June 19, 2013

It was a busy day, visiting 3 major sites and walking a few miles around the city. First a word about the Henrietta House, where we are spending 3 nights. Built in the 1700s, the B&B is a historic landmark, filled with antiques and lovingly restored rooms. Our small, quiet room looks out on a terrace of sorts and features a double sash window with the original indoor shutters. I’ve noticed that small hotel rooms are typical in Europe, probably a reflection of limited space. Walls have been painted in historic colors, tapestries and paintings adorn the walls and worn carpets cover wide planked, original wood floors. The bright and well appointed breakfast room is on our floor and we enjoyed the best breakfast I’ve ever had in a B&B.

We entered a room with tables for two and four covered in white tablecloths and place settings. Fresh orange and apple juices in pitchers had their own table while a longer table was filled with breads and toasters, including two hot, homemade baguettes, which were covered with napkins and placed on a cutting board. Cereal and granola (in individual jars) stood by bowls of fresh and dried fruits. A plate of croissants and pastries took up the remaining space. On each table was a menu with the exhortation to order more than one breakfast as “we don’t want anyone to leave our tables hungry.” Two college age girls took care of the dining room, bringing us coffee and the fresh squeezed juice of the day, carrot and cucumber. Mike ordered buttermilk pancakes with bananas, maple syrup and streaky (crisp) bacon. I had the omelet I with smoked salmon, sour cream and chives. Also on the menu was the full English breakfast, a soft boiled egg with bacon soldiers (strips of toasted wrapped with bacon), a mature cheddar cheese omelet, kippers and scrambled eggs, and another choice I can’t remember. Oh yeah, it was porridge with maple syrup and brown sugar. I should mention that the chef also provides each room with an assortment of homemade biscuits and fresh fruits each day to enjoy with an assortment of teas, instant coffee packets and an electric pot for heating water (typically found in UK). None of this begins to convey the commitment to comfort and service that characterizes Henrietta House. And everyone is so nice and seemingly happy to be here taking care of tourists. Refreshing.

After our early breakfast we walked the the Roman Bath exhibit. Fascinating. As an American it’s hard to fathom history that begins before the first century, when the Romans were already well established and beginning to develop the natural hot springs of this area into a spa and temple. Because the waters were naturally heated the Romans took this to mean they were sacred and built a temple to the goddess Minerva; they surrounded it with a vast system of baths, saunas, private rooms and altars (for animal sacrifice–apparently the gods enjoyed the aroma of a good barbecue). What remains today are artifacts from the temple and spa and the actual waters themselves. When the Romans left, the buildings were not maintained and eventually the pagan temple was destroyed. In the early 19th century the baths were rediscovered and somewhat restored so that the wealthy of Regency England (generally considered to be 1811 to 1837) could vacation here and drink the spa waters, considered salubrious and often prescribed by the medical community. The men and women of that era bathed separately and pretty much fully clothed; the Romans bathed together and naked. Unlike the Romans, the English aristocracy didn’t partake in the saunas and massages that followed bathing. Both cultures used the spa as a forum to socialize and do business. It might have been a bit awkward but the Roman version sounds like it was more fun.

After the baths, we toured the Abbey, a colossal monument to fortitude and faith. One glance into the ceiling of flying buttresses and decorative shields and you’ll understand why construction took over 100 years. Under the floors and on the walls are memorial plaques, which in some cases function as tombstones. In the “Beautiful Bath” gallery are pictures of three typical plaques. The earlier ones say that the body is interred or “lieth” here; later stones say the body is near the memorial plaque (a bit vague about location). I think the money from erecting these monuments probably supported the Abbey for many years. Believe me, there’s no room for any more bodies or memorial plaques. I’ve included a memorial from 1674 because the deceased had a long and busy life–3 marriages, 8 sons. The memorials for women seemed to focus on whom they were married to or the daughter of, these being important ways to convey status. I guess the women didn’t have much status in and of themselves. The other one I included is because the sentiment is so nice–clearly his son loved his ” Best of Fathers.” Many of the plaques have long descriptions and give a strong sense of the deceased.

We finished the sight-seeing marathon with the Jane Austen Centre, which one of us loved and one of us was a good sport about. Hint: the one who loved it dressed up in a Regency hat for a photo. Jane Austen is my favorite pre-twentieth century author. Spending time in the city where she lived and visiting the baths, Pump and Assembly rooms as she would have is a lifelong dream of mine and an experience I can’t compare to anything that would be commensurate for my husband. Visiting the Baseball Hall of Fame and throwing a pitch from the mound of the old Yankee Stadium? Maybe…. Even though I’ve read Austen for decades and taught Pride and Prejudice to high school students, with varying degrees of success, I learned a great deal about her and the era which both constrained and supported her. Luckily for Jane, first her father and later her brothers recognized her talent and promoted the publication of her work. No doubt her sister Cassandra and her mother also supported her, but as mere women any contributions they made were not recorded…. No formal portrait was ever painted of her so everything we know about how Jane looked comes from a sketch by her sister that her niece felt was a poor likeness and “hideous.” Written descriptions of her indicate she was very pretty. And she was quite independent, refusing an offer of marriage that would have kept her from the poverty she experienced after her father’s death. Jane Austen was 41 when she died, of what no one knows. It doesn’t sound like influenza or scarlet fever as she was treated for a few months for the illness before she died. We will never know what she died from just as we will never know if she loved and lost. Her eloquent, ironic descriptions of lovers and fools must’ve had some basis in experience….