In my last post, I explained some of the history behind the Tower of London. Obviously, many things look a lot different than they did during the palace and prison and torture days, but there are some things that haven’t changed much.
Certain parts of the Tower have been tourist attractions since the 17th century. One of these is the Jewel House where the Crown Jewels are kept! I made a beeline for the jewels when I got inside because everyone says that the line gets very long later in the day. I don’t know much about precious gemstones and jewelry, but even I could tell that the stuff they have in the Jewel House is ridiculous. They have the coronation crown which weighs 7 pounds. Imagine having to wear that on your head! There’s also the world’s largest clear-cut diamond. It’s 530 carats which means nothing to me but apparently the average size for an engagement ring diamond is around 1 carat, soooo… it’s 530 times that. The oldest object, the anointing spoon used in coronations, is from the 1300s. Most of the other objects are much newer because the originals were melted down when the monarchy was abolished in the English Civil War (1649).
My personal favorite object in the Jewel House was a “punch bowl” that was made of solid gold and, according to the sign, could hold 144 bottles of wine. 144 BOTTLES. Now, I know I’m just a commoner who doesn’t know how anything works, but could someone PLEASE explain to me why that’s necessary?? I couldn’t wrap my head around most of the things in the room, to be honest. The gemstones weren’t that impressive because my brain couldn’t comprehend that they weren’t rhinestones, they were real. I thought about how people save up to buy gold jewelry… how many rings and necklaces do you think you could make with a 144-bottles-of-wine-sized punch bowl? Insanity.
When I was finished gaping at the jewels, I went on a Yeoman Warder tour. The Yeoman Warders, popularly called Beefeaters (though the origin of that name is unknown), are the keepers of the Tower, responsible for guarding any prisoners (historically) and watching over the crown jewels. There are 37 of them who live within the Tower walls with their families. To qualify, they must have served in the armed forces for at least 22 years and been awarded a good conduct medal. They give free tours throughout the day, explaining the history of and telling stories about the Tower. The whole thing is a kind of theatrical experience and is very well done.
The Tower complex is HUGE. After the Beefeater tour, I checked out the torture devices, walked along the walls, and explored a bunch of different towers before going into the White Tower. Today, it’s filled with exhibitions of armor and weaponry. I can’t say I’m terribly interested in either, but the collection was still impressive which is pretty much the point. Originally, its purpose was to show the monarch’s right to rule and awe visitors.
One of the unsolved mysteries of the Tower of London took place in the White Tower. In 1483, King Edward IV died. His son, Edward V, was next in line for the throne, but he was only 12 years old. Edward V’s uncle was put in charge until he was old enough to rule, and he brought Edward and his 9-year-old brother, Richard, to the Tower of London. After their uncle was crowned king, the boys disappeared and were thought to have been murdered, though their bodies were nowhere to be found. In 1674, during some construction work, the bones of two children were found underneath a staircase in the White Tower. They were assumed to be the bones Edward and Richard and were reburied in Westminster Abbey; however, they haven’t been tested to confirm that assumption. And so, the mystery continues.
Another former attraction at the Tower was the “Menagerie”, basically a predecessor of modern-day zoos but way less functional. The royalty used to receive exotic animals as gifts from leaders of other nations (actually, fun fact: the Queen STILL receives animals as gifts – what?!?! – but now they’re sent to the London Zoo). The Tower housed this collection starting the early 13th century, including now-extinct Barbary lions, leopards, a polar bear that used to fish for food in the Thames River, monkeys, bears, an African elephant that was fed wine every day in an attempt to keep it warm (!?!? And then it died after four years because obviously that didn’t work), a hyena, wolves, an ostrich that died from eating too many nails thanks to ignorant visitors who thought ostriches ate iron, birds, snakes that were wrapped in blankets and put on a stove to keep them warm, and more. They weren’t terribly well-kept, partly because the people in charge didn’t know much about how to take care of some of them, and would attack each other and sometimes visitors. The Menagerie was opened to the public in the 18th century, and admission was either 3 half-pence (cents) or a dog or cat to feed to the lions. I promise I didn’t make that up. In the 19th century, the animals were moved to Regent’s Park, now the site of the London Zoo where they are properly cared for.
There are still some animals on the Tower grounds… ravens. Six ravens are kept due to the superstition that if the ravens depart, the Tower will crumble and the kingdom will follow. No one is completely sure how or why the superstition and tradition came to be, but there’s no turning back now! The Tower ravens are cared for by one of the Beefeaters, the Ravenmaster. One of the signs said that they each eat 170g of raw meat and bird biscuits soaked in blood each day. So that’s gross. And sometimes, for a special treat, they get a sheep’s heart. Double ew.
