Sunday, June 14, 2015

Great Britain Trip: Part 4 - Time in Bath

Great Britain Trip: Part 4 – Time in Bath

Two weeks ago I embarked on my first trip to Europe, specifically to Great Britain. This journey had two aspects. First, it is the closest I’ve had to a vacation in at least four years. But honestly, I don’t really do vacation. The primary reason for the trip was to assist several projects I’m working on, including a volume I’m currently writing on why archaeology has the “spooky” image it has in the public imagination.

The following images are not in precise chronological order, though the general narrative does roughly follow the order of places I visited. I spent four days in London at the beginning and another two at the end, and these materials are something of a chronological jumble for thematic purposes. These images are a fraction (specifically, about 7%) of the images I took. Many of these were for research I am not discussing in depth here, or for teaching purposes. The images and text here are instead a rough tour not so much of where I went as why I went, what I learned, and why that might be of interest.

This travelogue is broken into seven sections

Rule Britannia!

Archaeology of Empire

Mysteries of London

Time in Bath

A Green and Magical Land

Investigating Inverness

The Legend of Loch Ness

Time in Bath

I had initially intended to write about some of the archival work I conducted in London, but I’ve ultimately realized I’ll leave this to my publications. I will briefly discuss some of this below before moving on to Bath.

Both the British Library and the National Archives were extremely efficient and helpful in both registering me as a reader, and getting me the resources I needed. The British Library has a lovely atmosphere, full of extremely nerdy people all over the grounds. It is a bit over-shadowed as it lies to the west of St. Pancras station and the hotel-structure I presented in the first post.

The National Archives is out in Kew, a bit under an hour on the tube from King’s Cross. The surrounding neighborhood is a mix of Kew Gardens and lovely urban/suburban residences, while the Archives themselves vaguely resemble Starfleet Academy.

Also somewhat in the vein of archival research, I got a glimpse of some of the Italian Renaissance majolica ceramic vessels that came to dominate my doctoral and post-doctoral research. I would love to go back and examine these vessels first hand to expand and refine my comparative work in Latin America.

If you know my research, you’ll understand the following image

After four days in London, it was time to move on to Bath, about an hour and a half by train to the west of London, a bit southeast of Bristol. The city is a World Heritage site for its archaeological and architectural legacy. For my purposes, it was also fairly well situated for the next two days of travels to the megaliths around Salisbury and to Glastonbury and then flying on to Scotland out of the Bristol airport.

I left King’s Cross for the outbound trains of Paddington Station. Even after four days of heavily using the Underground and related London trains, the romantic overtones of a major train station were present for me as I waited and ate a bit of sausage on a roll that made up brunch.

Once out of London, the English countryside was closer to the stereotypes and storybook images than I had imagined. Canal boats, beautifully maintained cottages and houses, country lanes, all were present. The rolling hills and rural flora weren’t too different from my years living and working in the Northeastern US, but the cultural pattern was far closer to traditional idealized imagery than I had expected. The equivalent might be if one visited Massachusetts and every small town looked like Marblehead, or if all of Arizona looked like movie versions of Old West Tombstone.

 I roused out of pleasantly watching the landscape slide by when I spotted something on a hillside in the distance. The unexpected appearance struck me like a thunderbolt.

It was one of the White Horses, specifically the Cherhill White Horse. The oldest of the White Horses of England is the Uffington Horse, which may date back to the Bronze Age in design but is regularly cleaned and repaired by digging into the chalk subsoil. The Cherhill White Horse was soon joined by another, the Westbury White Horse

These geoglyphs may have some antiquity to them, but in their current forms they are better thought of as follies, purposely romantic and archaic attempts to re-enchant the landscape in the Early Modern and industrial eras. Though these horses are “only” a few centuries old, their reference of the Uffington Horse and the Cerne Abbas Giant meant I had begun to enter the gateway into the purposely ancient landscape of antiquarianism, folklore, and tradition. This theme, which we have already encountered, is important to the larger journey.

