Posted June 21, 2019
May 13, 2019
Well into our first week, we decided to check our the ancient city of Bath [map]. Known to the Romans as Aquae Sulis, it was probably a sacred site to the local Celts before that.
The central fixture for the crowds and activity in Bath these days is the parish church, Bath Abbey. The abbeys and monasteries run by the Catholic Church in the 16th century were mostly destroyed and abandoned under orders of Henry VIII after he split the Church and declared himself the head of the Church of England. Some of the structures survived and were repaired or rebuilt afterwards, and then used by the Church of England. In this case Bath Abbey retains its moniker though it is no longer used as an abbey. The pinnacles, flying buttresses, and much of the interior were completed in the 19th Century based on Victorian ideals of Gothic architecture. It’s a well blended masterpiece.
I think we sometimes tend to think of “old” buildings and design as either ephemerally lofty or stoic and practical. But many of the forms and expressions in Gothic design are almost whimsical or contain an inside joke. Although rooted in scripture (Jacob’s Ladder), there’s a undeniable whimsy in the climbing angels on the abbey’s west side.
The church is made from locally quarried stone that has a golden yellow tint. Many of the older structures are made from this stone. The darker stone from the flying buttresses and the differential weathering of the stonework adds contrast and makes the structure even more dramatic.
The interior is splendid, as well. The fan vaulting over the west end of the nave is centuries newer than that of the east end, but the differences are subtle. The design isn’t just decorative, but helps distribute the weight of the roof via columns and buttresses.
Like most large churches, Bath Abbey has continued to have art commissioned and commemorated throughout the centuries. From the 18th through early 20th centuries, it was common to have elaborately carved memorial plaques made to honor a dead patron or their families. People continue to be inspired to make art for worship, reflection, and activism to this day.
It was mid to late morning when we finished our tour of the abbey, so we made our way to Sally Lunn’s Eating House to try their famous “Sally Lunn Bunns”. Sally Lunn was a woman who came to Bath from France with a recipe for a brioche-like bun that she perfected and has been passed down through the centuries. The house she ran a an eatery was already 200 years old when she lived there.
My wife, Ruth, and I each tried a different sweet bunn – mine was covered in chocolate butter. They looked so good and we were so hungry, it didn’t occur to us to take photos of them until we were done!
There’s a small museum and some artifacts that were found on a dig at the site, which has been occupied and adapted over the years. Many of the lower levels of buildings in Bath that are basements now were ground level floors hundreds of years ago.
After our brunch, we walked down to Pulteney Bridge, a stone bridge over the Rive Avon with shops all along the bridge itself. In fact, if you didn’t know you were on a bridge, it would just look like another quaint, if slightly narrow, street.
Bath is so named because the Romans took advantage of the local hot springs to build spas and bath houses. Although in ruins by the 5th Century, the springs were “rediscovered” and back in use as early as the 12th Century. The springs and the Roman ruins have preserved and are now housed in 18th century neoclassical buildings.
We spent a bit more time walking the city, browsing the shops and enjoying some green spaces. As I mentioned before, many of the buildings in the older section of the city are made of the local stone (called Bath stone, as you might imagine). It does make for a warm, unified look.
I noticed tall walls extending past the roof-lines of some of the building rows, topped with chimneys. Ruth told us these are designed to prevent fires from spreading along the rows of flats. A lesson learned from a history of devastating city fires, typified by the Great London Fire of 1666. Catastrophic fires were known in most cities until safety and building codes, as well as firefighting practices and equipment developed enough to prevent and combat them.
On a high point overlooking the city is a long, curved row of apartments called The Royal Crescent, partly enclosing a lawn on which many people were catching the sun or reading books.
Bath is a lovely city and we had a good sampling of its history and geography.