28 May – 1 June

All up, I spent five days in Bath, Somerset and nearby Wiltshire. As well as delving into the history of Bath, I also explored Bristol and fulfilled my dream to visit Stonehenge. It was an action-packed couple of days so this is a bit of a lengthy post. Bear with me, all of my adventures were exciting, apart from taking a spill and injuring my back, and throwing up alongside the canals. But I digress. Let’s learn a little about Bath, shall we?

The entire city of Bath is a UNESCO World Heritage Site filled with character and plenty of stunning architecture. In the late 1600s, Queen Anne became a regular visitor to the hot springs and the court followed. In the 1700s the city expanded to host these scores of wealthy visitors. Richard “Beau” Nash, Ralph Allen and John Wood are largely responsible for the transformation of the city into a bit of a party-hub, with Nash re-shaping the outlay of social events and Allen and Wood using their creative talent to design many of the stunning buildings that continue to give Bath an international reputation. Later on in the 18th and 19th centuries, Bath shrugged off its association with grand parties and assorted revelries to become a more cultural centre, attracting the likes of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Thomas Gainsborough and Dr. David Livingstone. Needless to say, it’s a city crammed with interesting historical asides and notorious characters.

Thanks to a free walking tour, I learned a lot about the stunning places in Bath (the guide was so swept up in his explanations of the history of  his favourite buildings that the tour was nearly two and a half hours long). The major architectural marvels are the Royal Crescent and The Circus. The Royal Crescent is a sweeping front of Georgian terraced houses built between 1767 and 1774 and designed by John Wood (the Younger). It’s been used in the filming of countless period dramas, including Pride and Prejudice. To buy one of these terraces today would set you back 3 – 4 million pounds, and they don’t come up for sale too often. Just down the road is the Circus, a circular series of Georgian houses in three segments, designed by John Wood (the Elder this time, very confusing – a very architectural family). These are also on the very pricey end of the real estate spectrum.

The entirety of the Royal Crescent, Bath. Image courtesy of http://www.geograph.org.uk
Royal Crescent, Bath.
The Circus, Bath.

Bath Abbey sits on the site of three successive churches, with the most recent iteration built in 1499. A quirky feature is the West side entrance to the church, which depicts two enormous ladders of angels ascending and descending from the heavens. Completely unintentionally, I am sure, the descending angels look terrifying – they are coming down the ladder head first and are uncannily similar to those scary Weeping Angel statues on Doctor Who (you know, the ones that move when you’re not looking at them).

Bath Abbey.
Ladder of Angels, West Side of Bath Abbey. Image courtesy of http://www.flickr.com

My personal favourite was definitely the Roman Baths, situated above the UK’s only hot spring, and the reason for the eternal popularity of this area over the ages. The ruins are extensive, including a temple and series of connected bathing rooms at different temperatures. The plumbing is seriously impressive for a system created in AD 43. There was even under-floor heating! Jostling the crowds, it was pretty incredible to sit beside the enormous main pool and watch the steam rising in the cold air. I even got to taste the natural spring water (very mineral-rich and tangy). It’s hard to believe that when the Romans eventually packed up and left in AD 577 after defeat by the Saxons, the Saxons showed no interest in maintaining this incredible complex and let it slowly crumble. It’s an amazing series of warm indoor swimming pools!! You crazy Saxons. I guess they didn’t have much leisure time.

Roman Baths – just look at the steam!

Bath neighbours Bristol, a heaving, busy, university city with distinctly less architectural charm than Bath. It’s extremely sloped, with narrow pastel terraces clinging to each other to form a twisting, segmented body of uninterrupted homes. A day-trip included some unexpected finds, with some fantastic street art and some interesting engineering feats. Bristol is home to an infamous, expanding street art scene that ranges from works spanning office buildings to tiny stencils in nooks and crannies around the city. It’s colourful and in-your-face in an aesthetically receptive way. Lyndsay introduced me to the work of renowned and anonymous Bristol-based street artist, Banksy, and we tracked down some of his awesome works around the city, including the “Grim Reaper” and “The Hanging Man.” There were so many great pieces around the city, including a gorgeous chipboard lion and great addition to a bronze statue.

Grim Reaper stencil on the side of a boat, Banksy. Image courtesy of http://www.bristol-street-art.co.uk.
The Hanging Man, Banksy.
Lion! Street art in Bristol.  Image courtesy of http://www.bristol-street-art.co.uk.
Statue chilling in the park, Bristol.  Image courtesy of http://www.bristol-street-art.co.uk.

We also climbed Brandon Hill and ascended Cabot Tower for amazing views over the city and harbour. The tower was built in 1898 in memory of John Cabot, who set out from Bristol to eventually discover the continent of North America. This was quite a feat, so Bristol built him a kick-ass park. Go Bristol.

Cabot Tower, Bristol. Image courtesy of http://www.visitbristol.co.uk.

We walked out to the Clifton Suspension Bridge, an engineering marvel that spans the Avon Gorge. It was designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel in 1831 but not completed until 1864 (by which time the famous engineer had passed away). Lured by a small sign outside the nearby Observatory advertising entry to the “Giant’s Cave”, we descended into a rocky, narrow, undergound passageway, cut deep into the cliff face to emerge into a cavern overlooking the gorge. The passage was apparently dug in 1837 to the site of an ancient chapel previously only accessible by the cliff face. It was a bit creepy, but luckily no psychopaths emerged from the darkness. I’d have been a goner. Lyndsay probably would have survived to tell the tale though.

Clifton Suspension Bridge, Bristol.
Clifton Suspension Bridge, with the Giant’s Cave cut into the cliff face. Holy guacamole, take a look at that thing. Psychopath’s lair, no question. Image courtesy of http://www.yourlocalweb.co.uk.

And of course, being based in Bath, I absolutely HAD to visit Stonehenge. Eschewing the multitude of tour companies promising to bus you out and back to the stone circle for several hours, Lyndsay and I decided to hike out and around the site. We caught the train to Salisbury and from there a bus to Amesbury. From Amesbury we hiked out through National Trust downs and past several large burial mounds, to approach Stonehenge via the Cursus, a huge ancient earthwork approximately 3km long that is aligned with the equinox sunrise and actually pre-dates the construction of Stonehenge. For more information about the trail we followed, check out this link: http://www.guardian.co.uk/travel/2009/jun/10/walk-guides-stonehenge

It was an absolutely stunning day and the walk was phenomenally beautiful. We passed meadows and small pockets of woodland, but the entire site surrounding Stonehenge is predominantly open grassland and wildflowers with ancient burial mounds dotted along the perimeter. It was one of those days where you can’t quite believe how incredible everything is – the combination of the sunshine, the birds and the looming, colossal, silent sentinels forming an eternal embodiment of an ancient society.  We picnicked outside the actual Stonehenge site, well away from the hordes of tourists arriving and departing in a never-ending stream of brightly coloured tourist buses. With English Heritage membership we were whisked ahead of the enormous queue and ushered into the site with free audioguides. It was incredible to walk around the periphery of the stone circle and see how large the stones actually were and to marvel at the difficulty of construction of this site. After visiting the circle, we continued on our hike through the fields surrounding Stonehenge, escaping from the highway to emerge onto the narrow local lanes and back into Amesbury. I even got a bit sunburned. In the UK!! Imagine.

On the trail, with Stonehenge visible in the background.
Stonehenge Stone Circle.
Guess where I am?
More Stonehenge.

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