Sunday, October 2, 2011

Bath Time

Sunday - The Beeches - Churchill, England

Kat is upstairs showering while I lounge in the breakfast room of the Newport Hilton, freshly showered and shaved (it is Sunday after all). I've been studying our itinerary for the last four days of our trip. It looks like a lot of driving but there are frequent stops and lots of places that we have read about and want to see packed into a small section of this beautiful country. Since we were unable to get our laundry done here, it would have to be Bath. We love our Rick Steves guidebooks and within moments found just what we were looking for. The Spruce Goose Launderette in Margaret's Building (whatever they are) conveniently located between the Royal Crescent and the Circus. Not cheap, and no change machine (we had plenty of coins) but who cares, and right in the area we wanted to be anyway. This should be fun.

Random thoughts:

(1) On the telly is a rugby game, more popular in Wales than anywhere else in the world, save perhaps, New Zealand. No helmets, no pads, no sense.

(2) The British are an orderly lot when driving; measurement is in miles, and all would be perfect if they only drove on the correct side of the road. We've done OK. The few lapses into the wrong lane have occurred when there are no lines or traffic islands with nice pointy blue arrows. Only had one close call, that in a parking lot when I was taken by surprise by a turning car in front of me and my instincts told me to steer right. Wrong. There appears to be a dearth of stop signs. I remember from a previous trip how pleasant it was to approach a stop sign where there is no gambling required. Their number appears to be shrinking with the number of traffic lights increasing which is the downfall of vehicular (and maybe general)society. Driving in the Cotswolds is a pleasure, even the small villages whose narrow little roads should be one way but aren't. The line down the middle is strictly there for guidance, and is not taken seriously. I know this because many of these roads are marked with signs that read: "Beware of Oncoming Traffic in Middle of Road." You have to pay attention and duck into little side spaces reminding us of the same strategy required while walking the streets in Azorean towns.

I've only pissed off two people that I know of while driving here. Once in a roundabout (of which I am a huge proponent) where I failed to remember that those already in have the right of way. Oops! In my defense it can be really tricky at the larger ones (some are three lanes - not as bad as L'Etoile, but close), and you have to know which lane to be in based on which exit you want to take off the circle. Sometimes we haven't. The other time was when I took a left turn onto a road in Sterling, clearly surprising the Mercedes driver who was approaching from the right (too fast in my opinion). Sometimes I revert to New England driving and as long as you don't make eye contact you can go. He flipped me off and beeped his little horn just for effect. I didn't feel that bad as it was only a little C class. Another example: The highway to Cardiff was all backed up (4 miles according to the sign) and crawling. The left lane was fairly empty, so I scooted into it and made great time passing many, many vehicles. The reason (of course) is that it turned into an exit only lane about a mile down the way (it's easy to forget that if you drive on the right you exit on the left). I put on my blinker and was generously waved into the right lane. It appears they are used to queuing for everything including a traffic jam - very civilized.

(3) Everyone says "Sorry" instead of "Excuse me" which kind of changes the whole dynamic, doesn't it? They also do that. Make a declarative statement into a question, don't they? I wanted to console them. Lovely.

On the Road

Just 43 miles from Newport, it takes about an hour to make the very pleasant journey to Bath. We love that we will pass Chipping Sodbury (great name) on the way down. We are always a bit nervous driving into a city like Bath for the first time. Our readings told us that the roads were narrow, most were one way, and getting around tenuous. We had read all the rave reviews of the city and some of the history. It is filled with architectural delights, most from the Georgian period and build in cream colored limestone. The old Roman town and the baths/spa were buried over the centuries.
Street level today is about 18 feet higher than it was when the baths were built, so you look down on them from the sidewalk. (Ed. Things like this always startle me. It reminds me of Paestum in southern Italy with all the Roman ruins, that because of a mosquito outbreak was lost for centuries? No one looked?) Appears it was just a muddy bog until good (and infertile) Queen Mary took a dip in the baths and 10 months later gave birth to the future king. Queen Anne said it cured her gout. Before you know it all the riffraff flocked to the place. It attracts about 2 million visitors a year and that is a lot. We hoped none of them were looking for washing machines that Sunday morning.

We prepared for the worst and was surprisingly rewarded with the best: a nice blue P sign just south of the Royal Crescent which even on this bright sunny morning was sparsely populated. It wasn't cheap (nothing is in Bath apparently), a hefty 8 pounds 50 (about $13). The positive is that there was a spotless public WC right there, the negative is that the parking machine sucked in most of our coins. Grabbing our laundry we walked through a very pleasant park and found ourselves on the main connecting road (Crescent to Circus) and almost directly across from the alley we were seeking.

