at 4:30 on the dot or risk missing the bus back to Oxford. After standing around awkwardly, no one really knowing what to do or where to go, people begin to drift off in groups of twos and threes and fours. Arianna suggests that we get inside somewhere.
Next to the Norman style abbey, complete with flying buttresses and a pointed parapet, stands the Roman Bath Museum—the site of the ancient baths. The Baths were treated as a shrine to the goddess Sulis by the Britons, according to some faintly carved stones found deep under the ground. When the Romans came, they adopted the site, as well as the name of the goddess, and created a sanctuary of rest and relaxation, which they named “Aquae Sulis”—the waters of Sulis. Being masters of adoption, the Romans equated Sulis to their goddess Minerva, who was a derivation of the Greek goddess Athena: goddess of wisdom and sponsor of arts, trade, and strategy. The Romans, who were a lot more inventive than I think I have ever given them credit for, created a complex system of baths in this sanctuary.
“Bright were the halls, many the baths,
High the gables, great the joyful noise,
Many the mead-hall full of pleasures-
Until fate the mighty overturned it all”
–“The Ruin”, Exeter Book
Arianna and I enter the museum and give the man our tokens, receive our audio tour guides, and begin the tour of the Roman baths. We walk around the upper balcony, from which you can look down into the main bath. Along the carved rail, looking over the waters, stand a collection of Roman statues: Ostorius Scapula, Julius Agricola, and, of course, Julius Caesar. They strike an imposing image, these statues: all important, all old, and all dead. They all look the same if you ask me. We walk down from the balcony, through some museum rooms full of artifacts and into the archeological site of the bath rooms.
Despite the fact that the ruins of the Roman temple were hidden under the ground for hundreds of years, only to be discovered in the 1790s, the structure of those original rooms is still firmly in place. Hot rooms, baths, pools, and places of simultaneous worship and relaxation all flow one into the other, following the flow of the hot water. I often forget that there have been brilliant people around for a very long time. Intuition and invention are not unique to modern times. As I stand at the rail, looking into the hot room all I can think is, “whoever made this was absolutely brilliant”. The floor that we see today is not the floor on which those bathers of old would stand, disrobed and relaxed. The floor we see today is covered with apparently random stacks of bricks, and from above it looks a bit like a poorly laid out city viewed from atop a mountain. Chimney stacks of a toy town. On these stacks of bricks would have been laid another floor. The water from the springs would then run between these two levels of floor, around the brick stacks. This would heat up the floor and on which cold water would then be poured. The cold water would turn into steam, creating a Roman-style sauna.
There are then also the baths themselves. There is the extra hot bath, a swimming bath, a cool bath, and one that looks distinctly like a hot tub (minus the jet settings and cushioned seats). Looking into the water I can’t imagine wanting to submerge my body in it. The water is green and slimy. The last place I would want to relax. Especially if ill. And yet, according to the sign next to me, for centuries "from all over England sick people come to wash away their infirmities in the healing waters, and the healthy gaze at the remarkable bubbling up of the hot springs." Maybe the secret to good health is actually in toxic looking green water. Fortunately, or maybe unfortunately, I am not able to test this theory as we were told upon entering the museum not to touch the water under any circumstance what so ever. Either because it’s magical curing water that could grant me special powers, or more likely because of the years and layers of filth that have grown in the water. More likely, instead of being healed, I would come out with a third arm or a layer of scales.
From the baths, heat rooms, and Roman temple, we make our way to the pump room, stopping first in the gift shop. After purchasing some post cards and an overpriced block of soap in the gift shop, we make our ways up the marble stairs and enter into a large creamy yellow room. Hanging from the ceiling is an enormous crystal, or maybe glass, chandelier. Interspersed evenly along the walls are grand pillars with gold detailing drawing your eyes always upward. The general airiness and lightness of the room is marked with deep red curtains draped over the large windows looking out onto the square. A clatter of forks and knifes and rumble of voices proclaiming the deliciousness of the food permeates the air. When I close my eyes I can imagine ladies in sweeping pastel gowns and wide brimmed hats nodding politely at men in top hats and tails while whispering behind fans.
