Leaving Wales, we took a small detour through the English countryside outside Bristol. Proper country lanes, hedgerows, little villages... We kept exclaiming, this is REAL England. Little bridges, narrow lanes, massive oak groves creating a green tunnel for the road... REAL England! Ok, maybe we've watched too much Midsommer Murders.
We stopped in the village of Compton Dando, to visit its little church. This church used to be home to a piece of Roman statuary that had been transported from the Roman ruins at Bath, but the statue has been returned to Bath for conservation reasons. Instead, we got to meet a group of elderly villagers who were having a cup of tea at the church, after a service. They were fascinated at two Australians wandering into their church, and kindly offered us the chance to climb their bell tower to take photos. Sadly, my knee is still really swollen, so we declined, but happily enjoyed the whitewashed interior, stained glass windows and, on our way back out, the gate house and gardens and ancient tombstones. I remember Bill Bryson talking about the depth of most English churches, and indeed, we did walk down some steps at the entrance to the porch, and then again at the church doorways. The change in height is said to be due to the number of burials raising the height of the surrounding churchyard, but the stonework certainly feels heavy enough to have sunk down over time.
We also explored a small section of the public pathways that criss cross the country, watched by curious cattle as we exclaimed over the cattle proof gates, the signage about fishing licences, a beautiful stone bridge over a stream. I'm sure we looked quite ridiculous, picking our way past the cow pats and squirrel watching with J's giant camera, but the locals were polite enough not to guffaw too much.
On to Bath, where we parked in a glamorous shopping precinct and walked past a fake grass park where small children were kicking large plastic chess pieces around, watched by adults in deck chairs. I had no idea everone else played chess just like me! J was struck by the contrast between modern American fast food restaurants and elegant old style stone buildings, but layering of history is definitely a theme in a country so much older than ours.
We walked up the Georgian street and into a courtyard where the late medieval Abbey stood in front of us, with the Roman ruins enclosed in Victorian buildings to our right.
Either side of the Abbey front entrance, are ladders with angels climbing up to heaven - the result of a vision of a senior churchman, fortunately after the Dissolution of the Monasteries, otherwise those little guys would have been destroyed, along with the monastery community that used to live here.
At the Roman Baths, we toured the ruins. Up top we could see the Victorian terraces that display the large Roman pool, but as we went down underground, it got darker and warmer. Modern displays kept the ruins in the crumbling style found by archaeologists, but video displays and models helped make sense of what the ruins would have looked like. A recent addition to the displays includes audio commentary from Bill Bryson himself!
I am so impressed at how archaeologists have been able to understand the ruins, like this portico. The light display showed various levels of detail, rotating from the pieces alone, to filling in the shapes of the missing pieces and then colouring them. Much debate swirls around the central face, possibly a male Celtic reinterpretation of the roman goddess Minerva. She's also called a Gorgon (like Medusa) or Aqua Sulis, the name of the temple. It's Minerva's owl that sits on either side of the shield.
Given recent events in dog sled racing, I was fascinated by the curses found by archaeologists. Etched into lead, folded and thrown into the water, they ask for punishments for thefts, insults and other offences. Maybe I should have thrown in a curse on dodgy trails, wilful dogs and enormous mud puddles?
Before we left, we tasted the water. In little paper cups, pouring out of a modern tap, not quite how the Romans or the Georgians did it! Warm and slightly metallic. A sip was enough!
After the Baths, we hopped on the tourist bus to tour the local area. Bath was a popular destination for the British elite during the Georgian era, and the townhouses reflect a style called Palladianism. Before leaving London, we were trying to remember the name of the architect that was responsible for this style, without success.
It was John Wood the Elder that designed and built the Queens Square, and then died while creating the Circus. His son, John Wood the Younger, took over and then built the Royal Crescent. The family had so much influence on the area, that the Circus and the Royal Crescent were connected by Brock Street, named after John Wood the Younger's in-laws. These areas, built after the medieval city wall was removed, were local to Jane Austen and other Brits who came to "take the waters" - they were carried down the hill in sedan chairs to stand neck deep in the mineral springs for up to three hours!
Leaving Bath for the neighbouring town of Batheaston, we were surprised to find ourselves on a toll bridge. The toll house listed prices for people travelling in carriages, lorries, and herds of sheep or pigs, but it was still operating today - manned by three gentlemen in high-vis vests!!
Our hotel for the night, the Old Mill House, sits alongside the toll bridge. J was a little disappointed that we were staying in the modern pre-fab Lodge out the back, but the modern en suite, king sized bed and delicious Italian food at dinner made up for it somewhat!