Magical History Tour, Day Four (continued): Away to Avebury

Roman Baths checked off our list of things to do, Joe and I set off to embark on the next step of our journey: Avebury.

However, our first appointment was with something– anything– to get the taste of “dirty human body”-flavored Baths water out of our mouths.  After a momentary delay in the gift shop– which, oddly, sold rings inscribed with Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings Elvish alongside its Baths paraphernalia– we stopped at a nearby Tesco for the necessary refreshments:

  • A big bottle of water
  • A box of GoAhead Yogurt Breaks
  • Two bags of Walker’s Thai Sweet Chili crisps (my favorite crisps in the world)
  • Two bags of Walkers Thai Sweet Chili-flavoured peanuts (truth be told, these were a bit of a disappointment)
  • A couple of bottles of Lucozade (aka crack-juice)

And we were set.

We braved our way through the spider gauntlet for the last time, piled in the car, set up the SatNav and started our first driving journey of any substantial distance. I was, as ever, the navigator.

Ten minutes in and we’d already learned to dread the inevitable: “In one mile/one half mile/500 feet enter roundabout.”

The roundabouts! We were prepared for narrow roads (at least we thought we were), tiny cars, and driving on the left, but the roundabouts! There are SO MANY. Just when we thought we were out of the woods, having made it safely through the narrow city streets, frequent stoplights and pedestrians, we were set upon by a plague of roundabouts!

And then, of course, it started raining on top of it all. Because, you know, it would.

After countless roundabouts, a few close calls with some curbs, but blessedly no damage, we followed the signs to the Avebury Stones car park, by now an absolute mud pit. A trailer stood close to the walking path into town/toward the stones, providing information about the area. And right next to the trailer?

A Land Rover.

I watched the stress Joe had built up during the drive evaporate as soon as he spotted it. We were supposed to be there.

It was still raining, but we put the previous day’s questionable umbrella purchase to good use and set off for the stones.

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It’s Raining!

Wandering through a Wonderland-esque garden at Avebury Manor… in the rain.

It’s practically a holiday whenever it rains in Southern California. Not a great, go-to-the-beach kind of holiday. More like a driving-skills-take-a-holiday kind of holiday. Traffic today was unbelievable.

While we were in the UK, everyone seemed apologetic for the weather. Oh it’s too bad it’s raining. Or, Sorry the weather’s so awful during your holiday.

In reality, the weather here is always so temperate and nice that it was lovely to have a little variety during our holiday.

In the same way, even though the traffic here is going to be complete rubbish tomorrow, it’s nice to hear the rain dripping outside. 🙂

Magical History Tour, Day Four (Continued): The Baths At Last

So we made it. It was a little questionable there for a while, given the whole ordeal we had to go through, but there we were, at last.

Roman Baths: Mission Accomplished.

We paid the entrance fee and shuffled in. For all the shortness of the queue, it was still impressively crowded. I can’t imagine what Saturday would have been like.

A guided audio tour is included with your fee, so Joe collected one and we proceeded into the first room. As I’d already been before, I opted not to carry one around as I thought it somehow interfere with the feel of the place, but in retrospect I almost wish I had, if only so that I wouldn’t spend so much time waiting around for Joe while he listened to the commentary. While it’s wonderful to see so many people learning about history, there’s just something surreal and disconcerting about walking into a room and seeing a group of people standing stock still, with these devices held up to their ears, gaze stuck somewhere in the middle distance. Rather than discussing what they see and feel with their friends or family on the group, they stand alone and silent. Even though they may be physically close, they go through the exhibits as an island of experience, alone. There’s something just really sad about that.

But I digress.

The route through the Baths first takes you outside to an upper promenade circling the main pool.

Main Pool, Roman Baths

One of the downsides to visiting during the off-season, as we found, was that’s when they tend to do their restoration work, so bits of it were covered in scaffolding, but it was still quite striking. There’s nothing quite like it.

Although what remains of the baths is obviously somewhat different than the way it looked in the era of the Romans, the statues along the rim give it a kind of noble, Roman, Age-of-Gods-and-Heroes kind of feel.

From there, you progress around the pool and back into the building and the museum proper, with the various artifacts and reconstructions, including things they’ve found in and around the baths, like pieces of metal with curses carved in– requests to the gods and goddesses to curse their enemies for wrongs they’ve committed. There’s a good blend of traditional artifacts in cases with nearby placards explaining what you’re seeing and its historical context and more modern interpretations. In several places, looped video showing scenes of typical Roman life and activity at the Baths were projected onto a wall. I ended up watching a lot of these while I waited for Joe to finish with the room. I can read a lot faster than the audio guides speak.

By far, one of the most striking pieces in the exhibit is the reconstruction of a pediment which originally stood at the Baths, way back when.  Very cleverly, a projector slowly shifts from just lighting up the remaining pieces, to showing the missing pieces, and then ultimately the way it was originally colored. It must have been amazing to be around that every day.

