Curses, coins and hot water in Bath

I had never visited the city of Bath in England before this trip in 2016. Like so many British cities, it has old and new melded together. We walked through modern streets lined with honey-colored buildings made of a special kind of limestone. On the warm, mostly sunny day we visited, the buildings radiated a soft warmth.

20160907_bath-abbey-from-great-bathIn the old section of town, Bath Abbey stands in glorious aged stone. It was the victim of King Henry VIII’s pillaging and destruction, and lay in ruins until the early 1600s when it was repaired and has been in use since. It was not open for tours, so is on my list for the next visit!

The famous Roman Baths are next to the abbey, and they are in a class of their own, for their 20160907_great-bath-partialantiquity, engineering and level of preservation. We entered through an 18th century building with its own stunning domed ceiling that imitates the Pantheon’s dome and oculus. The Great Bath and other smaller baths are below street level and are filled with thermal spring water glowing a distinctive green. The water rises each day at the rate of 1,170,000 liters at a steady temperature of 46 degrees C (114 F).

The Romans built a temple to Minerva here and many of the faithful came by to toss in tiny curse tablets. (!) Apparently it appealed to their sense of justice to complain about such behavior as thefts and include a list of possible culprits. Also thrown in were a lot of coins and other objects, possibly as offerings. I ran 20160907_great-bath-actor-vendorinto an actor portraying a Roman vendor who offered to sell me one denarius (Roman coin) for the price of 2 denarius. He then offered me a curse tablet for 4 denarius. After I explained I was more inclined toward blessings, he offered to create one of those for 8 denarius, as blessings are far more work.

The water is not safe for people, but nearby spas offer a dip in the same thermal waters, which some of my fellow travelers say is hugely restorative. While they were soaking their tired tootsies, I2016-bath-roman-bath-upper-level1 went with two traveling friends for afternoon tea (a three-tiered tray of goodies) in the Pump Room and did my best to eat it all!

Fascinating and worth a visit. Only 90 minutes by train from London.


It is probably the Queen

“In people’s eyes, in the swing, tramp and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment in June.”

Outside Buckingham Palace, a soaring statue of Queen Victoria (right), who ruled for the first 20 years of Virginia Woolf’s life.

Note to self: Must read more Virginia Woolf. Reading through an excerpt from her novel Mrs. Dalloway, at first it feels a little dull. But this portion of the story does not give up its depth to quick eyes. It needs to be absorbed in its entirety, then considered again. It is about the gift of life; the hidden struggles of the spirit and emotion; regret and bitterness; the energy and weight of a city; and very much about the English class system.

Clarissa Dalloway lives in London and loves it. She trundles along with a mind full of busy questions that run the gamut from housework and entertaining to marriage choices and hatred. Her character’s thoughts, observations and actions slowly create an important backdrop for the city, its residents, commerce, poverty and the royalty: class distinction. Clarissa enjoys a privileged status, but not favored enough to know who is in the mysterious car that shows up on Bond Street where she is shopping.

“The motor car with its blinds drawn and an air of inscrutable reserve proceeded towards Piccadilly, still gazed at, still ruffling the faces on both sides of the street with the same dark breath of veneration whether for Queen, Prince or Prime Minister nobody knew.”

To me, the car is a trope for the mystery and inaccessibility of the ruling class. Everyone 2016-london-red-ddecker-busstops to stare and speculate – merchants, customers, the poor and the desperate. Even a wife trying to save her suicidal husband is distracted by the car, which offers no help, no answers. Just more questions.

“It is probably the Queen, thought Mrs. Dalloway, coming out of Mulberry’s with her flowers; the Queen.”


The grand dame of knowledge

“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

I love thee to the depth and breadth and height

My soul can reach…”

                Elizabeth Barrett Browning

A trip to London is not complete for me unless I can visit its grand dame of knowledge, the British Library. (Photo above: busts of some of its founders.)

As a writer, it is a hugely special moment for me to see original handwritten manuscripts of famed literature. On this trip I enjoy many such moments in Treasures of the British Library – a permanent and very spectacular collection of books, manuscripts, letters, music and more.

Photo: British Library collection

I hover before How Do I Love Thee, sonnet 43 in the collection entitled  Sonnets from the Portugese, by Elizabeth Barrett, written for her suitor, Robert Browning. Elizabeth’s actual writing captivates me.

Their love story was the stuff of novels. Her father had forbidden her (and her siblings) to marry. She was older than Robert and chronically ill. He was smitten. She had reservations, but wrote her way through them in the set of 44 sonnets that made her famous. Robert must have been very happy when he read sonnet 43. They finally married and lived happily for 15 years. The British Library says Elizabeth Barrett Browning “died in his arms after a long illness” in 1861. Sigh.

In another exhibit, I try not to laugh too loudly over a letter written by Michelangelo in 20160906_brit-lib-gate1550 to his nephew with advice on choosing a wife. The basic message was to be realistic and avoid being too picky because he was unremarkable in appearance. Readers could infer the august uncle might also have judged his poor nephew as ordinary across the board. To be a fly on the wall when that letter arrived!