By the time I left the Tower, it was about to close, along with everything else I was considering seeing. So much for my ambitious plans for the day! I should have known, though, because never in my life have I gone through a museum quickly.
I made one last stop at Tower Bridge, the famous bridge next to the Tower. Even though the two look similar, the bridge was built during Victorian times (late 1800s). It was required to “blend in” with its surroundings and be built in the Gothic style, hence why it stylistically looks much older than it is. Even though it’s not THAT old comparatively, it’s still pretty impressive that they made an operable bridge 120 years ago that worked for 70 years (the hydraulic system was replaced in the 1970s).
After that, I went snack shopping (my favorite part of travel days!) and headed back to my hostel to get ready to go to the airport. Next stop: Iceland!
I had ambitious plans for my last day in London, and of course, they were way too ambitious. I thought I’d spend maybe four hours at the Tower of London and then I could go to either the National Gallery (one of my favorite London museums) or the Tate Britain (Maddy’s favorite museum which I haven’t been to).
From the very beginning, I failed to follow the plan. I wanted to get there at 9:30 because it opens at 10, but I read that they usually let people in a bit early. I had to pack my stuff up before heading out for the day because I was headed to the airport that night, so I didn’t leave even close to on time. I made it to the Tower around 11:30 and surprisingly still managed to beat the crowds. Maybe people were slowed down because of the dreary weather.
I didn’t know much about the Tower before I went, but now my brain is full. My gosh there’s a lot of history in that place. Here’s where I attempt to summarize masses of information and not bore you to tears…
The White Tower, the central structure in the Tower of London complex, was the first structure built in the mid-11th century by William the Conqueror. He believed that he had a rightful claim to the throne of England, and when it was given to another, he and his army successfully invaded from Normandy. He was declared king in 1066. As a show of his power and in an attempt to intimidate the Londoners, he ordered the construction of the 90-foot-tall tower (with 15’ wide walls!!) which would have been, by far, the tallest building they’d ever seen.
During its early years, the Tower was used as a royal residence and prison for wealthy and high-profile people. Many of the kings were afraid of the people, making the idea of living in an easily-defensible castle very appealing. It did a decent job of keeping people out and a much worse job of keeping people in. In fact, the very first prisoner, Bishop Ranulf Flambard, escaped! As the legend goes, he organized a bit of a party for his guards, got them drunk on wine, and snuck out using a rope that was smuggled in at the bottom of the wine container. He wasn’t the last person to escape either… others successfully bribed the guards to help them out!
The Tower was expanded a few times. An inner ring of walls was constructed and was soon followed up by a second layer of walls, giving it 21 more towers and a moat. Generally, the monarchs who were most concerned with the upkeep of the Tower were the ones who were most disconnected from and fearful of their subjects.
Starting in the 16th century, the Tower was less popular as a residence among the royals, and it transitioned into other roles. Mostly, it became known as a terrifying prison with horrible conditions and widespread torture. In reality, prisoners were still generally of high-status, were imprisoned for only short time periods, and with enough money, could live in comfort. Torture, while rare, did happen. There were less than 50 recorded incidents of torture at the Tower, but the methods were rather brutal. The most well-known method (though not often used) is probably the rack, where a person’s wrists and ankles are fastened and pulled in opposite directions, stretching the body and dislocating the joints. Another less-used contraption compresses the body by pushing down on the back of someone curled up with their shins on the ground. Others were put in shackles, sometimes hanging from the ceiling. One of the most famous people tortured at the Tower was Guy Fawkes who was part of a plot to blow up Parliament on 5 November 1605 (if you’ve seen the movie V for Vendetta, you’re probably familiar with his name).
Many of the prisoners held in the Tower were eventually executed, either by hanging or beheading. The majority were taken to a nearby hill (Tower Hill) where their deaths were public spectacles. A select few were given the honor of being killed inside the Tower walls on Tower Green, including Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry VIII. Apparently, out of “kindness”, he hired an expert swordsman for her execution (to me, “kindness” is a strong word in this situation because he still had her killed…), ensuring that she would be successfully beheaded on the first strike. In other cases, it wasn’t uncommon for the executioner to have to take a few swings before hitting accurately enough to kill the person. That. Sounds. HORRIBLE. I read somewhere that executioners didn’t perform enough executions to become truly skilled (I guess that’s a good thing) and were probably a little drunk because how else could you do that job?
In the 1800s, the moat was filled in with dirt because the water was gross, and people were getting sick from it. The Tower was used to hold prisoners for the last time during WWI and WWII, and some were executed by firing squad within the Tower walls. The final execution was of a German spy in 1941.