I walk through the maze of tables, trying not to knock into anyone, and come to the bar. I ask, trying not to cough, for a glass of the special bath water. I am handed a glass and ask for another for Arianna, I am not about to try this on my own. We both take a sip. It taste like liquid chalk. Or as Sam Weller says in The Pickwick Papers, it has a “very strong flavour o’ warm flat irons”. Surely something that tastes so disgusting must have healing properties.
Deciding we have seen enough of the baths and wanting to get away from the, in Arianna’s words, “distinct basement smell of Roman things”, we exit the pump room and museum. Like Catherine Morland, the young heroine of Austen’s Northanger Abbey, we hasten away “to breath the fresh air of better company”, as well as in search of food. I follow Arianna into the street, trying to keep my eye on her long red hair amongst the crowds of tourists—it is a Saturday after all. Once we are well away from the Roman Temple Museum and have thoroughly washed out the taste of chalk from our mouths with some peppermint gum, we turn to a street map. Where to? We have no itinerary to follow, we have no commitments before making the bus at 4:30 and we have no one else to dictate what we should and should not do. That is, in my opinion, the best way to travel. Have enough structure that you don’t wander around aimlessly but not too much to prohibit spontaneity.
It is still raining and the wind is picking up.
Huddled under the umbrella, we waddle down the cobbled stone road past some clothing stores, a coffee shop, a bar, candy shop, and tourist shop until we find a pub that has the proper atmosphere for lunch. I don’t remember now the name of the pub nor the name of the street. Perhaps this is due to my poor sense of direction or the fogginess in my head from a handful of cold medicine, or maybe because of the gnawing hunger in my belly. I seem to remember walking down an alley and turning left next to a giant sign of a horse. But of course this means nothing. We found lunch and we found pleasant company.
The plump woman behind the bar takes our orders, a jacket potato stuffed with cheese and bacon for me and bangers and mash for Arianna. As we sit, nestled in the booth next to the window, the door flies open with a burst of cold air and three more of our gang, Logan, Alisha, and Brandon, enter. After ordering their drinks and food they join us.
Maybe not the “better company” of Miss Catherine Morland or such acquaintances as the king of 18th century society Richard Nash, but for me there is no better society than those of good friends. We sit in the corner window laughing at the number of potato dishes among us—five, all of different variety—and discuss studies, life, the weather, home, and Romans.
Once we have had our fill of the comfort food and warmed up our noses and toes, Arianna and I say farewell to our friends and go our way. Out on the street, the fog is beginning to lift and my mind is feeling clearer. Perhaps it was the chalk water or the healing powers of Sulis Minerva. Maybe just the special touch of good company and delicious food, but I am quite certain I am beginning to feel better. After winding our way back to a street that looks somewhat familiar, although to be honest, most of the streets in small English cities look the same, Arianna pulls out the map she had been given by the disgruntled tour guide. It is a poorly printed black and white copy of the map on the “Visit Bath” website. Most of the print is too small or too smudged to read, but after a bit of guessing we figure out that we are on High Street. I do wonder at the creativity of British street naming. I think just about every street is named High, Broad, George, or the name of some other past Monarch. Nevertheless, we are aware enough to know that we are in Bath, not Oxford, and so this High Street is one yet to be explored by our wandering feet. We begin to stroll.
Like any city, the architecture of Bath serves as a skeleton. An underlying structure which gives form to function. Of course there are the Roman sites, but most of those are in the state of archaeology and about 20 feet below ground. Then there is the Norman influence in the domineering silhouette of the Bath Abbey. In contrast to the angular dark grey parapets of the Abbey, stand the honey-coloured façades of the Georgian style houses. When the city was “rediscovered” in the 18th century, it became the social center of English, and beyond, high society. To match with the large gowns and stylish lace of fine ladies and foppish gents, the architect John Wood was hired to create a city in which to enjoy the finer things in life. Although he died before his plan was completed, his son carried on his legacy to great effect. The building fronts originally used as specialty houses to rent, like personal hotels, made of the gold “bathstone” from the limestone Combe Down and Bathampton Down mines positively glows with luxury.