The great dome across the Thames

“If evensong and matins will agree

Let’s see who shall be the first to tell a tale.”

       Prologue, The Canterbury Tales

One of my highlights during the London portion of our trip is a visit to St. Paul’s Cathedral. As we walk around to the front of the church, its great bells begin to peal, their resonance surrounding me. Listen on Instagram.

St. Paul’s during the blitz, WW2

I look up at the dome and think of how history stretches across this site. Three churches were built here between about 600 and 1087 – two burned and one was destroyed by Vikings. A stone cathedral was then built in the 11th century that later burned in the Great Fire of London in 1666. During the evensong service we attended, which happened to be on the anniversary of that terrible day, the minister said the embers burned for a week. After the fire, Christopher Wren designed the building that stands to this day, which was protected by civil defense brigades during the bombing blitzes of WW 2 and became a symbol of British resiliency. Learn more.

I always enjoy evensong, which has a tradition of sung prayer followed for some 500 years. Songs waft up where the angels and saints dwell in the glorious art and sculpture of the domed ceiling. It feels as though music and prayer have soaked into the walls. I see a man kneeling on the stone floor through much of the 45 minute service, his knees bearing his faith.

The minister’s words echo across the cavernous sanctuary. She speaks about the plight of refugees and how Jesus’ followers are called to take risks, to put others’ needs before their own. Do we hoard or do we give? Do we hate or do we trust? Perfect love casts out all fear. Such gentle words carry a lot of weight.

Queen Anne stands before St. Paul’s Cathedral in all her regalness. The building is so big, the dome cannot be seen from the front plaza.

Beyonce, Bollywood and the Bard

“The theatre is the home of the imagination or it’s nothing.”  Hugh Quarshie

Shakespeare’s Globe in London is not a theater for a detached, inattentive audience. Actors frequently launch scenes from the middle of the main floor, in front of the stage. Earlier in September, our study abroad group attended a sold-out performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Globe, which had a terrific Bollywood flavor. Characters spent a good amount of time bouncing around non-traditional acting areas, eliciting roars of delight for their saucier lines and gestures.

2016-09-21-globe-insideIt’s a mischievous play about runaway lovers, featuring a fed-up, then bespelled and beguiled fairy queen, a scheming fairy king and a wild and wily Puck, self-proclaimed “merry wanderer of the night.” They interfere with the human realm and love goes awry every which way! Adding to the mayhem is a play within the main play where inept actors pop up and practice their lines with dubious results.

This production offers the Shakespearean script with a spare set and mostly modern (Tasteless! Tacky!) clothing combined with bizarre fairy costumes. It’s a blend of classic and contemporary that emphasizes the pathos and hysteria of infatuation and love. Present-day humor pops up here and there – just enough to get a good laugh (and make a point). My favorite scene: lovelorn Hermia and Helenus break into a dance number to Beyonce’s song, Put a Ring on It. Hysterical. Another, when Oberon tells Puck to cast a spell on a young man and says, “Thou shalt know the man by the hipster garments he hath on.”  And all backed by music from a sitar. Ha!

Check out the play online.

Going underground in London

London is a city in a hurry. Pedestrians, cyclists, drivers, everyone is heading somewhere with great purpose. Many of those hurtling along its (often uneven) sidewalks are going to the subway system, which is universally known as the Tube, but is marked on signage as the Underground. The stations are tidy, well-lit and usually safe. Plus, there is a very nice English lady who politely asks you to “Mind the Gap” and announces all the stops in a lovely, reassuring accent.

Parts of the Tube are old and none of it is air conditioned. In the summer and early fall, hot yoga classes could make a killing down there. In keeping with its aged parts, some Tube stations have escalators, but other have stairs. Many, many stairs. These do not slow down Londoners, who heft suitcases and other loads with amazing dexterity while maintaining optimum speed. When I was unable to keep the pace, they flowed up the stairs and around me like migrating salmon. Woe to any poor soul who has lost her way (not mentioning any names) and turns around in this mass of humanity – she will have to fight for every inch of progress.

One tube station had a very old spiral staircase that I was descending with care. I came 2016-london-tube2upon a tiny, elderly couple dressed in their Sunday best who were moving even more slowly. The Mrs. was a bit more agile and so was leading the way. The Mr. was directly in front of me, turned sideways, hanging onto the handrail and moving methodically down one step at a time. Plunk, plunk, plunk. Around and down we plodded. Fortunately, there was room beside our little knot of slowpokes for others to stream by. (I shudder to think about the pent-up pressure should we have blocked passage.) There was a bit of muttering between the dapper couple, mostly from the Mrs., and I gathered the station was not familiar to them. Then, as clear as a bell, I heard her dry British voice, “If we go down much farther, we’ll see Satan.”

I could not stop chuckling as we finally got to the bottom, without injury or evil apparitions.