Bath is beautiful, and I understand its designation as a World Heritage site. The city has been a mecca for visitors since Roman times when the city was Aquae Sulis. More recently, it benefited from first the canal system and then the railroads. There are a number of residents living in canal boats in Bath, not far from the Pulteney Bridge above, which holds a number of cafes and shops. For reference, the bridge is contemporary with the beginning of the American Revolution, or the destruction by earthquake of Antigua, Guatemala.

I stayed in the lovely Royal Hotel, right across the street from the rail station. This made sense of course, for as I pleasantly discovered, the hotel had been designed by Brunel himself, Britain's great engineering genius (and also one of my favorite characters in the steampunkish comic The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage). 

Bath is still a tourist town, where visitors come to relax and refresh themselves in the ancient spa waters as well as bathe themselves in the ancient and recent history. The connection with Jane Austen’s life and writings is strong and a major focus of the tourism industry. The city is also a cultural center with theaters, galleries, and a university, adding an eclectic student and artist vibe to the ancient center. 

Most striking is the gorgeous Georgian architecture, of which there can be no finer example than the Royal Crescent on the northeastern edge of town

The scope of the place, almost all private housing today, cannot be done justice, by my pictures at least.

The center of the city is still the Roman baths, today a major archaeological tourism attraction. I was struck once again by how commonplace the notion of archaeology is in the United Kingdom, a theme I will return to when I discuss Inverness. 

The heart of the Roman Baths is a mélange of original architecture and Victorian embellishment

The striking Roman statues are a pure Victorian invention, with governors and emperors depicted who were considered to have had important ties to Britain, as well as a depiction of Roma, the spirit of Rome. The baths are in essence lined with a Victorian equivalent of Disneyland’s Hall of Presidents except the recent images have taken on a faux antiquity of their own. The statue depicted below is a Victorian archaized image of governor Publius Ostorius Scapula.

The hot springs were the heart of the Roman settlement, and one can get a drink of the waters at the end of the museum (complete with a detailed statement of the mineral contents and how safe the water is to drink in which quantities)

But the history of archaeology at the site allows for a detailed examination of ancient Romano-British life within the complex facilities of the baths and the nearby temple, as well as in the larger community of Aquae Sulis.

One of the archaeological discoveries in Bath that contributes to the site’s World Heritage status is the collection of curse tablets. These objects are simultaneously exotic and mundane. They could easily be mentioned in my previous post on the esoteric in archaeological museums as they are indeed magical curses

On the other hand, the everyday grievances that deserved supernatural punishment are quite recognizable, most being the theft of personal items.

Watching over all of this from the temple would have been the symbol of the Roman Baths today, the Gorgon head.

Discussion of this image is complex, but it may be syncretic, blending a local British water god or spirit with Classical ideology and iconography such as of Oceanus. A Gorgon’s head is likewise worn by an image of Minerva, also found in Bath.

The baths are predominantly presented as a Roman settlement, but the enduring aspect is difficult to ignore. In the main hall, architectural remnants of the 12th century transformation into the King’s Baths are visible, as are seats and statues added in the 17th century in keeping with the legend of the necromancy-favoring King Bladud.

The Pump Room, a center of high social life (made famous by Jane Austen), was added above the baths in the 18th century, delivering us into the Georgian period still dominating the surface. And above it all looms the abbey.

The layers of the past, and the re-creation of an idealized past to serve the present, will continue in the next post on the imagined British countryside of myth and magic.

One last note: the ever-presence of cider made me very happy. 

Not everything I ate was fish and chips and cider, though that was a significant part of my diet. I sadly did not get pictures (though this one is pretty close to my experience) when I ate my final dinner in Bath at Yak Yeti Yak, a Nepalese restaurant decked out with many symbols of Nepal including religious objects, woodwork, a kukri knife and yes, Yeti footprints.

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