Middlemarch in the Middle of MarchAnd with the middle of March approaching we began Middlemarch by George Eliot (Ha! Middlemarch in the middle of March!) If you think I write a lot in these blog posts, just check out one of George Eliot's books. (The author is a "she" by the way, that's just her pseudonym. Her real name was Mary Anne Evans.) Dean has assigned us large tracts of pages to read for each class period up until spring break, so we can finish it before then. I zipped through Book I of the beast of a novel, hardly knowing what the heck I was reading, but occasionally would read aloud to myself or with Mary when we were on the same chapters. Dean told us that reading Eliot aloud helps, and I believe it does, but my voice gets hoarse after reading one or two of her lengthy chapters aloud. ... To celebrate getting through Book I without dying of laryngitis, Wednesday night many of us watched a quintessentially British romantic comedy (with a touch of drama?) called Love Actually. I had seen it before, but it is a quirky movie with some genuinely funny moments, so why not see it again? ...
BathIt is a strange sensation going to class and, in the same afternoon, hopping on a train to travel to southwest England--but that's just what I did Thursday afternoon with Eva and John. We were making a personal excursion to Bath and Stonehenge for the long free weekend. Our trains led us through Birmingham New Street and Bristol Temple Meads and to our final destination of Bath Spa--a journey of about 4 hours. On the train to Birmingham, I sat next to an eccentric old man who must have been a playwright. I couldn't help but peek at notes he was making in a journal about Acts I, II, and III. Something about a fisherman and a lawyer, perhaps? I was curious to know more about the man, but didn't want to disturb him too much. I had to get off at Birmingham though, and he stayed on the train with his orange juice and shot of espresso and newspaper magazine with strange use of typography. We arrived in Bath at around 8:30 at night. We found our hostel, St Christopher's Inn, which was above a pub called Belushi's. The owner upgraded our room for free, which was a nice surprise, and the first night we had to whole room to ourselves. We decided to roam the streets of Bath and scout out the things we would do on Friday. We found the Circus and the Royal Crescent, and the Roman Baths Museum and Pump Room, and realized that the distances between all these things was quite short. Some of the city was lit up quite nicely, especially Bath Abbey. Although the hostel was by no means a bad one, it situation above a bar was not necessarily conducive to good sleep. It didn't help that the hostel was on a main stretch of road in the center of the city, either. Throughout the night people were singing in the streets and making loud noises. I had earplugs, but they fell out in the night and I couldn't find them in the dark to put back in. And then came the seagulls (Bath is quite near the sea) squawking in the morning and the unexpected thud of a squeegee on the bedroom windows at 7 AM. All the buildings in Bath are cleaned periodically (because of the white stone) and it so happened to be the hostel's turn to be cleaned.
Bath Abbey, Roman Baths Museum, Circus, Royal Crescent and MoreBut Friday was by no means a horrible day because we got to see and do a lot of stuff (practically every touristy thing you can do in Bath) that day. We first visited the Bath Abbey (going inside this time). The abbey was built on the former site of a much larger Norman cathedral, which was torn down at one time (I forget the dates and by whom) because it was too ostentatious or showy. I don't know if they succeeded in making a less showy structure. It's a pretty nice abbey. ... We then took a free two-hour walking tour of the city. A nice elderly woman led us through Bath, explaining the significance of various sites of Bath, including: the Circus, the Royal Crescent, the Roman Baths, the Pump Room, Pulteney Bridge, the Guildhall market, the Victoria Art Gallery, and, of course, Bath Abbey... and the people of Bath: Richard Nash (master of ceremonies of Bath), Jane Austen, Sally Lunn, and James Montague. After a short lunch, Eva, John, and I went to the Roman Baths Museum. The admission was steep (£10 with a student discount), but I think it was worth it in the end, especially with the free personal audio tour (more on those later). One thought that crossed my mind was how England treated it's only natural hot spring. Having been to Yellowstone National Park in the U.S. just the summer before where natural hot springs are abundant, it was a strange though that there should be so much built up around one thermal spring. I can't imagine they'd ever build a bath around one of Yellowstone's springs. But then again, England has a much longer history than America, and we have the Romans to thank for founding the bathing culture of Bath. ... And the spring is what drew people to Bath in the first place. They thought the warm water with 43+ minerals (as I learned) was magical and had healing properties. Some of that lore still lasts today. The Royal Mineral Water Hospital still stands today and it used to treat rheumatic diseases, albeit it does not use Bath mineral water to treat patients anymore. (In fact, that's why Jane Austen frequented Bath so much: her brother suffered from rheumatism and she would come stay in the city while he was being treated at the hospital.) Plus you can still try Bath Spa water in the Pump Room. I tried it and didn't finish it. Warm water with lots of aftertaste didn't appeal to me. Bath is renowned for its gardens and flowers, but we were there a little too early for that. Some new flowers were definitely popping up, but it will be a few weeks yet before the city is in full bloom. One of the most intriguing things about this city was that it became a place for the rich, the gentry, to parade around and be rich. The promenades along the River Avon and some of the parks were purposely built for rich people to walk about in their fancy clothes and show off. Hence Bath has buildings like the Royal Crescent and the Circus. I heard from someone on our tour that one of those flats costs £4 million to live in today. Some things never change I guess. All I could do is stand outside and be impressed with the Georgian architecture. The reason so much of the architecture is 18th-century is because, although it was a popular place in Roman times, construction didn't really begin until monarchs in the 1700s started coming the Bath to dip into its magical waters for relaxation. After an exhausting day walking all over Bath, the three of us did not know what to do at night. We still had lots of Middlemarch to read, so we stepped into a pub called the Saracen's Head and read for a few hours with a pint of Bullmer's Pear Cider. I, surprisingly got a lot of reading finished in a pub. Who knew? I sort of felt like one of the Inklings--J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and crew (minus the discussion part). ... We were joined by two German girls in our hostel dorm room that night, but all of us went to bed around the same time, which made it no problem.