Reconstructed Pediment, Roman Baths

The centerpiece is a centerpiece for a reason, clearly.

Various areas of the exhibits give you glimpses into other parts of the baths. The water bubbles as it comes up and you can see the steam just above the surface.

Another Pool, Roman Baths

Once you make your way through the museum exhibits, you find yourself back on the ground level around the main pool.

The waters aren’t roped off, but there are signs every few feet or so telling you not to touch the water as it’s untreated. What the signs don’t tell you is that you can get meningitis and die from amoebas in the untreated water. Oh, and you know, there are those pesky lead pipes.  So this is definitely a bad idea.

When I was there in 2005, my friend and I saw a guy surreptitiously slurping handfuls of water from the main pool. (Hey, it’s supposed to have healing powers, right?)

Apparently that never goes out of style. Check out the guy in the background…

Main Pool, Roman Baths

Gross.

Most of the rest of the exhibits are what remains of some of the old rooms. They’re interesting, but are mostly old, stone, and wet. It’s difficult to appreciate the grandeur of the complete Bath complex nearly two thousand years later.

Piled Rocks, Roman Baths

These held up a floor, I think. 

At the end of the tour, you hang up your audio guide, and there’s a running spigot of authentic [treated] Roman Bath water and some little paper cups in case you want to try it for yourself. No brain-eating amoebas here, and you don’t even have to make your way to the Pump Room upstairs to get yourself a glass.  Joe and I could hardly miss the opportunity, so we filled up some paper cups and toasted to our health.

The water has roughly the temperature and taste of warm, dirty bodies. Not. Good.

Joe (making a face): That’s definitely not Brita.

Let’s just say we weren’t in a rush to fill our Nalgene bottles with any authentic Roman Bath water.

Walking on Water, Roman Baths

Next stop: Avebury.

Magical History Tour, Day Four (continued): Breakfast and Bath Tourism, Part Deux

Inevitably, the breakfast conversation eventually turned to the main attraction in Bath: The Roman Baths. Specifically, whether or not we got to see them the day before.

To a shocked audience, we described our failed attempts to collect our “welcome packets” from Bath tourism, all due to my not wanting to print out every multi-page confirmation email for every reservation on our 14 night trip (god forbid you try to do something right for the environment). Our hostess was most shocked– apparently she wasn’t even aware that Bath Tourism was offering such incentives to book through their website (although for us, it was less an incentive and more an unexpected bonus– Bath Tourism was simply the only website that books rooms at Abbey Rise), and was appalled that we should be turned away so easily. We’d already resigned ourselves to the idea that we would likely as not fail in our mission to see the Baths, but we’d give it one more try before heading onward later in the day. Our hostess, insisted she would have printed our requisite confirmation emails herself, had her printer been working, but instead took Abbey Rise stationery and wrote a note to Bath Tourism, indicating we were, in fact, guests, and asking them to provide us with the welcome pack as promised.  This was truly above and beyond any expectation, and an auspicious start to our string of B&Bs throughout the country.

Our tablemates had other ideas– one party suggested we “play the race card”. Neither Joe nor I had any idea what that meant– last I checked, “American” wasn’t a race and although Joe is Filipino, it’s hardly anything you’d invoke to get special privileges. It was a confusing moment.

After breakfast, we showered, repacked our belongings  and hauled them back to the car. In the narrow hallways, even our few bags made it seem like we were carrying everything but the kitchen sink. (Joe had a large wheeled camping backpack and a messenger bag; I had a small wheeled duffel [carry-on sized], a backpack and a purse. Hardly heavy for a trip lasting a fortnight.)

Armed with our note, we locked up the car with most of our luggage, braved the spiders, and proceeded directly to the tourism office as before.

Unfortunately, the note was a bust. They told us that they really needed the confirmation email because they needed to stamp it. Why they couldn’t just stamp the note, or the page in my book with the confirmation information, is beyond me, but they needed the confirmation email to stamp. This tourism officer, however, was much more helpful than the one the day before. She suggested, I forward the confirmation email to their email and then they could print it for us, stamp it, and send us on our merry way. Free wi-fi in the office made this even easier.  (Of course, why they couldn’t just pull up the confirmation email they sent me in the first place is beyond me, and still…)

Easy though it may have been, it was another 20 minutes before it was all said and done– I had to set up my email on Joe’s phone, find the appropriate email and send it to their email, wait for their email to receive it— as luck would have it, I sent a later email which didn’t contain all of the confirmation information, and had to send another one… eight single-sided pages of email later (huge waste of paper), we were good to go– printed, stamped, and welcomed, we had our “Fast Track” to the Baths in hand and were ready to skip the line…

Of three people.

Apparently 11am Sunday isn’t the most popular time to visit the Baths.  Really glad we spent 20 minutes trying to get that bloody stamp.

Sigh.