Now, the Tower is mostly used for ceremonial purposes and is a huge tourist attraction. I’ll tell you about my visit in my next post…
Here we go, back at it! To reorient you, we’re in England. I spent a few nights in Bristol on the suggestion of a random couple I met in Georgia, and while I was there, I did a couple of day trips: one to Bath and one to my final random-stranger-selected destination of the UK, Cardiff. Here’s where I once again embarrass myself by admitting that the only thing I knew about Cardiff was that it’s in Wales, and I only knew THAT because the previously-mentioned random strangers told me as much. It took me more than half the day to realize that Cardiff isn’t just some city in Wales, it’s the capital. Only slightly more embarrassing is the fact that I learned this from the city buses, branded as, “capital transport for our capital city”. Oops. On the bright side, travelling alone means less talking which means less opportunity for me to accidentally say something stupid before I figure things out.
For anyone confused by the whole UK/Great Britain/England thing, here’s a five-second explanation. England is a country. Great Britain is the name of the island that contains the primary land area of England, Wales, and Scotland. The UK (United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland) is a collection of four countries: England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. London is the capital city of both England and the UK as a whole. The UK countries have the same currency, military, and overall government (the Queen, Prime Minister, and the two Parliamentary houses), but they are four distinct countries with their own smaller executive governments, education systems, cultures, flags, and even languages. There are four Celtic languages spoken in various parts of the UK. In Wales, about 20% of the population can speak Welsh. Fun side fact: the blue, white, and red UK flag is the one you’re probably most familiar with. It’s a combination of the flags of England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.
That was more than five seconds, I know, but even that is a SUPER simplified explanation. The full details are enough to make your brain explode. Now that we have the essentials covered, here we go. Once again, I was advised that the best way to get to my destination from Bristol was the train. I still don’t understand how the train can possibly be the cheapest option, but I’m not going to question it!
When I walked out of the station in Cardiff, I had this feeling that I couldn’t completely understand… I felt like I had been there before. Things seemed familiar. Since I had definitely never been to Wales, I disregarded my feeling and kept moving. But still, it was disconcerting.
My initial thoughts:
Wow it really does look different than England! (*facepalm* at my ignorant past self)
There are so many flags here! Guess they don’t want you to forget that you’re in Wales! (Yeah, plus it’s the capital… silly Lara.)
Is that Welsh on those signs? Whatttttt? HOW DO YOU PRONOUNCE THAT?
Hm… sooo where should I go?
I guess maybe I should’ve done some planning beyond flagging things on Google maps on the train ride from Bristol. It’s hard to plan when you’re going somewhere new every day! So maybe it wasn’t my best-planned day, but I knew I at least had to go to Cardiff Castle and decided that the rest would work itself out.
I have a never-fail strategy for times when I don’t know where to go: Look at the people around you, and walk like you have a clue. I followed the crowd, impulsively turned into a cool-looking building, and found myself in the central market! Okay, so I didn’t actually realize that’s where I was until after I walked out… Whoops! Thank you, GPS and Google maps. But it was on my list of things to see, so be impressed with my intuition and natural directional abilities. The market has two levels – the ground floor and a balcony that wraps around the perimeter. It’s been around since 1891, and the stalls sell a WIDE range of things, from produce and prepared food to souvenirs and vintage vinyl (side note: in case you were wondering, there is such a thing as NON-vintage vinyl. Apparently, vinyl is making a comeback and you can actually get records for new music). I had fun just walking around and checking out the offerings.
From there, I made my way to Cardiff Castle, popping into St. John the Baptist City Parish Church along the way (I think they need a few more words in that name. Way too short).
The first known fortification at the site of the castle was a 3rd-century Roman fortress, but there were probably smaller Roman defenses there starting in the 1st century. It still blows my mind that the Roman Empire stretched all the way to Wales. I know it was huge, but like… whoa. After that, a castle was built on the site in the 11th century. Throughout the years, it was held by various forces and owners who all made their own additions and modifications. It didn’t become the property of the city of Cardiff until almost 1950!
I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before (just kidding… I’m sure I’ve mentioned this at least 100 times), but I LOVE CASTLES. Sometimes when I say that, especially in front of jaded backpackers who have been wandering around Europe for far too long, the response is an eye roll, a knowing smile, and the question, “How long have you been in Europe?” Their assumption is that I haven’t spent much time in Europe because if I HAD, I would be bored with castles like they are because EVERY town has a castle and they think they’re all the same and oh how cute that this little amateur traveler still finds castles exciting. You know what I have to say to those people? I have been to A LOT of castles, and guess what? I still think they’re all exciting. And a lot of churches. And I’ve walked a lot of bridges and visited a lot of cities and seen a lot of amazing views… but I’m not sick of any of those either. I think that if you’re sick of those things, you need to go back to wherever you lost your “awe” glasses and put them back on because the fact that other amazing places exist doesn’t make the one you’re at any LESS amazing. End rant. Sorry. I had to get that out. But seriously. If you’re travelling and you’re not surprised or amazed by anything, take a pause and check yourself because the world is freaking incredible. Okay, NOW I’m finished.
