The Roman Baths: England Part II

photo (4)After the drama of the first installment of “Dream Come True: England,” we landed at Heathrow. Just writing that word –Heathrow –is thrilling.  Heathrow of Love Actually fame…. I was a little disappointed not to see oceans of people hugging and kissing everywhere, but that’s okay. I knew I’d get a big hug once I got to Bath, where Maggie is living this spring.

Jet lag began in the form of my body and brain saying, “Wait, why is the sun out? Why is everyone drinking coffee? Why aren’t we in bed? It’s 2:30 in the morning!”  But sure enough, the day was in full swing in London, England, where it was (after customs and baggage claim) 9:30 a.m. The effects of a prolonged flu, a horrible day of mass transit combined with codeine induced vomiting, a seemingly endless interlude in terminal 4 of JFK, and a restless, leg cramped, neck twisting 5 hours on a plane during which I slept about 3, in spurts, well, let’s just say they were taking their toll.

Countering all that, however, was my over-the-top excitement and happiness to be on foreign soil, to be seeing Maggie in her new temporary home, and to be at the beginning of 8 days stretching in front of me. 8 English days.

Accessing public transport from Heathrow was quite easy. Trains, busses, cabs, all are handy options. We caught a bus to Reading, about 45 minutes away, where we were dropped at the train station. There we caught a train to Bath, with not much wait time. After a blurry hour on the train that passed lots of sheep and stone cottages, during which time I dozed and clutched a ticket no one ever took from me, we arrived in the prettiest, quaintest city I’ve ever seen. Bath looked delicious upon first glance and only got better as the days passed.

Phone contact is a challenge when you have not gotten an English SIM card with which to call anyone on English soil. So I needed Wi-Fi in order to text or call Maggie using Viber (the coolest internet based phone system ever). We found an internet café and paid royally for the privilege of logging on and texting Maggie. We walked away from the train station, she walked towards it, and we met within minutes (Bath is not so big). She literally ran/skipped all the way down the street to us. A little verklempt, I was rather teary by the time she threw herself into my arms.

After we checked into the hotel, the afternoon is a blur of old architecture, the Avon river, a late lunch at a cunning little place largely wasted on us (well not wasted on Maggie as she was not a zombie), finding a store to swap out my SIM card, and a late afternoon cocktail at a bar right on the river. In bed by 8, I slept 10 hours and the next day felt myself becoming human again after all the sick and all the travel.

The Avon River runs through Bath. Everything looks old, and most of it is.

The Avon River runs through Bath. Everything looks old, and most of it is.

View from the riverside bar that is downstairs from Maggie's flat.

View from the riverside bar that is downstairs from Maggie’s flat.

Brilliant blue skies, chilly breezes, warm sun and eternally blossoming trees and flowers – that’s what I remember about all the days of Bath. Some trees had been in blossom when Maggie arrived in early February, and by mid-April, the whole landscape was green dashed with color.

We had tickets to see the Roman baths, right in the center of town. We spent over four hours wandering the spaces within the superbly restored complex, which included not only many spa rooms – from the main pool to a caldarium to a “cold plunge” room – but a temple, too. The caldarium was a sauna room where fires would be lit beneath the raised floor. Visitors in ancient times would wear wooden sandals to keep their feet from burning.

The temple was in honor of the Roman goddess Minerva, as well as the Celtic goddess Sulis. I love this tidbit: apparently when the Romans arrived in Bath and found out about the healing waters of the hot spring, they knew the site was sacred. The learned of Sulis, the goddess who resided there. She reminded them of Minerva. I can hear them now, “Oh, cool. Sulis is like your version of Minerva, so that’s awesome. Let’s call her Sulis Minerva now.”

And so they did. Sulis Minerva was revered and favors were sought. Maggie and I definitely asked her for some recognition as we whispered her name, our gratitude, and our requests, and made an offering to her in one of the pools.

The main "pool" in the baths. Originally this was under a high vaulted ceiling but is now open to the sky. This would be where women and men could hang out together and relax.

The main “pool” in the baths. Originally this was under a high vaulted ceiling but is now open to the sky. This would be where women and men could hang out together and relax.

Benevolent Gorgon's face in partially reconstructed frieze. Very iconic image for this site.

Benevolent Gorgon’s face in partially reconstructed frieze. Very iconic image for this site.

I have been at an ancient site once before – Poverty Point in Louisiana. An early native site, thousands of years old, and thousands of years older than the native peoples we learn about in school. It is a sequence of massive earth works, majestic and awesome, with energy swirling over the land. But the Roman baths and temple were my first experience with such a volume of artifacts and an extensively excavated site. The engineering feat alone – how they created drains and diverted the flow of water as they wished, from this pool to this one, and the giant vaulted ceiling over the main bath (no longer there)—were mind blowing. Also, long colonnades from end to end of the massive site. Breathtaking.

Only intact Roman colonnade in Britain. It stretches the entire length of the baths.

Only intact Roman colonnade in Britain. It stretches the entire length of the baths.

Outside the baths is a small square onto which various shops open, some restaurants, and the eastern aspect of the huge medieval Bath Abbey. So God and the goddess are neighbors. The Christian history of England meets the Roman history and the Celtic history all in that single city, in that square, in the timelessness of no-time. We can walk back to 1000 AD or 100 BCE by entering this church, or that temple, walking on an ancient road, or crossing a historic bridge. This was a feeling that struck me again and again during my time in England as magical, indescribable, and very moving.

The doorway to the Bath Abbey is just feet from the doors to the old baths and temple.

The doorway to the Bath Abbey is just feet from the doors to the old baths and temple.

photo 3 (3)

From the top of the abbey one can look down upon the baths. The house of God and the temple of the goddess are friendly neighbors in Bath, England.

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