High street eventually turns into Broad street. If you turn left onto George St. from Broad and then right on Gay St. in front of you stands a veritable cake of Georgian architecture. Quite literally, it looks like a cake. “The Circus”, intended for such posh activities as out door theatre or games, is made of three long, curved terraces. Again we hearken to Roman times, imagining that the designer, John Wood, was attempting to recreate the Colosseum. Although, I can’t imagine the British high society watching gladiator fights, but perhaps some pantomime or a nice game of croquet.
We walk around The Circus a time or two, waving pretend fans and speaking in hushed voices about imaginary gentlemen callers, we then exit the circle via Brock street. From there we can see the Royal Crescent. Now I can see why maybe Jane Austen didn’t exactly enjoy living in Bath. The sheer magnitude, while beautiful, is garish in contrast to the hint of nature beyond in the Royal Victoria Park. The Royal Crescent, looking a bit like a giant golden croissant, was the creation of the younger John Wood. Mr. Wood however only designed the curved façade and the basic structure of the 30 houses making up this half-moon building. Each purchaser bought a house and then employed their own architect to build their dream home. The front is completely uniform, hiding an array of differences within. A bit like people I’d say.
Having had enough of looking at big old fancy buildings made by dead guys, Arianna and I turn on our heels and head back to High street. We now have about two hours before the bus is scheduled to leave. Perhaps spurred by the grandiosity of it all and the lingering ghosts of rich visitors, we stop in a few of the shops. Knowing full well that I am a college student living abroad and money is in short supply, I nevertheless can’t help but run my hands through the racks of cashmere jumpers and fur coats. From the flashy store fronts of High St. we turn down a small alley way. Here the store fronts sport hand made signs. After three consecutive hair salons we turn into a second-hand store. It smells of mothballs and old wool. It makes me sneeze. It is warm in here. I look through the rack next to the door, sporting a red sign that says “Sale: £5” and a wide array of gingham shirts, cotton jumpers, and leather skirts. I can’t imagine wearing anything on this rack. Arianna buys a hat that looks like an upside down tulip, the orange felt clashing terribly with her red hair, but it’s funny and she swears she is never taking it off.
We must have been in the shop for quite a while because when we walk out the door, the bell jingling merrily behind us, it has begun to rain again and the sky is distinctly darker. It is just about 3:45 but it looks like 7. I have yet to get used to the darkness of this small northern island. We are not far from the bus station and my head is beginning to pound again, although not quite as badly as before. At Arianna’s suggestion, we find a small café and order two hot chocolates, as well as some water, not the chalky, “warm flat iron” variety. The hot chocolate is dark and rich. It coats my throat, making it hard to talk and bringing on another coughing fit, but it is absolutely delicious so I soon set down my empty mug and look out the window. Arianna chats on and on about Jane Austen living here, imagining her daily life and what she must have done, who she must have seen. Occasionally I nod, but my mind wanders.
The rain is pouring down, far below us the rain is being heated and put under pressure, only to rise back up to the ground. I imagine the water flowing upwards through the fissures and faults in the limestone a bit like blood flowing in our veins. Water flowing, blood flowing, people flowing. This little city, on the southern edge of the Cotswolds, 97 miles west of London and 13 miles South East of Bristol, is charming. It is beautiful. The architecture is beautiful and the history is beautiful. I love the thought that as the water flows up through the ground and as blood flows in our veins so too do people flow. We are all caught in a current of some kind. I have now joined another current. The flow of visitors coming to Bath, seeking healing; healing from illness, from society, and from life.
Every November, I get ill. This also is a current, it is a flow. I can’t say that the trip to Bath healed me, as I sit here writing I am still coughing. That isn’t to say it didn’t do me any good.
At 4:30 we climb back on the bus. Arianna and I sit in the same seats as in the morning. My head still hurts, my throat is sore, and I can’t breath out of my nose, but something is different. I feel distinctly different than I had in the morning. I can’t say what exactly, but I can feel it. I don’t know why it is, certainly not the chalky water or the rainy weather, but something about Bath has healing powers and I feel different. I put on my headphones, turn on some music, and close my eyes.