My mom and I spent a few days in London before my sixteenth birthday, so I had done many of the more touristy things the city has to offer. Before leaving school, I researched some cool places outside of the city and bought a bunch of train tickets. I was originally going to come home on April 23rd, but extended my trip til April 30th. Part of the reason why I did this was so that I could go to Birmingham to see one of my favorite bands, Pentatonix, perform. Pentatonix is an a cappella group, but they’re so amazingly talented that you wouldn’t even know they’re only using their voices. Take a listen:
On Wednesday morning, I took the train to Birmingham. I snagged a table seat and an outlet and started working on a blog post, which I finished at a cafe when I got into the city. I walked to my hostel, checked in, and then went to the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, which a girl in my room recommended. It was free so I went. I saw an exhibit about the emigration of women from Pakistan to Birmingham and what their lives were like in England. They really seemed to be welcomed and treated well in Birmingham. It was an interesting exhibit and probably very beneficial for Birmingham residents. Many families came to England after being displaced due to the construction of a huge dam in Pakistan.
I saw a permanent exhibition about the history of the city. It started out mainly as a manufacturing town and is now a huge city. It was bombed extensively during WWII since it was such an industrial center. I also learned that Cadbury is based in Birmingham. Next time I will go to Cadbury World! I’d also like to go to a museum called “Back to Backs,” about the back to back houses that were extremely common in poor neighborhoods.
I ate dinner and then walked to The Institute in Digbeth. Pentatonix were great, as usual. I saw them with my friends at UConn last year and was so impressed by how similar they sounded live to their Youtube videos. When I was walking home, I passed a Five Guys restaurant under construction and heard two Brits wondering what it was, so I did my duty as a meat-loving American and educated them and also recommend the Cajun fries.
On Thursday morning I took a taxi to the train station. I had read on the hostel website that a taxi to New Street Station would cost about 5 pounds. I had the guy at the front desk call for one.Unlike the nice driver in Edinburgh, who came inside to get my friends and our stuff, this driver honked from outside and didn’t help me with my bags. All he did was complain about the roads in Birmingham. Through conversation, it came up about three times that it was my first time in Birmingham. Yet when I asked how much the fare was, he said “how much do you usually pay?” So of course I said “five pounds.” He accepted that but didn’t seem too happy about it. Thank God I read about it earlier, or I could have been screwed out of a lot of money! Research pays!
From Birmingham, I took a train to Bristol Temple Meade and then to Bath. My mom told me I had to see Bath, so I took her advice. I took a taxi to my Bath hostel as well. The taxis aren’t allowed to turn right out of the train station, so they have to unnecessarily cross the river and then come back over to go towards their destination. The driver told me his friend got caught turning right out of the station one too many times and got fined 650 pounds – about $1,170!
I checked in and put my stuff away and then went to explore. I wandered in a few cute shops and then got a piece of carrot cake and some amazing apple juice at a place called Chando’s. then I kept walking and saw the Circus and the Royal Crescent – beautiful and expensive rows of townhouses, basically. I picked up a pamphlet about this year’s celebration of the Georgian era and its museums and chose my next places based on it. First I walked down the Gravel Path (mentioned in a Jane Austen novel) behind the Circus to see a recreation of a traditional Georgian garden. It was a beautiful day, and as I passed the Crescent, I saw that the lawn was full of people relaxing and enjoying the weather. The garden was a quick, free thing to do. Typical of gardens of the day, it didn’t have any grass, because ladies wouldn’t want to dirty their dresses and shoes. There were some shrubs and trees, some flowers, and gravel.
Then I walked to the Bath Postal Museum, located in the basement of the post office. Bath was where the postal service really grew and took shape. A guy named Ralph Allen sent the first penny stamp from Bath and had the idea to send mail through routes other than London. It was a cute museum. I also learned that the mailboxes have the symbol/logo of the monarch in charge. I saw the evolution of the mailbox, too. They added the little roof and a ramp inside to protect the mail from the weather.
Then I walked across the Pulteney Bridge. It’s covered with shops on both sides, like the Rialto Bridge in Venice and the Ponte Vecchio in Florence. There’s another circus of houses on the other side. Everything is made of the same beautiful stone color.
I bought dinner at a grocery store near the hostel, called Waitrose. Much more of a bargain than if I had eaten at a restaurant! I met a girl in my room from California. She goes to Wellesley and is studying in Aix-en-Provence, just like one of my friends from high school did. She gave me some suggestions of things to do since she’d already been in Bath for a few days.
On Friday morning, I grabbed my umbrella and headed out into the pouring rain. I wasn’t going to let some rain stop me from going on a walking tour! I slowly walked to the meeting point, tasting and buying some amazing fudge at Fudge Kitchen on the way. The tour was given by the Mayor of Bath’s Honorary Guides. They’ve been giving tours since 1934 and have only cancelled because of poor weather twice! There were four guides and they were all elderly – very different from my usual tours! They work on a voluntary basis and do not accept tips. My guide was named Islay (eye-luh). She had a great sense of humor.
We met by the pump room and the original Roman baths. We learned about the nearby abbey. Islay said it was a great example of 15th century advertising because there were sculptures/signatures of the builder. There were two statues flanking the door and one was shorter than the other. His head got destroyed and they carved a new one out of his beard.
