Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach
Today seemed to be about modes of transportation—cars and boats and trains. We rolled out early to go to Bath, and met up with a quintessential charming publican, Nick Luke, in a village near Bath with the lovely British name of Limpley Stoke. He suggested a slight detour to see the local gap in the hills where the river, the aqueduct, and the railroad all pass through at one point. So we parked off of the main road, and walked down this path:
As we walked, Nick mentioned that the railway ran alongside the path … and in a rare display of timing, just about then, an actual steam train came flying by. I fear I was a bit slow on the draw with the camera, or more likely, I was at exactly the right speed and the train was fast … in any case, here’s the steam locomotive on a roll …
Nick told us that the locomotive was one of the very few new steam locomotives built in the last few decades. It is a copy of the “Tornado”, which was a famous locomotive back in the days of steam. It whirled on past, easily pulling a string of passenger cars. We could see in the windows, the folks were sitting and having lunch at lovely tables, with crystal service … it was an entrancing vision of a bygone time, when people rode the steam train from London to their holiday in the town of Bath.
We walked on further, and we came to an aqueduct which is part of the extensive network of canals which were originally built to carry coal from the mines to where it was needed. There we encountered several of a species of boat that I’d never actually seen, the British canal boat. For some reason I’ve been re-reading “Moby Dick” lately, first time since high school. I hadn’t realized how funny Melville is. Anyhow, at one point he says:
You may have seen many a quaint craft in your day, for aught I know;—square-toed luggers; mountainous Japanese junks; butter-box galliots, and what not; but take my word for it, you never saw such a rare old craft as this.
That’s just how I felt when I saw the canal barges. Using the famous “Imperial” system of measurements, by my estimate they’re about a mile long and a yard wide. Here’s one of the several that we saw coming out of the Dundas Aqueduct that carries the canal across the Avon river below:
After the end of the coal mining era, many of the canals fell into disrepair. But now, there has been a resurgence in traffic, not commercial, but recreational travelers. The boats are about as skinny as you could make them, and for a very good reason … so are the canals. For example, off of the bit of water shown above, another canal takes off that looks like this:
The sign on the left identifies it as the “Somerset Coal Canal”, which was built in 1801, and which closed in 1898. I asked Nick if coal was still mined in the UK. He said the deep mines were uneconomical, but the open-pit mine near the Drax power plant was still producing. I had to laugh at that, because as Nick already knew, after years of successful operation and with lots of coal still in the ground, the Drax power plant is currently being converted to run on wood chips … and because there are not many forests left in the UK these days, the wood chips are to be imported from the US. Climate madness at its most inane, or perhaps most insane.
So somewhat sadly, we left the lovely confluence of river and rails and canal, and followed Nick into Bath. He stopped on a hill above the town and explained the layout. The church in Bath is not a cathedral, he said. From his explanation, s “cathedral” is the “seat” of a Bishop. But of course, this being England, the church in Bath is the seat of a Bishop … but it’s not a cathedral. It’s down on the lower left. Above it there are some trees, then a row of buildings called the “Royal Crescent”. In the dappled sunshine it was picture-perfect.
Now, as near as I can figure out, Bath has always been a party town. It’s the only thermal hot springs on the island, so it was a big hit with the Romans. Then in Georgian times, some people built a bunch of what we would now call “spec” houses, houses built to sell but with no specific owner in mind. This was a success, and from local accounts, it became the place for the rakes to come from London to have a good time and gamble and chase the Georgian lovelies round the antechamber. Here’s the “Royal Crescent”, built in the early 1800’s.
The Royal Crescent adjoins the town commons … and as a result, the property owners needed to be separated from the plebeians. So in the best pre-Druidic fashion, they built their own “henge” to keep out the polloi, which survives to this day as seen below. Plebs to the left, property owners to the right, gotta keep the old traditions alive …
Nick also pointed out how the masonry was made to look so good back in the Georgian times. The blocks of stone are chamfered from front to back on the bases. Then they are set in mortar with the front edges of the blocks very tightly aligned, with only a few mm of space between them. They have gaps in the back, but you can’t see them. Of course, regarding the backs of the houses they didn’t bother with that, they just piled up most any old stones and mortared them together. But in the front they had to keep up appearances … not much different from LA today, where how you look is more important than what’s actually going on behind your eyeballs. Plus ça whatever.
Nowadays, as in the past, Bath is still a holiday town, with over a million visitors a year. I was very glad that we were not there during the tourist season. The Roman baths are still there, but built over and rebuilt over the centuries. Here’s how they looked today:
One great and unending joy of this life is that there is always more to learn. In the Roman Baths I learned about “curse tablets”. These are from Roman times. They are thin sheets of lead with a curse on someone written on them, and then they were rolled up and (in this case) thrown into the bath. Mostly, the curse tablets found in the bath contain a curse on whoever it was who stole someone’s clothes or shoes when they were in the bath a couple thousand years ago … plus ça change, plus ça the same dang thing, as they say …
Nick took us to his pub, The Old Green Tree, which might be the oldest pub in town, and might be the smallest pub in town, depending on who you’re asking. It looks like this, starring my daughter giving her best Vanna White spokesmodel imitation …
It is truly old, truly small, and truly a “local”, hardly a tourist in sight. I drank some “Pitchfork” ale, and a variety of other local brews. Say what you will, but when it comes to beer, it’s hard to beat a local British beer or ale in a local British pub. Drank some cider too, it was like Strongbow only tastier.
What else did we see in Bath? Well … tourists. Oh, and a solar-powered garbage can, can’t forget that. Like the canal boats, I’d never seen one of these either, and but for the evidence below you might think I was having you on … but here is the Big Belly solar garbage can in all its refulgent splendor:
From Bath, we rolled on to Bristol. Tomorrow we decamp for Liverpool, and from there up to the Lake District. Advice on inexpensive places to stay in the Lake District would be much appreciated.
Finally, in the matter of appreciation, my great thanks to Nick Luck for his hospitality, his information, his willingness to answer every and all of our sometimes foolish questions, for his pub, and for his free and easy laugh. If you’re in Bath, go look Nick up at the Green Tree, you’ll find a good man and a good place to bend an elbow.
The journey continues tomorrow, and as the title implies, for me it’s not the journey’s end that’s important—it’s how you get there. So my wish for all of you is that each of your journeys may be as full of sunshine and learning and laughter as mine was today.
Onwards, ever onwards …