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Published: January 14th 2009
This was Gary's suggestion for a photo. Obviously a man who doesn't care for another man's face.
If someone told you they were heading to Aquae Sulis
for a dip, you'd no doubt think they were a fool. Or, if you were an educated traveller or a speaker of Latin, you'd probably know they were heading to Bath, and were just using it's old name. Still a fool I guess, but there you go: Bath was once called Aquae Sulis. (A bit early for fact of the day I suppose, but I have a lot to get through).
Gary and I were heading to Bath for a day trip even though the signs were telling us to stay inside. A local farmer had said it was -8 degrees that morning (at least that's what it sounded like he said. He could have said anything). On top of that, the locks had frozen solid on the car and I couldn't get in. I knew Bath had it's mysteries, ancient animal sacrifices and religious oddities, but was some long forgotten Roman God trying to tell me
something as well? Had they read my indifferent blog comments about Rome from a few months ago?
Either way, I pulled my scarf tighter, somehow climbed into the front of the car
Hot Bath, 46 degrees I think. They don't let the public in anymore. Health and Safety. I love England.
from the back door, and before we knew it we were pulling in to Bath itself. Gary told me that most of the buildings were Georgian, and I agreed. Perhaps sensing my naivete, Gary explained that this meant that much of the town was developed in the Georgian period, which he said was roughly between 1720 and 1840. Thanks Gary!
We strolled through the town admiring the beautiful sights - the stunning architecture, the river Avon, and a crisp blue sky I was hoping would cheer up any angry Roman Gods who might have been lurking around. We went to the actual baths in the afternoon and listened to the audio tour (with insights from Bill Bryson, who mistakenly thought he was a historian and not a comedy writer).
Now I figure if you actually wanted to know anything about the Roman Baths of this area, you would look it up somewhere, so I will not be relaying what I learnt, but I can tell you that it's a wondrous place - a little slice of Roman history out in the English countryside. And the job they have done in preserving and maintaining the site is incredible, and
The main bath
The sky is clear blue in the reflection too! What a day
well worth a visit. You can truly learn a lot. For example, did you know that the one of the baths, known as the Sacred Spring, was used by the pilgrims as a place to make offerings to Sulis Minerva - the goddess of the baths? They recently dredged up and displayed masses of gold, jewels, coins and other valuables from the bottom of the pool, thrown in almost 2000 years ago. Bath was an experience to remember, amazing, unbelievable. But my eyes were truly opened when we went to Longleat...
The next day, my final day, we decided we would venture out to Longleat House, perhaps a bit off the tourist trail, but we weren't tourists anyway (although the I've Reached The Heights
Salisbury Cathedral badge Gary still hadn't taken off his jacket wasn't convincing anyone). Gary told me in advance about the owner of this mansion, and detailed his eccentricity. I can pretty safely assume that you've never heard of this gentleman, so let me tell you about him.
Lord Bath, or Alexander Thynn - 7th Marquess of Bath, is an earringed and aging man who is renowned for his colourful waistcoats, wizardly beard, and his
Got a spare room?
many 'wifelets' he has living nearby. He is also an avid poet and mural painter, and reminds me of a pirate crossed with a faded folk singer. Apparently he is seen around town every now and again, pretty much accepted as a crazy, and as outlandish as a Lord could possibly be. When he realized his Elizabethan mega-mansion was becoming too expensive to run, he decided to open it to the public and add an extension which was, in effect, the first safari park to be built outside of Africa. Lions, gorillas, hippos - 60 acres filled with over 500 animals. All running around just out the back, and you can drive through and see them all for the right price. Build your own safari-park? In England? Lord Bath was definitely my kind of guy.
Being thrill seekers, Gary and I took the more adventurous option and parked the car at the top of what I can only describe as a glacier (I think Gary called it a 'hill') which overlooked the estate (see photo). A picturesque hike, a breath of fresh air. Lovely really. But I couldn't stop thinking about the semi-wild animals just around the corner. We
View from the top of the glacier. Lots of sheep. Calm sheep. Probably hadn't seen their half-eaten mate yet.
were walking right out in the open, a local shortcut you might call it, and I felt an eerily familiar feeling I had last felt in Zambia. (One time, I had to ask our driver to stop the jeep during a particularly lion infested night-time game-drive so I could relieve myself. How far do you wander from the truck in the dark African night for relief? Not very far, I can tell you. I ventured only about 2 metres from the vehicle, but it was the loneliest and longest toilet stop I had ever had. Lion meat. Dead meat.)
After walking past a mess of wool and bloody entrails (a sheep?), I wondered whether the lions ever got free, and how tall their fences really were. In fact, were there fences? I asked Gary. Apparently, many of the residents of the area had similar concerns. I found this on the official Longleat website "Despite the understandable initial concerns of locals with regard to the introduction of lions to Wiltshire, the Safari Park concept has been a great success." Great sentence - lions in Wiltshire. Didn't explain the carnage though. Just imagine this ... the mystery of a wild lion
Apparently all swans in England are property of the queen. Except this one, I think he was one of Lord Bath's.
in Longleat, living in the garden of erratic uncle Bath, picking off his sheep and hiding in the trees, maybe killing a local farmer.... it seemed to me like The Famous Five, Narnia and the Lion King all rolled into one (close seconds for book of the week).
The lion never got me this time either in case you're wondering.
Now, I WISH I could have said that I'd met this gentleman Mr Bath (as I bet Bill bloody Bryson probably did) but the closest I got to him was when I saw his lifesize photograph out in the back garden by the garden mazes he'd built (apparently he a big labyrinth fan). He sure seemed like a mighty jolly fellow. We ambled about his gardens (which were unfortunately closed for winter) and wandered through the children's amusement park he'd built. All completely deserted for the winter. It was a bit surreal, imagine walking through a closed down Disneyland. With Gary leading me around, showing the way; a leader, a father figure, a beacon of hope - and me; a lost, ragged, questioning boy - I had flashbacks of a book called The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, which
A Nice Shard
Or should I say 'an ice shard'? What a hoot!
is incidentally the book of the week. Check it out.
I should make a mention of my childlike enthusiasm for the frozen leat we came across (a leat is an artificial waterway within a river, often used to power a windmill... this time used to store fish so Lord Bath can practise his fishing) where I couldn't believe the swans were actually walking on the ice. It wasn't strong enough to hold me I'm afraid, but it didn't stop me from revelling in another countryside winter novelty. When I sensed that Gary was worried that the Lord might have us shot for breaking his ice and scaring away his swans, we moved on, and home. As we headed back, I was thinking about how this place had intrigued me so much - even though it was completely closed. Enshrouded in mystery. Just like Lord Bath himself. Perhaps it was better this way.
We pulled back into Frome and I realized my time had come to head back to the Big Smoke. I farewelled the kids and Tamsin, hoping one day I would find myself in that magical part of the world again where artists roam as freely as the Wiltshire lions. Frome. Frume. Froom. What a wonderful family to look after me, what a genuinely kind man Gary is. I wish he was my Godfather too. It was with a heavy heart and tired legs that I shook Gary's hand in the falling snow at Warminster station, stepping on to the train bound for Waterloo. Tired as I felt, I sensed an invigoration that the country had given me, and was happy to discover I had shaken the gloom of everyday life in London off my shoulders. I arrived in the city and booked my ticket for Edinburgh, my next destination.
As the train pulled into London, the grey gloom in the sky didn't get me down. The papers with news of recession and despair didn't even catch my attention. I had just returned from Fantastic Frome. And there was no gloom in Froom.
No gloom in Frome - that could be a T-shirt. Or a badge...
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