Next, we went into the foyer of the Pump Room restaurant to look out the windows and see the old Roman baths. People would come to Bath for the healing properties of the water, the amazing shopping, and to have a good time. People would walk around in the baths and apparently the hot water would activate their bladders. People didn’t wash themselves very often back then, so the baths smelled foul. The water was great for health issues. There would be a bathing attendant for the ladies. They would wear long dresses with weights sewn into the bottom to ensure that the fabric didn’t rise up. They often carried bouquets of flowers with them as well, to mask the terrible stench. Bath is the only place in the country with natural hot springs. In Latin, Sanitas Per Aquam means “health through water,” hence the name “spa.”
We saw what used to be an almshouse. There was a metal sun on the outside wall near one of the windows. This was fire insurance. If your house was on fire and it didn’t have one of those suns, the firefighters would let it burn. We saw some arches that the road is built over. Basically, there is an arch from the road to the door that you can see if you stand to the side. Apparently the arches are all built really well. Out of all of the arches built, only a small fraction needed to be reinforced.
We walked up the Gravel Path and past the Georgian Garden. We saw what looked like a shed on the side of one of the Circus houses. The homes weren’t built with bathrooms, so some people added them on to the sides of their homes.
Next, we learned about the Royal Crescent. Now there are trees and a park in the way, but the residents of the Crescent used to be able to see all the way to the river. I think the Crescent has 30 homes inside – one is No. 1 Royal Crescent, a museum, and it uses space worthy of 2 houses. The Royal Crescent is a UNESCO World Heritage spot. The homes go for 4 or 5 million pounds. John Cleese owns one. One has a yellow door. The lady who used to own it insisted that she be allowed to paint it yellow, and in the deed of the house, it says that the owner can have a yellow door if he or she chooses.
There’s a line of houses near the Crescent that people joke was built to keep the stench of human waste from reaching the people in the Crescent, since it was tossed into a nearby field. Islay told us never to say that to anyone who lives there!
Next, we went to the Assembly Rooms, where everyone who was popular used to gather. Islay was able to get us in to see rooms that we normally would’ve had to pay to see. The rooms have been renovated since there was bomb damage. There are huge, elaborate chandeliers that were taken down and hidden during WWII. The Assembly Rooms/town of Bath itself used to have a Master of Ceremonies. The men in charge of Bath liked to make sure that everyone was having fun, and more importantly, spending money.
We saw some buildings made of new bath stone – much lighter than the old buildings. There was a family from New York on the tour. The daughter is doing a two year master’s program for violin in London. Her sister lives in West Hartford!
^You can read a brief, interesting history of circulating libraries here!
We followed Islay down to the area where we started the tour. I had the family take a picture of me in front of the abbey and then I took a picture for them.
I walked to Sally Lunn’s for lunch. Wellesley girl told me that she ate here twice! It’s a historic restaurant that has been serving its famous buns since the 1600s. I would’ve preferred a sweet bun (duh) but I went for a savory one because I figured I’d be fuller. I got a bun with ham, honey mustard, and some pickles. It was only half a bun and I totally could’ve eaten a sweet half, but I refrained.
After Sally Lunn’s, I went to the Holburne Museum. It’s a free art gallery at the end of Pulteney Street. The gallery started as Holburne’s private collection. There were a lot of different artificats. The museum is well known for its Gainsborough paintings. Holburne liked to collect spoons. Back then, each person had his or her own spoon to reuse at every meal. Spoons were good gifts and often passed down between families, so the engraving on a spoon might be much newer than the spoon itself.
In one of the galleries there was a table set with lavish dishware. There were interesting food-related quotations on circles set between silverware. My favorite one: “A man seldom thinks with more earnestness of anything than he does of his DINNER.”
I also liked the story behind a painting I saw of the Mouth of Truth in Rome, which I had meant to see while I was there, but didn’t. The stone mouth is said to bite the hands off liars. The painting showed an unfaithful wife tricking the public lie detector. Her lover pretended to be crazy and rushed up to kiss her as she was led towards the Mouth. When asked if any man other than her husband had kissed her, she responded “none but that madman just now” and escaped with her hand and reputation intact.
After the museum, I stopped at The Bridge Coffee Shop on the Pulteney Bridge and bought a delicious piece of strawberry rhubarb cake. I got my stuff from the hostel and took a taxi to the train station. The driver picked up his son on the way after he got a call from him. He told his son he drove away because he had already waited for him, and his son responded: “for three seconds!” I was totally amused by their relationship.
My train brought me into Waterloo Station in London, and then I took the tube to Euston and walked to the hostel. I stayed at the YHA St. Pancras. YHA has locations throughout England, which is good if you’re a member. Non-member wifi prices are outrageous. Five pounds for a day. No way am I paying that! Good thing there was a Starbucks next door! I stayed in a dorm with five other girls. It was nice and quiet. The only bad thing was that we had a tiny sink and they all left their stuff on the counter, so I had to move their stuff around and then move it back after I used the sink. But being the distinguished hostel user that I am, I was at least able to recognize the blessing of having the toilet and the shower in separate rooms! I stayed in London for five nights and then flew home. My next post will be about the first half of my London adventure!