The Spruce Goose Launderette with it's white bow-window front and bright yellow interior beckoning to us was a glorious sight - a full days discussion and planning (or so it seemed) had gone into this moment. Was it open? Yes. Were the machines working? Yes. Was there one available? Yes. Oh Happy Day! I know I'm making more of this than necessary, but when you are putting on the sixth and last set of clean clothes (we travel lightly), an open launderette is gold, pure gold. Using our very last coins, we loaded the wash into the machine and began a search for change to dry them. We solved that problem by each of us making a trip to the coffee shop across the street, (who must get tired of people asking for change) once for coffee, once for pastry. We had enough 20p pieces to ensure a semi-dry set of clean clothes that should take us through the remainder of our trip. The industrial strength equipment made short work of our clothes and before my cigar was finished we were on our way back to the car to drop off the clothes and do a little exploring. Life is good.

Bath is easy on the eyes. People were just starting to stake out their claim on a patch of lawn in front of the Royal Crescent, as the day was warming quickly. We never expected to see people in shorts and tank tops sunbathing in October. (A good chat friend of mine went to University in Bath and I can understand why he enjoyed it so much. It is to him and his family that I dedicate this page.) Everywhere you look something pleasing catches your eye, the bath stone buildings in perfect harmony with the attendant gardens with carefully planned and maintained flowerbeds.
And curves make things interesting so the crescent and circus (from circle by the way - not the clown type) seem unique and interesting when compared to the ninety degree angle building you see most everywhere else. The interior trim work to accommodate the exterior walls must be fantastic (we had trouble trimming out the top of a few arch windows and that was just working with two dimensions).

Having walked the forum in Rome and wondering why, I reluctantly agreed to tour the Roman Baths, fearful that it would be tacky, touristy, and tedious. In fact it was none of the above. The self tour allowed us to linger where we wished (we tend to read everything) and the audio guide was excellent including some commentary by one of our favorite authors, Bill Bryson. The water (a bright green) is replenished by an underground spring to the tune of 240K gallons a day, the average temperature of which is about 115 degrees. Now that is some hottub. By the end of our tour we were able to visualize the entire complex as a working bathhouse easily imagining what the experience might have been like. We would really recommend taking the time to "immerse" (sorry) yourself in the experience if you have the opportunity.

Leaving the baths we ascended to street level and peered into the famous Pump Room Restaurant (beautifully appointed with a chandelier that I would hate to clean) where the prices were a little too rich for our tastes: ($4.50) for a cuppa coffee. We could only imagine what the afternoon tea service would cost.
We did however stop at the well appointed public WC in the hall then headed off to soak-in a little more of the Bath experience.

We were a little surprised at how uncrowded the city was on such a beautiful day, with nary a car in site. Perhaps everyone else knew something we didn't or perhaps it was just karma .. our day to have the city to ourselves. Whatever, we were enjoying it immensely. It was a pleasure just walking around, stopping at Jane Austens' house, where in homage to our niece Ellen, Kat had her picture taken. We searched out the architecturally interesting little things the designers had done that made the city seem so harmonious. There is green everywhere and walking down some of the car-deserted tree lined streets you really could mentally transport yourself back to late 19th century. Very pleasant.

The only decision left was whether to eat in Bath or head to this night's B&B and try to find something around there. As we walked past our launderette on the way back to the car, we caught the unmistakable aroma of Italian cooking and our stomachs made the decision for us. A few doors down from the Goose was the Rustico Bistro Italiano We caught them just before they were about to close at the end of their lunch service. And glad we were indeed.
We enjoyed one of the better meals of our trip; mine the perfectly prepared tuna steak with rocket, Kat the Penne Rustica. The chef (and owner) spent some time with us chatting (he had spent 20 years in the Carribean) and seemed in no rush for us to leave (although he did turn away another couple looking for a late lunch). It really was a treat, and if in Bath again Margaret's Building seems a full service street.

Our last drive of the day was to a little village called "Churchill", fitting we thought, where our B&B was located. Situated just before a picturesque red stone church it is not terribly difficult to find (though we did miss the sign on the first pass so if you go by the church might as well turn around now) just past a Y fork on the narrow road. Our other discovery was that we found everyone in western England who was missing from Bath. They were all stuck in mile after mile of traffic heading in the opposite direction (thank goodness) negotiating the same narrow roads we had just come down.
Seems this is a "major" road to the British Channel beaches that the unseasonably warm weather had magnetically drawn them toward. We arrived at "The Beeches", the home (turned guesthouse) of Steve and Mandy Harvey, and it was easy to see why they were rated so highly (9.5) on Trip Advisor. Super friendly, we felt immediately at home. Loved hearing about the stone steps in the back that were used to mount horses back in day when they were standard equipment at any lodge.

Deciding not to venture out in the car again (it was nearly 2200 and the traffic was as bad as when we had arrived and still light out) we walked the little streets, and stopped for some pudding (dessert for US readers) at the still open and very busy Nelson Arms up the street. We noticed the little Victorian monument watch tower building up at the Y fork that we had completely missed on our way in when looking for our accommodations. It had been a great and busy day, and from here on out we were free wheeling, speaking of which, I think there is cheese in our future.

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