Like I was saying, I LOVE CASTLES. Even better if you can walk along the walls because my favorite thing to do (feel free to judge me for this) is walk along the walls and pretend I’m a princess. Or better yet, a queen. (As I get older, I more often go in the queen direction.)
I had no idea how many parts there were to the castle complex. After my regal wall-stroll, I went INSIDE the walls. During World War II, the walls were used as air-raid shelters and could hold almost 2,000 people! As an important port city, Cardiff was heavily bombed during WWII, killing hundreds of civilians. In case you had trouble imagining that terrifying experience, there was a soundtrack that included air-raid sirens and planes flying overhead. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine how it felt. Total darkness. Stale air heavy with fear. Silence except for the sound of breathing and the occasional cry of a child. Feeling completely powerless. I started feeling claustrophobic and had to go outside.
After leaving the walls, I climbed up to the keep. The current structure was built in the 12th century, and for those of you unfamiliar with castle terminology, was the main stronghold of the castle. This one is basically just a very tall stone cylinder on top of a very natural-looking hill (or motte), and from the top, there’s a nice view of the city.
The last building inside the castle walls is the “House” (their words), or more accurately, the mansion. The first structure was built in the early 1400s, but practically every subsequent owner made modifications, giving it a strong architectural-collage vibe.
The inside of the mansion was predictably lavish, but the décor was surprisingly varied. There was one room called the “Arab Room” that was definitely not what I was expecting to find in Wales. Then, the next second, I was in the banqueting hall that looks like the set of a movie in the Middle Ages where people are meant to be swigging beers and slamming their glasses down on the table. There’s also an absolutely amaaaaazinggg library where I wanted to touch everything and, of course, was allowed to touch nothing.
I was all castled-out after I finished walking through the “House”, so I started the long walk to my next destination, Llandaff Cathedral. To be honest, I have no idea why I decided to go there. I saw it on the map, decided it might be nice to walk around a bit, and apparently wasn’t deterred by the fact that it was three miles away… ha. I tried to at least pick a scenic route through some parks, and I saw lots of normal people doing normal things. That’s another one of my favorite things to do when I’m travelling: wander into the parts of the city where regular people live life.
The cathedral was massive and beautiful, as expected. The current building isn’t actually that old because it was built after WWII when the previous building was severely damaged. I wandered through the church and around the nearby neighborhood before heading back into town.
I still had a few things that I wanted to see down on the waterfront, but when it started drizzling and I was near the train station anyway, I decided to call it a day. Plus, my feet were hurting. A couple minutes later, I patted myself on the back for a well-made decision because it started POURING rain. No, thank you!
At the end of the day, after all of my wandering across the universe, I still couldn’t shake the feeling that I had been to Wales before. The houses, the terrain, the names of places… everything seemed too familiar. It wasn’t until a couple days later that I realized the reason why. Many of the early settlers of the area where I grew up in Pennsylvania were from Wales. In fact, the Welsh Quakers were granted a large tract of land west of Philadelphia and even attempted to make it a separate county with a local government that operated in Welsh. They established settlements with Welsh names, some of which have carried on until today, such as Bala Cynwyd, Bryn Mawr, Berwyn, etc. If you’re looking at those words and wondering how the heck you pronounce them, exactly.
So, there you have it. The very long story of how I went all the way to Wales just to realize that I could have walked around at home and gotten the same effect.
As I mentioned in my last post about Bath, I started off my Bath day… er that sounds weird… my day in Bath… with a Jane Austen walking tour of the city. Since I apparently knew nothing about Jane’s actual life, I didn’t know that Bath played a BIG role in it and was even where she went to get inspiration and do research for her first book (Northanger Abbey). When I thought about it, I realized that Bath is either mentioned or is the main setting in most of her books. It frequently comes up in the context of either going there on holiday or going to get treatment for some illness as it was a big resort town at that time and, get this… in BATH, the old Roman BATHS were thought to have special healing properties. Ah. It’s all starting to make sense, right?
If you hate Jane Austen, then you should probably just stop reading now because fair warning: the rest of this post is about her.
