City of Bath

The Singer sewing machine with a handle attached to the wheel perched on the mantle shelf behind where Murali is sitting evokes childhood memories. Amma had one of these machines where the wheel had to be turned manually. Navigating the material and turning the wheel at the same time is quite tricky and so one of us children had to take turns to help Amma. One afternoon as I carelessly did my duties my thumb got caught in the fast revolving wheel and the tip got sliced off. Now I look at my thumbs, the evidence lost during my growing years, and see my right thumb bigger than my left from years of overuse. I wonder if it would have been even bigger if the tip hadn’t been chopped off. 

There are restaurants we visit which we will remember for years to come. The taste, the atmosphere, the company, even the disappointments all retain special spaces. The fish restaurant in Cologne, the eatery in the hutongs of Beijing, the Osteria in Bologna all still fresh in my mind and years later take me back to those moments in time when time stood still. We are sitting in one such place. A restaurant we noticed on our morning walk.

We are in the city of Bath, a city which has been given the UNESCO World Heritage status. Most of the important sights are within walking distance from the hotel. The morning stroll took us past the Jane Austen centre, which is yet to re-open since the Covid related closures. The road ends in one of the prettiest roundabouts. The Circus is a circular arrangement of Georgian townhouses around a middle island of five Plane trees. A short walk from here takes us to the Royal Crescent, another row of thirty terraced Georgian houses overlooking the Royal Victoria gardens, arranged more in an ellipse than a crescent. Nearby a shop window catches my eye. Pretty hand sewn face masks on display. If this Covid business is going to last, I might as well do it in style. As I wait for the shop owner to fix the elastic bands onto the masks, I ask her about the shops and street to get an idea if Jane Austen might have stepped through these doors. The street was bombed during the war and the shops on the opposite side of the road were destroyed. Her shop has been here for a few centuries. She tells me about the tunnels and vaults under the streets. She uses her vault for the glass decorating furnace work. I ask if the small Italian restaurant which looks more like a cafe across the street is any good. “The second best restaurant in Bath and the garlic bread is to die for, the evidence is all here”, she says pointing to her once trim belly. So here we are tucking into the most delicious pasta and sauce I have ever eaten. The tiny blob of balsamic vinegar on the side of the plate for decoration purposes gives an indication of the quality of the ingredients they use. I couldn’t resist when the owner asked me how good the meal was. “Bounissimo”, I reply. Ohhoh, too late, here comes a barrage of Italian banter. I try to stifle a giggle. 

I should be raving about the city, the architecture, the Roman Baths, the Abbey, the award winning gardens and the riverside walks, not about my pasta. A beautiful walkable city. A city which transports you back in time. A walk along the streets and the gardens which Jane Austen used to frequent and suddenly the two intervening centuries disappear. A visit to the Roman Bath on the other hand shaves off two millennia. The natural springs with its healing powers were already known to the locals when the Romans arrived two thousand years ago. Rainfall over the Mendip hills filters through the layers and undergoes geothermal radiation. The warm water then rises through the faults and cracks in the earth’s layers and bubbles up at 46°C at the rate of 13.5 litres per second. A process which takes around ten thousand years. The Romans took advantage and built a reservoir, bath and temple complex surrounding it. The area later fell into disrepair and was lost till it was discovered 300 years ago. Bath is the only city in the country with a natural thermal spa and the water has to be cooled down for spa purposes. You can take a dip in these natural spring waters in the nearby thermal baths, but that too is closed at the moment. 

We join a walking tour of the city centre. The guide explains about Palladian architecture and how John Wood and later his son designed the facades of the buildings in the 18th century. The architecture cleverly hides the steepness of the roads by lining up the terraced houses and merging it with the rest of nature. The architect’s vision included wide open roads and communal gardens linking each street. The first such building was built around Queen Square where we are staying. She points to one of the houses at the end of the building we are staying in. Jane Austen briefly stayed in this house. The guide tells us about the note she wrote to her sister, Cassandra, describing the view from her window looking onto the Square one sunny morning. In her book, ‘Persuasion’, Austen talks about a walk along ‘Gravel Lane’ by the lead characters. It is one of the most poignant scenes in the book. The Gravel Lane walk takes us back to the Royal Crescent. The Circus and Royal Crescent are two of the finest examples of palladian architecture. The exterior of the Circus, with the pillars and decor added an air of the theatre to the lives of the then famous and important residents. Gainsborough, the artist, and Livingstone, the explorer (he of “David Livingstone, I presume” fame) lived in the Circus. Nearby in another house William Harbutt invented plasticine. Mary Shelley wrote ‘Frankenstein’, while living in a house near the Abbey.

The city of Bath surrounded by seven hills sits quietly nestling in between them and blending in with the surroundings. You only need one important criterion to be included in UNESCO’s world heritage list and the city has six. A city with a rich history where you too can go back in time and relive those moments, be it walking in the footsteps of Jane Austen, seeing the world through Gainsborough’s eyes or living it up like the Romans, if you let the city work its spell.  

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