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On May 7th, a day of rain, we resumed our original touring itinerary for England and drove east from Weston-Super-Mare to the popular tourist town of Bath. Bath dates all the way back to the Roman Empire, when the city was called Aquae Sulis and natural hot springs formed the basis for a huge bath house and temple to Minerva. Over the years the bath house has been remade by various kings and empires, and the building still exists to this day (although only as a museum).
Our single room in Bath is at the Elgin Villa, where Alwyn and Carol Landman have been running a Bed & Breakfast for the past four years. Carol, a very precise woman, already has the system down pat: her sitting room is full of books dedicated to "Bath" (including menus from all of the restaurants in town) and "areas surrounding Bath"; every room has a binder full of excursion pamphlets; and printed forms allow you to order exactly what you want for breakfast. For this reason, the Elgin Villa is listed in Rick Steves' tour book, while the many other B&Bs that line Marlborough Lane are not. (Carol is also very proud of the fact that she has just been listed in a Japanese tour book. Her observations about the Japanese: they are very polite, and they eat an enormous amount of food.)
With our arrival in England, we have made a conscious decision to relax our normally tight budget. First, the cost of living here is much higher. A €100 room on the Continent equals $90 US, while a £100 room in England equals $150 US. (We have also observed in the news that the US dollar seems to be sinking even further.) Second, we are nearing the end of our year on the road, and we feel comfortable spoiling ourselves a little after so many months of stringent belt-tightening. And third, we're frankly sick of ramen noodles and peanut butter & jelly sandwiches.
We had arrived in Bath early enough that we decided to indulge in a traditional English high tea. We took the ten-minute stroll into town and went to the Pump Room, a rather expensive and touristy tea room just next to the Roman baths. Our delicious mid-afternoon "snack" included various sandwiches (including cucumber and egg), scones with clotted cream and jam, and pastries. (Clotted cream is somewhere between whipped cream and butter. The English distinguish about a dozen different grades of cream that the Americans do not recognize.)
Ordering high tea at the Pump Room
We were pleasantly surprised to discover that there is a park with a large children's playground just across the street from our B&B; so for the rest of the day Cameron and Joss played there, while Gail and Russell made a very rare visit to a real laundromat a few blocks away.
We were originally going to title this letter "A cold and wet Bath," but that wouldn't have been fair. After the rain on May 7th, we awoke on May 8th to a gorgeously sunny day. We scrapped our plans to tour the museum in downtown Bath, and instead we drove an hour back west to spend the day outdoors.
Cheddar Gorge, the largest gorge in England, is so named because it is located near the town of Cheddar (where the cheese comes from -- a 9,000 year old skeleton known as Cheddar Man was also found here, whose DNA actually matches that of a current resident). The town itself is rather touristy -- completely lined with souvenir stores -- and after parking in the paid parking lot, we went to the ticket booth for entrance to the gorge. The ticket ladies were stunned that we didn't want to visit Gough's Cave or the Crystal Quest "challenge the dragon in the halls of darkness" experience; we just wanted to take the Clifftop Gorge Walk. We paid our admission, took our backpacks and fanny packs, and set off. (We later discovered that you could actually take the gorge walk for free simply by entering the trail at a different point, but we made our contribution to Cheddar tourism.)
On the clifftop overlooking Cheddar Gorge
Our first milestone was climbing the 274 steps of Jacob's Ladder up to the crest of the gorge, where a series of very educational markers described the history of the world as if each step represented one million years (using this scale, the Age of Man is about the thickness of a sheet of paper). After climbing up and down the steel lookout tower, we set out on the trail itself.
The gorge walk is described as a 3-mile round trip that takes two hours; we would swear that it was twice as long, and it took us more than four hours. But we took our time and enjoyed ourselves immensely at this 300-acre nature reserve. There was hardly anyone else on the trail, and the views overlooking the gorge were just spectacular. Gail was overjoyed to see wild hyacinths in spectacular purple bloom all over the place (they only do this for a couple of weeks a year).
Basking in fields of wild hyacinths
Cameron and Joss have wasted no time in rebuilding their stick collections. Cameron has invented a method of "archery" where he flips small sticks at everyone else. In Glastonbury, Joss had found and de-barked a stick sword that he named "Evermetal" and now carries everywhere he goes. And by the end of the day, the boys had found walking sticks for all four of us (Russell kept breaking his everytime he leaned on it, he was finally given a very heavy, solid branch). As usual, we finished our day with ice cream, although the boys skipped their usual soft ice cream cornettos to try something different. Overall it was a day well spent, and we're glad we extended our Bath stay from two nights to three in order to visit the gorge.
On May 9th, our last full day in Bath, we walked back into the city centre. Our first stop was Bath Abbey, which has been rebuilt constantly between the AD 1066 Norman conquest and WWII. Gail's strongest memories from twelve years ago are of this church, from the sculpted angels climbing ladders to Heaven on the outside, to the stunning stone monuments that completely cover the floors and walls on the inside. In AD 973 Edgar, the first king of a united England, was crowned here; in 1973 Queen Elizabeth II returned to the Abbey to celebrate the 1000th anniversary of her forebear's coronation.
Inside Bath Abbey
Next, we took the self-guided audio tour of the ancient Roman Baths themselves. The city and its bath house had actually been neglected as a spa over the centuries, until Queen Mary bathed here in 1687 and later successfully gave birth to a male heir. The city's reputation was remade, and in the late 19th century a full excavation was made of the original Roman temple. We actually had to descend several floors into the excavation in order to reach the old street level of Roman times, and we had a fascinating and educational time learning about the history of the place. To top off our afternoon, we had an early dinner at Sally Lunn's, another tourist stop that is the oldest existing house in Bath (1680), where the menu specialty is buns.
The 2,000-year-old Roman baths
We took our time leaving Bath on the morning of May 10th. While Cameron and Joss enjoyed one last opportunity at the playground and park, the adults walked back into town to visit Waterstone's Books. Before we left the Continent, we pretty much dumped all of our tour books except for Rick Steves'. We are now discovering that this is not adequate; if we want to visit anything not listed in Rick Steves' very selective books, we find ourselves at a total loss. So we picked up a copy of Best Drives: Britain and a road atlas, and we set out on the road again.
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