In case you don’t know who Jane Austen is, let me give you a little summary. She was an English novelist in the early 1800s who wrote 6 novels. Four of them were published during her lifetime (Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, and Emma), and while they did actually reach a level of success during her lifetime, that’s nothing compared to their popularity since then. The other two (Northanger Abbey and Persuasion) were published by her siblings after her early death at the age of 41.
During her life, her books were published anonymously because it wasn’t proper for ladies to write as anything more than a hobby. They weren’t supposed to be seeking fame or fortune from their work, and writing as a full-time job wasn’t seen as a feminine pursuit. So, none of her books had her name attached until after her death. Originally, they were published as being written “By a Lady”.
One of the things that’s so interesting about her is the fact that very little is known about her actual life. She and her sister, Cassandra, were very close and wrote each other thousands of letters over the years, but Cassandra burned most of them after Jane died to prevent relatives and others from reading Jane’s “sometimes acid or forthright comments on neighbours or family members” (Cassandra’s words). Hahahahaha. If you read her books, I think you can tell that anyway. Her characters generally aren’t very shy about sharing their opinions of the people they encounter.
Beyond just details about her life, no one is even sure about what she looked like! The museum started out with like eight portraits of “maybe” Jane, and one of the girls working there explained the likelihood of each actually being a portrait of her. The conclusion was that only one of them is fairly certain because it was drawn by her sister Cassandra, but since it shows her from behind, that gives no helpful information about her face.
Anyway, that’s enough background information. Let’s get back to it. The tour guide was hilarious and did a brilliant job. He was dressed in period clothing and introduced himself as Mr. Knightly, one of the characters in Emma. He explained that Jane’s experiences in Bath and her career as a writer were very intertwined. Her first visit to the city was on holiday for six weeks with her mother and sister, and a couple years later, she spent two months living with her brother who was being treated for gout (a type of arthritis) there. During that two-month period, she did research for Northanger Abbey, and that was her first completed novel.
A couple years later, when she was 25, her father retired, and she moved with her parents and sister Cassandra (they were both unmarried) to Bath. Their first couple of years there were nice, but after her father died unexpectedly, she, her mother, and her sister were left with nearly nothing since women couldn’t inherit. They ended up renting a place on one of the shadiest streets in town, Trim Street, primarily populated by prostitutes, beggars, pimps, and thieves. Our guide said that previously, Jane wrote in a letter that, “I will do all in my power to avoid Trim Street.” So, needless to say, those probably weren’t exactly the best of times. They finally moved away when Jane was 30 and one of her brothers was in a financial position to give them a house.
There were a few notable early fans of her work including Prince George IV, Prince Regent of Wales. He was known as a very extravagant man who apparently drank the equivalent of £2 million of wine each year. Seems to me that you would need to be drinking almost constantly… Anyway, as you might imagine from that statistic, he was very fat and did as much as he could to hide the full extent of his weight. Some of the things that came into men’s fashion at the time were literally only because they helped to make him look less overweight.
Jane had a very low opinion of the Prince Regent. He, on the contrary, had specially bound copies of her books in all of his houses. Regardless of her personal feelings towards him, it was very useful to have rich patrons, not to mention royal ones. When he invited her to visit his home, she didn’t have much choice but to accept. He didn’t meet her in person, but his assistant asked her if she would dedicate her next book to him.
Of course, she didn’t want to, but how do you say no to a prince? Her next book was Emma, and the dedication she wrote was so sarcastic that they had to revise it multiple times to make it acceptable. Even so, you can still absolutely feel the sarcasm when you read it. It says:
HIS ROYAL HIGHNESS
THE PRINCE REGENT,
THIS WORK IS,
BY HIS ROYAL HIGHNESS’S PERMISSION,
MOST RESPECTFULLY DEDICATED,
BY HIS ROYAL HIGHNESS’S
That, to me, screams, “I didn’t want to do this, but I did because he told me to and he’s important so here we are.”
I may not have known much about Jane Austen at the beginning of the day, but by the end, I was even more impressed and obsessed with her. She’s so funny! And it seems like she was so confident and bold in a time when that wasn’t “acceptable” female behavior. Also, one of the reasons that her books weren’t terribly popular at the time was because they weren’t as dry as the other books that were in style. So basically she had a sense of humor and personality that were ahead of her time.
She died early, at age 41, and the cause is unknown.
