Land ho! We are thrilled to be back on dry land. And, I mean that literally. We have been rained on more in the last week than we have in months.
On disembarkation day we woke up bright and early and had one final breakfast in O’Sheehan’s. We always do the Easy Walk-Off on NCL rather than using our priority disembarkation benefit. We learned in Hong Kong that even though you get off the ship early with priority disembarkation, that does not mean that your suitcases will be waiting for you. Since we pack light we can easily manage our own suitcases. We were able to walk off and immediately get a taxi to the train station.
The next part of our adventure is a train trip around the U.K. I really wanted to experience more of the country than just the ports we visited so we are doing a clock-wise train trip that starts in Southampton and ends in London. I read Rick Steves’ travel advice in determining an itinerary. Our first stop is Bath for two nights.
We had pre-purchased 8-day BritRail Passes for each of us. Since Clayton is over 60, he qualified for the “Concessioner’s Rate”; our equivalent of a senior discount. He also gets discounted admission to all of the sites we will be visiting. Though we will be here for ten days, the final two are in London and we will buy Oyster cards to ride the tube to our hearts’ content so don’t need the BritRail pass.
Our cab ride to the train station was cheaper than either our cab ride from the bus station to the port or the port to the old part of town. Interesting. . .the train station is right near the bus station. But, it makes up for being overcharged to get from the port to town! We had to stop by the ticket window to activate our train passes. We won’t need to get tickets for any of our train journeys; we just flash the train pass at the ticket taker. Pretty cool! Before leaving home we had downloaded the Rome2Rio app which tells you exactly how to get from point A to point B using trains as well as other public transportation. This way we can check our schedules ahead of time so we know when to get to the train stations.
We had not checked the train schedule ahead of time because we were not sure when we would be getting off the ship. Fortunately there was only a ten-minute wait for the train. We had paid for first class tickets but this train only had standard berths. We stowed our luggage in the luggage rack by the door and found a couple of seats. The train ride was around an hour and a half. After sitting down we noticed that there were little white tags above the seats all around us. It turns out that these were how reserved seats were marked. Typed on the slip of paper was the part of the route that the seat was reserved for. So, if it said Southampton to Bath, the seat was reserved for our entire journey. Not knowing this ahead of time, we were sitting in reserved seats. Clayton’s was OK because the seat reservation for his seat started in Bath but mine was reserved for part of our journey. So, when the train stopped at the first station, we were able to find a pair of non-reserved seats that were next to each other and moved to them. The train trip was pleasant; it passed through pastoral lands with plenty of sheep and cows grazing.
We had reserved a hotel in Bath that Rick Steves recommends called Harington’s Hotel. It was located about 5-minutes away from the Roman Baths which is the central part of town. We booked a double room with breakfast included. We always book rooms with breakfast because the last thing we want to do first thing in the morning is go out and try to find a place to eat. I had printed out walking directions from Google maps on how to get from the train station to the hotel. It was only .5 miles so we figured that if it was not raining that we could easily manage to get there on foot. We exited the train station and started our trek.
We ran into a slight problem – after walking down the block from the train station, we couldn’t find the street we were supposed to turn on. No big deal, but hauling suitcases over cobblestones is not for the faint of heart; we didn’t want to have to walk any further than necessary. We thought maybe we had turned the wrong direction from the station (the direction to “head west” isn’t terribly helpful when you are in a new location and don’t have your bearings) so we retraced our steps and tried the other way. Nope, couldn’t find the street that way either. Clayton stepped on a bus to ask the bus driver where the street was. She turned the map this way and that and shrugged her shoulders; she had no idea where the street was. We must’ve looked lost because a man in a neon vest (city worker) asked if he could help us. He said he had lived in Bath his entire life and was very familiar with the area. He had never heard of the street, either. But he looked at the map and said that our hotel was past the Roman Baths so if we headed in that direction we would eventually be at least in the right vicinity.
The main street leading through the “touristy” part of Bath is a pedestrian avenue closed off to all cars except for a few delivery vehicles. At each intersection there is a map of the city center that shows you where you are in relation to all of the main attractions; a very nice feature! Though we never did find the street we were looking for (probably because Google had the wrong name for it!) we did find a cross street that was listed in our directions. We were back on the right path! Too bad that the road we needed to follow to get to our hotel was closed for roadwork. . .time for another diversion (as they call it here in England). We finally found it! Of course, it was only around 10 am so our room was not ready but the cheerful young woman working the reception desk took our luggage and said it would be delivered to our room by 2 pm when our room would be ready.
She gave us a walking map so I grabbed my camera from my backpack and we headed out to explore. We had planned to join the free walking tour at 2 pm but noticed that there was one starting at 10:30 in front of the abbey. We had passed the abbey on the walk to the hotel so decided to try to get there in time for the tour. Though it was not raining (yet) we decided to wear our rain jackets. This turned out to be an excellent idea.
