Gentle reader, in this installment of Heart of Pixie I offer you the anecdote-laden finale of our 2-part veggie tour through England, circa 2015.
While we spent the majority of our UK trip exploring the eatables offered by various boroughs of London, we splurged on a day trip to Stonehenge and Bath, because of course! The trip alone was incredible, and the sites themselves were breathtaking. Since we were on a coach tour, and our coach left way later than its scheduled departure time, we were more pressed for time than we would have been on our own, but even with the time crunch we were able to enjoy some really wonderful visions and victuals. We also had an entertaining driver and tour guide duo who peppered the entire trip with fascinating tidbits about the surrounding areas as well as our destinations.
Our first stop. about an hour and forty minutes from London, is most certainly worth another visit, because we had to rush through since the coach left the station so late. Despite the rush and not being able to lay hands on the stones themselves, Stonehenge is still probably the most magical place in existence. Its minimalist presentation, surrounded by grassy fields with ancient barrows, or burial mounds, noticeable nearby make it feel static with electricity even thousands of years later. With the strong breeze and the scattered lines of walkers in the fields leading to the stones, it was easy for me to conjure images of those ancient solstice pilgrimages thought to have been linked to the site’s purpose.
When In Rome…or Bath
After another 45 minutes of driving through lovely scenery, including some old thatched-roofed abodes, we arrived in Bath. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1987, Bath is distinguished by its Georgian architecture built with a unique locally-acquired limestone. Almost all of the buildings in the city center are built with the same colored stone, resulting in a really stunning display of singular city character.
While Bath is home to a beautiful Abbey, the Jane Austen Centre, The Circus, and many museums, the highlight spectacle is undoubtedly the Roman Baths and temple. The springs, thought to have healing properties, were first discovered by the Celts who dedicated a shrine to the goddess Sulis. Later, when the Romans invaded, they built a Roman temple on the site for the goddess Minerva, who they identified as Sulis and so kind of joined the two together as goddess Sulis Minerva. In Jane Austen’s time, the Baths were often prescribed as part of a medical treatment regimen, and people would travel from far reaches to bathe in the mineral-filled waters.
Though we wanted to hit the tea rooms first, our late start earlier that morning meant we only had thirty minutes until our scheduled group tour of the Roman Baths, so Kenton and I wandered around the block instead, admiring the picture-perfect town, grabbing pasties at The Cornish Bakery, and passing a lively magician with an enthralled crowd as we strolled. “By the way,” she was saying with a hint of joke in her voice, “that guy has been following me to every single one of my gigs!” The crowd guffawed and stared at an oblivious man on the far right who didn’t seem to speak much English but appreciated the sudden attention with a shy smile.
We managed a quick stop by Sally Lunn’s Historic Eating House and went down to the dank, musky-smelling museum in the basement to wait on our freshly-baked order. Considered the oldest house in Bath, around since 1492, the location was put on the map in the 1600s because of then-resident Sally Lunn. Her buns are not like the compact cinnamon-roll like buns I expected, but a rather large brioche bun with a flavor rather like those O’Charley’s yeast rolls best eaten with melted butter. I knew they served tea time there, too, but I was holding out for show-stopping elegance of the Pump Rooms—I was trying to embody Catherine Morland’s (Northanger Abbey) experiences as much as possible. Thus, we grabbed a couple of the famous surprisingly massive as-big-as-your-face buns then hurried back to que for the Baths.
Of course there were several groups ahead of us, so we ended up waiting nearly 40 minutes for our turn (plenty enough time to have visited the blasted Jane Austen Centre, but oh, well). Once we finally made it inside, my experience of the Baths was somewhat surreal. I knew, of course, of their historic importance, but the whole place really felt more like a movie set. Having experienced the Harry Potter studio tour so recently may have contributed to that feeling—with all of the carefully curated artifacts, signage, and audio tour, it really felt to me that I was in a museum tribute of the Baths rather than in the Baths themselves. I found myself touching the walls and stones in an effort to feel something. Walking on the uneven stone paths came close, but it wasn’t until I actually entered the dark caldarium (the hot room) and frigidarium (the cool down bath), both of which were relatively empty, that I could imagine being there a hundred, let alone a thousand years before.
Immediately captivating, the most amusing part of our excursion was our brief inhabiting of Jane Austen’s life for a bite of Afternoon Tea in the Grand Pump House Room. As Tea Party Girl notes as well, the fancy Afternoon Tea parties we think of today were popularized after Austen’s Regency era (in the Victorian Era). That said, Austen did drink tea, and “taking a turn around the Pump Room” would have been popular in her heyday, especially when she herself lived in Bath, so that’s where we dined after our foray into Roman-British history.
Ah, the Grand Pump Room
Never has there been a more elegant, striking establishment. From the golden embellishments and chandelier, to the ancient hot spa water at the fountain and the live orchestral trio playing in the background, it is as classy now as it was in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
We ordered the Champagne Pump Room Tea but asked them to replace the chicken, ham, and salmon dishes with the meat-free sandwiches instead. They were very accommodating, and we felt really fancy preparing to dine in that literary oasis.
Unfortunately, when the waitress brought the champagne, she accidentally spilled it all over me and my (brand new) DSLR. I cleaned it immediately, of course, and she brought me a new flute of Searcys bubbly, but somehow I ended up feeling slightly embarrassed and conspicuous. That was annoying, but I shook it off and delighted in the treats they brought out next: herbed cream cheese and cucumber sandwiches, egg, mayo, and cress sandwiches, homemade scones, clotted cream, and strawberry jam, fresh fruit tarts, mini Battenberg sponge cakes, colorful almond macaroons, and more.
We didn’t finish all of our food and had to rush to make the coach to head home, so we asked for a takeaway. Little did we know that we were committing a faux pas, as takeaways are not customary at this establishment. At least, that’s what our neighbors at the next table would have us think.
When the waiter wrapped the food in an aluminum handmade basket shaped like a duck or swan, cute but a bit gaudy, the older couple next to us scoffed, “Aluminium foil.”
I could only make them out in my peripheral vision, but a little girl’s voice asked something along the lines of “What for?”
And the woman, who I’m assuming was the little girl’s grandmother, sensing a teaching moment, responded quietly, “See, sometimes if they don’t finish their food, they like to take it with them.”
And the grandfather chimed in, “But it isn’t necessary…lest you feed it to your dog.” Snicker, snicker, snicker.
And the grandmother once more, “You needn’t drink to the last sip, dear.”
I. Just. About. Died.
…Of embarrassment, of indignant fury, of hilarity, of the knowledge that I’d hit a goldmine of a funny-later-but-not-funny-in-the-moment kinda story to share. And I really wanted to go back to the baths to throw in one of those curse coins. And if I felt conspicuous before, imagine how I felt afterwards, parading through Bath with my shiny silver Red Riding Hood picnic basket on our way to the coach!
Even so, if I could do it over I’d continue to be shiny and showy every single time considering we payed about $50 per person and I for damn sure wasn’t going to let any morsel go to waste.
And no, we most certainly did not feed our Airbnb host’s dogs but enjoyed our remaining snackables later that evening and for breakfast the next day and even had a bite to share with our host.
Thanks for reminiscing with me! Any Jane Austen fans in the house?
You’ll be interested to note that I did see a house she lived in but disappointed to note that I wasn’t fast enough to take a picture.