Salisbury and StonehengeWe woke up early on Saturday in order to make a sojourn to Stonehenge. We had to scarf down toast at the continental breakfast in order to make the 8:30 AM train to Salisbury. When we got into Salisbury, we didn't want to take the tour bus to Stonehenge (to save some money), so we made our own way by taking a quick bus to Amesbury. We hiked 2 miles to Stonehenge taking Church Street out of Amesbury to Stonehenge Road out to the highway. It was a beautiful warm, sunshiny day with light fluffy clouds, perfect for hiking. I didn't need my extra sweater as I had the day before in Bath. ... It is something peculiar that Stonehenge is next to the dual carriageway (that's a highway)--or should I say, the highway is next to Stonehenge. (Stonehenge was there first, after all.) It was spectacular to see it as we came over the crest of the hill along the A303. Crossing the highway wasn't as bad as it sounds, and we made it to the entrance: a tunnel under the road that comes up on the other side to the ancient stone circle. A visit to Stonehenge comes with a free audio tour (very similar to the one at the Roman Baths Museum), where each individual gets a cellphone-like device to listen to the history of the site and all the various speculation on why the circle was built in the first place. The audio tour was great and naturally informative, but sometimes I had to pause the stupid thing and put it down and just bask in the silence of Salisbury Plain and wonder at the mystery of these rocks. In this way, I could forget that I was doing a very touristy thing, and in the middle of nowhere, farm-ville England, simply appreciate the history of this place, regardless of what the speaker told me. After spending a good part of our afternoon at Stonehenge, we hiked back to Amesbury, caught a bus to Salisbury, and had a few hours to kill there before returning to Bath. I ate a late lunch: a combination of chips (that's fries) from a take-away place and a Wiltshire pasty from Reeve the Baker and wandered the city streets. Salisbury is a delightful city, bustling with lots of activity: people going in and out of shops, buying and selling at street markets, or simply laying on the lawns of the Close of Salisbury Cathedral in the sun. And, oh, what a site the cathedral is. The spire is one of the tallest I've seen yet. Salisbury is rightfully famous for it, too. The one thing about cathedrals here, though, is that many of them are partially covered by scaffolding. Supposedly, restoration work on the Salisbury Cathedral has been going on since 1986 and won't be complete--if ever--until 2015! It's a curious urge for me to try to crop the scaffolding out of my photographs--perhaps to make my experience of seeing the grand church more perfect or better than it was? Photographs look prettier without scaffolding in them? I'm not implying anything bad happened, because nothing bad did happen there... I don't know the real reason. It's just an observation perhaps on myself, perhaps on human nature. ... The three of us (Eva, John, and I) had agreed to meet at the Salisbury rail station back to Bath at 4:30 (because the train left at 4:41) and we needed to get back to Bath in time to catch our train to York. There was a slight miscommunication of where exactly we would meet--at the platform or outside the station. In short, John and I almost missed the train because we thought Eva had not come to the station, but, in fact, she had been waiting at the platform the whole time. This made for a heart-quickening experience, but we rushed through the gates (after my frustrating encounter with one ticket machine that would not accept my ticket for whatever reason) and ran onto the train just before it was leaving! While we waited for our train back to York, we stopped in at Caffè Nero in Bath. I had a cold frappe milkshake which was indescribably delicious and refreshing. We thought all the flukes of our trip were behind us, but there was one last incident in store. John had forgotten to bring his Young Person's railcard when we left on Thursday, and so far he had gotten away with not having it. But on our train from Bristol to Leeds, the conductor made him pay a fine, and he had to take an alternative route. Now, this conductor was very nice to John. He would've had to pay 3 times as much if the conductor had not deducted much of the fine and given John a different route. John got as far as Birmingham, but no further that night, while Eva and I continued back to York. There were no more trains back to Sheffield until 8:30 in the morning that John could catch, so we texted back and forth with him as he figured out what to do. While the whole situation was discouraging for all of us, mostly for John, we were not too worried. John did get a hotel room and finally made it back (I am happy to report) on Sunday the next day! Then let me end this post on that happy note as I continue on into my seventh (holy cow, seventh!?) week here.
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