The free walking tours in Bath are a little different than other free walking tours we have experienced in that it truly is free. Gratuities are not expected, nor are they accepted. The guides are all true volunteers. There was a large crowd gathered near the Pump Room, a restaurant affiliated with the Roman Baths. There were three guides so we were split into three groups of about 40 each. These tours are obviously quiet popular, probably due to the price, but they are also excellent. I highly recommend the tour. There is a fair amount of walking involved so if you have mobility issues this might now work for you. I would not waste my money on the City Sightseeing HOHO bus; you will learn so much more by taking the walking tour.
I quickly realized that I should have brought my trusty notebook with me to take notes; our guide packed an enormous quantity of information into our 2.5 hour walk around town. I did have my phone so used it to take notes. I definitely prefer paper and pen, but at least was able to jot down some of what he said. The entire city of Bath is a UNESCO Heritage Site which is highly unusual.
We started our walk by the town abbey. Originally the Romans constructed a temple here. It fell into disrepair until the Saxons took over. Eventually the Christians showed up and it became a monastery until 1539. The current abbey was built about 400 years ago. The king’s commissioners stripped everything of value in the abbey and it was gifted to the city in 1570. If you look carefully at the exterior you can see angels climbing Jacob’s ladder.
We left the Abbey courtyard and walked on to the Cross Bath (one of the 3 in town), so named because in the middle ages there was a cross here. Of course, Bath was named for the thermal baths which were thought to have curative and restorative properties by those that have occupied the city since its formation. The water in the baths is 10,000 years old and is between 44 and 49 degrees Celsius (111 to 120 Fahrenheit). The water pressure here is so strong that it would only take 8 seconds to fill the average bathtub. It is mineral water and historically, people would come to Bath to “take the waters”. It is thought that the main reason that people would feel so much better after soaking in the mineral waters is that there was a tremendous amount of lead poisoning in the past. No one know that lead pipes and lead paint were dangerous so people were constantly exposed to dangerous levels of lead. Soaking in any water for an hour a day would help leach out the lead. People would also drink lots of fluids which would help cleanse their kidneys. They would go home feeling better than they had in ages. Of course, as soon as they returned home, they would start to feel sick again.
We stopped outside a hospital built in 1174. Monks would look after the sick here. In the 1500’s the city took it over. It is currently used as an old age home. We passed through the Saw Close area which is where wood was sawed used to the western gate of the city.
Bath’s popularity waxed and waned over time as it fell in and out of favor with the rich. One of the more famous characters that helped build Bath’s reputation during the 1700’s was a man named Richard (Beau) Nash. He left the navy and came to Bath. At the time, rich folks would visit the town from October to spring. They would soak in the water for an hour daily but didn’t have much to keep them occupied the rest of the time. Beau had a flair for putting together parties, dances, and card games (the rich folk liked to gamble when they weren’t soaking). He was also apparently quite the dandy. He was so popular that he was nicknamed, “The King of Bath”. The magistrates of Bath ended up banning gambling which put quite a crimp in his financial future. Because he was so well-loved the city ended up giving him a pension. He couldn’t quite afford to live the lifestyle he had become accustomed to so moved in with his mistress, Juliana Popjoy. What an awesome name for a mistress!
One of the unique features of Bath is that the architectural style of the buildings are so similar. This is to a large part thanks to a man named John Wood the elder (and eventually, his son, John Wood the younger). John had a vision that he tried to sell the town fathers on whereby all of the buildings in town would be torn down and rebuilt in a similar style. John was all of 25 at the time. Shockingly enough, the town fathers refused. So, what did he do? He rented Queen Square for 100 years. He leased the 30 lots that surrounded the square on 99 year leases (he kept one for himself). The lessees would have to immediately build and the house had to be of John Wood’s design. The square was a private park in the center that all of the houses faced. This became the place to live in Bath. They even had their own private church in addition to their private park. Other builders in the area copied the style of the homes so there was great uniformity in the homes around town.
Walking on we passed by an innovation that no one would have noticed if it hadn’t been pointed out to us. There were stone covers in the sidewalk next to the homes around the corner from Queen Square. Under the stone were storehouses that were used for coal storage. The coal would be delivered through a hole in the sidewalk and the coal would be stored underground until needed. It could then be accessed through the basement in the house next to it.
We saw the Jane Austen museum. Jane lived in Bath but apparently didn’t like it because the limestone buildings were so blindingly white. This may have been true when they were first built but due to the use of coal, the buildings turned black over time. They have since been cleaned up some but they will never be as white as they were when first constructed.
The next street of homes we looked at were located across the street from the New Assembly Rooms that were designed by Wood. They were all the stereotypical 5-story design that was popular between 1720 and 1830. The bottom floor, which was located below ground level, was where the servants did their work. The houses were stepped (built into a hill) so the back of the servants’ floor was actually above ground. The dining room was two floor above that and below the dining room was the “withdrawing room” where women withdrew after eating so the men could discuss whatever they discussed. This became known as the drawing room. Above the dining room were the main bedrooms. The top floor was usually shorter than the rest since it was where the attic rooms were located. Servants and children would sleep there. A form of street light was required outside the home; this was a new innovation.
