Having spent a good portion of Monday in the car, we were determined to spend no time in it at all on Tuesday. So we walked into Bath from Poplar House, crossing the River Avon on an old stone toll bridge (free to pedestrians) to reach the canal and its well trod path into town. The day was another glorious mix of autumnal sunshine and busy clouds. The canal is lined on one side with skinny houseboats where people live. They grow flowers and stash firewood and bicycles on the boats’ roofs; many have woodstoves inside, and most have solar panels, too. A lot of the boats seemed permanently moored; some were quite raffish, while others were shipshape and gleaming. We spoke to a well-dressed older couple who’d rented quite a pretty boat for a week; while the husband extolled its pleasures to Jim, the wife contradicted his testimony in a series of hilariously grim faces to Michelle.
As the canal wends into Bath, a series of locks appear, including one that is the second-deepest lock in England--and take our word for it, it is one dizzying chasm. An amused canal worker explained how the locks opened and shut and he admitted that yes, there had been instances of people accidentally leaving this or that lock open and draining a whole stretch of the canal. “People make mistakes,” he said indulgently. Toward the end of our 3 mile walk, we got to watch as a lock was manually operated—somehow thrilling.
The canal path let us off on the south side of the small city; we stopped in the Bertinet Bakery Cafe for hot drinks and split a chocolate almond croissant—the French chef Richard Bertinet, who has a teaching kitchen at another location in town, is credited with bringing great bread and pastries to Bath.
With our blood sugar readjusted, we remembered that we were on a literary tour, and so repaired to the Jane Austen Center. Austen lived in Bath several times in her life and famously disliked the place and was never able to write there. (Some biographers disagree and aver that she actually did a lot of revision during a five-year residency). But her father died there, which plunged the widow and two daughters into financial distress, so who would blame her for not loving the place. Still, the city provided an important setting for Northanger Abbey and (spoiler alert) the happy ending of Persuasion. Whether she liked it or not, Bath has wholeheartedly claimed Austen, and valiantly milked every conceivable connection and association she had to the place.
The people who work at the center dress in the Regency costume and take on the persona of whatever Austen character they’ve chosen to be—and wear name tags accordingly. The official greeter, a white-haired, mutton-chopped, red cheeked fellow, was Mr. Bennett, the beloved if lax father in P&P. Our tour guide--you can only gain entrance to the exhibits as part of a tour—was Jane Fairfax, the piano-playing secret lover of the caddish Frank Churchill in Emma. Jane F. ably described the Austen family—Henry, the banker/Jane’s literary agent, Edward, the brother given away to a wealthy family who would later provide Jane and her sister and mother the house in Chawton, and Jane’s beloved sister Cassandra, who burned most of Jane’s letters, thus stymying biographers for centuries to come. After narrating a brief biography focused on Austen’s times in Bath and explaining in the portrait gallery how there’s really only one unfinished, unflattering sketch extant, Jane F. released us into the rest of the museum, which, like every attempt at an Austen depiction, was scant. We demurred on trying on regency-era duds and were skeptical of a wax-effigy meant to show the great writer as she might have really looked.
Elinor Dashwood took our money in the gift shop—“I have a sister just like Marianne,” she said, then confided that previously, she had been Mrs. Norris, the exquisitely nasty she-villain of Mansfield Park. “I like to think Mrs. N only got that mean after her husband died,” Elinor the cashier said of her previous incarnation, “and then Fanny came, and she couldn’t bear the competition.”
Michelle didn’t particularly agree, but she did wonder what it’s like to embody a Jane Austen character day after day. Whom would she be? The obnoxious Mary Musgrove in t, perhaps, because Mary’s SO hilariously self-obsessed, such a victim, and complains so extravagantly and deliciously. But drowsy Lady Bertram, with her laudanum and pugs in Mansfield Park, also has an appeal.
When asked which character Jim would be, he said, “Mr. Bingley [P&P] is the obvious choice.” Not Mr. Darcy? “Oh no, not Mr. Darcy. Or maybe Admiral Croft. [Persuasion]”
Leaving the Jane Austen Center—Farewell, Mr. Bennett!—we walked up Gay Street to #25, where Jane lived briefly with cousins almost 300 years ago; it’s now a dentist’s office. Continuing up the hill we came to the Circus, a circular series of Georgian-style townhouses built in the 18thCentury, and considered one of the city’s great architectural marvels. A few blocks to the west is the same architect’s greater marvel yet: the Royal Crescent, a magnificent sweeping, semi-circular façade of townhouses with over a hundred ionic columns overlooking a great swath of parkland. We would later hear, from a chatty couple who live in one of those apartments, that it’s really that—a façade! The architect built the front, then sold off different portions of it for people to do with what they liked. Apparently (we did not go behind to peep), from the back, it’s a real hodgepodge of structures of different heights and depths.
Ambling back to the city center, we toured the Roman Baths, for which the city was named. The baths were built in the first centuries AD as part of a temple complex dedicated to the goddess Minerva. Today, it’s a museum and ongoing archaeological site, all centered around the large, rectangular leaf-green, warm water pool. (No dipping of toes allowed). Many things have been pulled from the baths over the years, notably thousands of coins (dating as far back as the 1st Century AD) and curses (written on thin lead sheets, then folded and tossed). We saw many of both. At the end of the tour, you can taste the famously curative waters, which have a very high mineral content and, as Charles Dickens put it in the Pickwick Papers, “they’d a very strong flavor o’ warm flat irons.”
We walked back up to the Circus, and a bit toward the Royal Crescent to a restaurant we’d spotted earlier: The Circus. There, we had the best restaurant meal of the trip, so far. Michelle had a perfect plate of food: local pork loin with house-made accompaniments of sauerkraut, applesauce, and black pudding (yes, yes, it’s made of pigs blood, but this version was actually delicious). Even Jim, who ate excellent John Dory in a light crab sauce, admitted that the pig won.