After I left the museum, I wandered around town and added a few Jane Austen pilgrimage sites to my list. I did a walk-by of the church where Jane Austen’s parents got married and where her father is buried, and I went to see the house where she lived when her family first moved to Bath following her father’s retirement. I felt a bit creepy because it’s on a normal street and seems like a regular house, though I found out later that it’s a themed B&B. Someone’s bike was parked out front, and that made me wonder (pretending that it WAS just a normal house) if the house would be considered more or less valuable because of its history… maybe more because a famous person lived there, but maybe less because that leads to random people coming to gawk outside.
The house and nearby park were my last two stops of the day, so after I was finished with those, I zombie-walked my way to the train station to head back to Bristol. Another long day, but the random people who told me to visit Bath were right; I did love it there. They have a Jane Austen festival every year where everyone goes to Bath and dresses up in period clothing… I don’t know, I might have to add that to my bucket list…
My adventures of blindly following the advice of strangers continued the next day in Bath. Why Bath? I didn’t know. What’s there? I also didn’t know that. My entire knowledge base going in was that people think it’s beautiful there, and it’s like stepping back in time. That all sounded good to me, so off to Bath I went!
I asked at the hostel about the cheapest way from Bristol, where I was staying, to Bath (because “cheapest” is the key here, not “most efficient” or “easiest”), and I was surprised when the girl told me that I should take the train. It was only 8 pounds round trip which was LESS than taking a bus (when does that ever happen??), and it took 10 minutes instead of close to an hour. Woo! Off to a good start.
My first move when I made it to the city was to make a beeline for the visitors’ center because I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing there. That ended up being my best decision of the day because after I grabbed a map of the city and walked outside, I saw a man holding a “Free Jane Austen Walking Tour” sign. You may not know this about me, but I am a MASSIVE Jane Austen fan. Like huge. I think she’s brilliant and funny and knows how to write a darn good story.
Okay, maybe it’s not right to describe myself as a massive fan of HER because I basically knew nothing about her actual life. I’m just a huge fan of her work. I’ve read all of her books, some of them multiple times, and each time I think they get more entertaining (probably because each time I understand them a bit better… between the British English and the fact that they were written in a different time period, it can be a challenge to catch all of the humor).
I wrote a separate postabout the intimate details I learned about Jane’s life, but the tour was cool because the guide (dressed as Mr. Knightley from Emma) didn’t only explain places that directly related to her; he also talked about major sights in town.
First, let me give you a little background on the city of Bath. Bath is located at the site of the only natural hot springs in the UK. It was originally settled by Celtic tribes who thought that the springs were a gift from the gods, specifically their goddess Sulis. When the area was conquered by the Romans in the first century AD, the city and the baths were Romanized. I’ll talk more about the baths later, but for now, just appreciate the incredibly creative naming of the city… It all makes sense now, eh?
Back to the tour. We walked past the Bath Abbey (the main cathedral), and Mr. Knightley explained that none of the aristocratic class used to go there because it was considered smelly and touristy, and at least the latter is still true today. Apparently, they used to put the corpses of the rich in the crypt underneath the church instead of properly burying them, so it literally smelled like rotting bodies. EW. Due to this, the shops that were directly against the walls of the church didn’t have to pay taxes. CAN YOU IMAGINE?? That’s disgusting. At some point after that, they decided that maybe it was kind of gross to leave bodies out to smell up the place, and they were buried instead.
There has been a church on the site of the current abbey since the 700s AD, but this building has been there since about the 1500s with major restorations done in the late 1800s. It’s built in the Gothic style, and one of the major features is these angels climbing up “ladders to heaven” on the front façade. Mr. Knightly told us that there’s a story that the Puritans shot off their heads and wings because they were anti-ornamentation, and who knows what’s true except for the fact that some of them are definitely missing heads and wings…
The Roman Baths are right near the abbey, and next to those, there’s the Pump House which was a fashionable place for people to hang out in Jane’s day. You could drink water from the spring which supposedly has healing properties, and I learned later in the day that this water was piped up directly from the bath pools… which means people were basically drinking dirty bathwater.
Next to the Pump House is the King’s and Queen’s Baths which was one of the most popular places to “take the waters”. It also contained a book where, during Jane’s time (the early 1800s), you would write when you arrived in town so that everyone would know you were there. It was a time of people knowing everyone else’s business, including how much everyone was worth.
Architecturally, the city is primarily built in the Georgian style. In 1814, the entire city was rebuilt with one main architect, John Wood the Elder. Important buildings were reconstructed in this style, and less important/older ones were simply refaced with a proper façade.
One of the interesting features in town is called the Royal Crescent. This was built by John Wood the Younger, and actually, he only designed the curving façade. People purchased a certain length of the façade and then could build whatever they wanted behind it! So, something may look like two houses from the front but actually be only one. Mr. Knightley said that this was the typical Bath way… it was all about having the appearance of high society. The actual substance was less important.