We continued on to John Wood the elders next innovation. He had visited Rome and wanted to build a circular building to resemble what he had seen on his travels. The area in the center. . .what to call it? It wasn’t a square now, was it? So, the term circus was used to describe it. I’ve always wondered why Piccadilly Circus was named such; now I know! Anyhow, this was the first circular modern structure. These houses were not to be stepped so he had to level a hill in order to build in this manner. Rather than the 5 story design, he used a 3 story design but the stories were vertically enormous which created a sense of grandeur. People felt small in relation to the building. Less decorations were needed though he did use friezes above the front doors. Notice also the acorns along the top; these were placed to represent a legend about how Bath was discovered. Bladud discovered Bath when his leprous pigs were cured when foraging in the water for acorns. The houses here became the “it” address in Bath. Many have been converted to apartments. One was for sale for just under 2 million pounds, so apparently it is still the place to be!
Our final architectural stop was the royal crescent. John Woods the younger built the structure but it is thought to be his father’s design. This was a brand new innovation; homes that did not look out on other homes! These were located further up the hill from the rest of the homes in Bath and were definitely where the “other half” lived. Trim on the window frames and doors was required to be white to maintain uniformity. Notice the yellow door? A rich and powerful widow lived here. She went to court to fight the white regulation and obviously won.
On the walk back to town we passed by a small door that had been bricked over. Our guide pointed out that this used to be a privy door. In the days before indoor plumbing, a chamber pot was emptied into a privy, located outside the home. A young boy had the job of sweeping out the “night soil” from the privy. The door is small because a small child was used for this lovely job.
We continued down the hill and stopped right outside our hotel! There is a guardian symbol up on the wall. Fire departments used to be private organizations. Having the guardian symbol outside your home meant that you had paid your insurance. If you had a fire, the fire department would show up. No guardian symbol, your home would be left to go up in flames. Creative way to make sure you paid up!
We turned the corner and headed back towards the abbey, stopping in front of the Royal Mineral Water Hospital. The rich of Bath apparently were not happy that poor people wanted to come to their town and soak in their special water. They threatened a boycott. The hospital was created to solve the problem. The sick, poor people that arrived had to have 3 pounds with them to gain entry as well as a letter from their parish vouching for them. One pound was for the doctor, one for the accommodations and one to pay for them to return home. I guess the rich folk didn’t want the poor folk as permanent residents.
By now our wonderful tour was over. We had experienced rain showers off and on during the tour. We were glad we had our rain jackets on!
We grabbed a bite to eat and headed back to the hotel to check in. The Harington Hotel is a charming, boutique-style hotel (12 or 13 rooms). There is a lounge, game room and dining area for breakfast located downstairs. The stairs up to the rooms are very narrow and steep (not for those that have difficulty with stairs; no elevator available). The door to our room was very short (old house), my 6 foot tall husband had to stoop to get through the door without hitting his head. The handle was abnormally low, too. I had to squat down to turn the key in the lock! The room itself was cozy. No air conditioning but a window that we left open. Unfortunately, there was a gin bar across the street and we heard lots of noise until the wee hours (people out having a smoke, I think – I looked out and saw about 8-10 gathered around the door having quite a good time). There was an en-suite bathroom but it was located up 3 steps from the room which can be dangerous in the middle of the night when it is dark. We really liked the hotel but wanted to mention those minor inconveniences.
We walked back to town so I could take a few pictures with the sun out (at least temporarily). We also wanted to scope out where we would be catching our tour in the morning. We walked around the abbey but did not go in. There is a 4 £ fee to enter. We have seen so many churches in our travels that it didn’t really seem worthwhile to have to pay to see this one. There were street performers in the courtyard outside the abbey – singers, a fake statue guy, and a pigeon guy. There was also a very busy tourist information center located there. We stopped in to ask directions to our tour meeting point. We were literally right around the corner from it! We were glad to have found it ahead of time though; I would hate to miss the tour the next day because we couldn’t find the meeting place and couldn’t find anyone to ask. We picked up some sandwiches for dinner.
We were pretty tired so just relaxed in our room for the evening. It was nice to have free internet after being at sea for 23 days! It was also nice to have a tv that showed something other than NCL promos, BBC and SkyNews and a movie channel that showed the same several movies over and over and over again. One of the things that cracked me up on the ship’s tv was that they showed Hogan’s Heroes dubbed in German! Think about it. . .
We looked into train schedules for the next few days and found that in order for us to reach our next destination, the Lakes District, we would have to take 3 trains and a bus. We decided that sounded like a little too much work so reworked our itinerary. We cancelled our room in Keswick that we had booked for 2 nights. Unfortunately, we found out that their cancellation policy was a little different than the rooms we normally book. We use either Expedia or Booking.com and choose rooms that have free cancellation. This one had free cancellation. The problem was that you had to cancel two weeks in advance! Most are 24 hours. Live and learn. . .we will definitely read the details more carefully next time. We decided to stay one night in Birmingham and one in Manchester rather than two in Keswick. The revised itinerary also breaks up the train journeys a little better in terms of length.