In the center of the city, the three primary streets are Quiet Street, John Street, and Wood Street. He told a story about the meeting to name the streets of the new city of Bath. The architect, John Wood, wouldn’t shut up, so the guy in charge of the meeting yelled, “QUIET, John Wood!” and so, they had their first three street names. This sounds like a myth to me, but the streets do exist, so maybe not?
After the tour, I walked to the Botanical Gardens. It was the PERFECT time of year to go because the flowers were blooming, and things were actually green!
I continued roaming before finally making my way to the baths. Admission was a bit expensive, but it was totally worth it! There’s a museum portion and then the actual baths. For the museum, there was a free audio guide, and when I got to the baths part, I was just in time for the last guided tour of the day which ended up being fantastic!
The temple in the center was dedicated to Sulis (the Celtic goddess) and the Roman goddess Minerva who they considered to be the same goddess by a different name. These baths are particularly interesting because of the style mixing between the Roman and local tribal cultures. Archaeologists guess that the Romans probably saw parallels between some of the gods that the locals worshipped and their gods, and since they didn’t want to run the risk of offending one of them, the result was these mixed styles.
The baths are fed by 10,000-year-old rainwater that goes 3km underground and comes up at 37 degrees C. The local tribes, and later the Romans, thought that it had healing properties, so the bathhouse was one of the first things to be built by the Roman conquerors. The land around the springs was dried, and the temple was built.
In classic Roman form, the design pushed the engineering boundaries of the time. The main bath pool originally had a 20m-high roof. The first iteration was made of wood, but that rotted quickly because of the heat and moisture from the pool. It was replaced with a roof made of hollow bricks.
One of my favorite things was curse tablets. If someone was wronged, for example if something was stolen from them, they would buy these little lead tablets and write what was stolen, who took it (or a list of suspects if they didn’t know for sure), and a request for Minerva to curse them in whatever way they saw fit. They would roll these up and then throw them into the main spring pool. If the tablet floated, it was said that the curse would come back on the curser, so people were sure to make them heavy and fold them up really well.
We walked through the different rooms of the baths, and the guide explained what each was used for. First was the changing room where people would prepare for the bath process. The baths were affordable, so people of all social classes used them. The rich came more often and had servants to help them and to guard their belongings. The poorer people undressed themselves and didn’t have anyone to watch over their stuff which often led to thefts (and people asking Minerva for curses).
After undressing, bathers moved into the tepidarium, the warm heat room, for cleaning and hair removal. People removed all of their body hair from the neck down. If you were rich, you could afford a blade to shave it. Otherwise, you were stuck with plucking… EEK! When your hair was all removed, you were massaged with oil (to clean you, obviously) and then sent to the next room, the caldarium.
This was the hot room and was like a sauna. It had a raised floor that contained an underfloor heating system. In this room, people sweated, and the oil from the tepidarium was scraped off. What was done with this sweaty oil? Glad you asked. If it was used by someone important, sometimes it was sold by enterprising Romans as a face cream so that you could absorb some of the essence of the person who used it. Otherwise, it was probably sent back to the tepidarium and reused. Hygienic, huh?
After being “cleaned”, people moved to the main pool which was a big social hub. You could buy wine, and to sweeten it, they would often add lead powder. The main pool was also lined with lead sheets for waterproofing purposes. Lead pipes carry water throughout the compound… so it’s probably safe to say that literally everyone had lead poisoning.
The waters in Bath were believed to have healing properties, so this bath has a special immersion pool for healing. Rather than being healed, however, people probably just ended up passing on their skin conditions to other people in the baths.
In the early 5th century, the Roman Empire started struggling, and skilled workers were recalled to Rome. No one who was left knew how to maintain the facilities, so the roof started to collapse. By the 12th century, all evidence of the Roman Empire in Bath was gone. The floor level of the baths is six meters below the modern-day street level!
In the late 1800s, people’s basements started filling up with water which led to an investigation to understand why. In this process, they discovered the hot springs and started buying up people’s properties to investigate. This process was delayed by 10 years because one person kept holding out and refusing to sell, so they had to wait for him to die (who wants a basement filled with water??). Since then, the Roman Baths have become one of the major tourist attractions in town… and rightfully so because they’re awesome.
I absolutely loved my time at the baths. I thought it was so freaking cool. At the end, you can drink some of the (cleaned) water. It’s disgusting. There are so many minerals in it that it tastes repulsive. The guide said that they considered bottling and selling it, but legally, you need to have the bottling plant at the site of the spring, and they don’t have the space for that. My question is, would people seriously buy it despite the HORRIBLE taste just because it’s supposedly good for you? When they could just take some vitamins instead? Not me!
Jane Austen – a Jane-focused walking tour of Bath and a visit to the Jane Austen Museum
Bristol – explore the nearby city of Bristol, England
Cardiff – hop over the border into the capital city of Wales!
My trip to Turkey may have gotten off to a slow start (thanks for nothing, rain), but even so, by the end, I felt like I had accomplished a lot. I didn’t know what to expect going in and ended up absolutely loving it there. I left feeling certain that I need to go back someday. When I do, I want to see more of the country beyond just Istanbul. The food, the culture, the apple tea… it all felt “right” to me, like I finally found that sense of home that I failed to feel in Armenia. That was a bit of a weird and emotionally conflicting feeling, but I’ll work through it.
I had a whole plan for what my post-Istanbul travel time was going to look like. I mean, it was still a very loose plan, but a plan DID exist. I say this because when you look at my travel route over the next few weeks, you’re going to shake your head and wonder if I bothered looking at a map beforehand. The plan was to go north from Turkey, working my way up through the Balkan countries to Central/Western Europe and then home. That’s not quiteee what actually happened, and like a good sister, I’m going to blame that entirely on my brother Mike.
When I was in Tbilisi, my mom told me that Mike was planning a trip to Iceland to visit some friends who were living there for a month. My response to that, of course, was, “Um, why didn’t he invite me?” And like a good sister, I invited myself. I’m kidding a little; I did ask him if I could tag along. He said yes, and so my next challenges were figuring out how to get myself from Istanbul to Iceland without going broke and deciding where to spend the one-week gap between the two.
The easiest and least expensive route was through London, so off to England I went! Since I spent some time in London after I left Ghana, I didn’t want to stay there for the entire week. The solution? I asked a couple of Brits who were staying at my Tbilisi hostel where they recommended I go, and I blindly followed their advice. How bad could it be? They did live in England, after all, which meant they had to know SOMETHING about what to do in their own country. They told me to go to Bristol, a city in the southwest of England, and to take day trips from there to Bath and Cardiff, a city in Wales. And so, Bristol became my next destination.
On my way through immigration into Britain, the agent asked where I was going and kind of made a face when I said Bristol. My response to his question of, “Why are you going there??” made him laugh and shake his head a little. He apparently didn’t agree with my random hostel friends. Slightly worried, I asked if he had been to Bristol, and he said no. Okay, his opinion was void. Either way though, my bus to Bristol and my hostel were booked. There was no turning back.
After my flight from Istanbul to London, I had a bit of a trek to ahead. I flew into London Stansted airport which meant I had to take about a one-hour bus ride to the city center followed by a three-hour bus ride to Bristol. Talk about a long day.
You know how I always talk about how you meet the most interesting people when you’re travelling? And often, it happens at the most unexpected of times. I would definitely qualify the bus ride from London to Bristol as an “unexpected time” (though maybe that means I should have expected it).
Anyway, some random guy sat down next to me, he asked what I was doing in England and where I had come from, and from the moment I mentioned Istanbul, we had more than enough to talk about. He was from Northern Ireland and randomly moved to Istanbul when he was in his 20s. He found work at an Irish pub there (because he was Irish, so he was automatically qualified), and somehow, word got out that there was an Irish dance instructor working at this pub… which led to him being recruited to choreograph a show at the Turkish State Theatre. After that, he stayed on and kept working with them for the rest of 5 years that he spent there! You might be wondering why they could possibly need an Irish dance choreographer, and trust me, I asked the same thing. He said that the show they were doing was set in Ireland (don’t ask me what show, I had never heard of it and promptly forgot the name), so they wanted authentic dancing in it. And what did they need from him for the rest of the 5 years? Who knows. But he said that they were some of his favorite years. I can imagine.
That, of course, led me to the question of if he could speak Turkish… which led us to a conversation about languages because yes, he could speak Turkish, and he could speak 16 other languages as well. He was a linguist, a professor at a university. How cool. Don’t worry though, he’s only fluent in 9 of those languages, so you don’t have to feel TOO bad. Ha. Haha.
The rest of the ride went by in a flash. We talked about Istanbul, about language, about the world. He was absolutely fascinating. He also said that he thought I would enjoy Bristol and that I should visit Bath and Cardiff as well, and in my mind, his opinion held much more weight than that of the immigration agent. At the end of the ride, he thanked me for the good conversation (it’s nice to know that he enjoyed it as much as I did), and we parted ways.
I walked to my hostel feeling great about the next couple of days. Honestly, after that ride, the trip to Bristol already felt like it was worth it. The rest was just bonus!