Bath is really lovely. Sort of like a fairytale city, all weathered stone, humongous churches and alleyways that lead to staircases that lead to more and more pretty streets. The windiness of the streets, and the frequency of beautiful buildings made it not hard to imagine some great, adventure or drama taking place not a street away. I was very inspired.
In the morning, I went to the Roman Baths, which were also rather spectacular. Bath is such an old city it’s kind of amazing: the Baths are still in remarkably good condition - and still warm! My visit to them was only slightly shadowed by the fact that there were about fifty screaming schoolchildren rushing about at the same time, but I enjoyed it anyway.
An unexpected treat was that with the audio guide you could press a button and listen to Bill Bryson (one of my favourite writers) talk about the his perceptions of the Baths. The largest Bath is the first one you see (although it would have been covered by a roof when the Romans used it), and it is an unexpectedly large, green, and still steaming pool. (That doesn’t make it sound intriguing, but it was actually quite beautiful). Bill Bryson’s observation was that the Baths are an excellent visual metaphor for history. You have to walk down from street level (present day) to the Baths (ancient times), and from there you can walk through the remains of various rooms, and see what has been recovered from the Baths.
There are coins that were thrown in offering and have become melded together into masses of metal over time. There are wonderful little carved gemstones, that may not have been offerings, and may in fact have slipped from rings on the fingers of unsuspecting bathers. There are fragmented altars (the Baths were a place to get clean and massaged, but also a place of business, and worship, dedicated to Minerva), and astonishing head of a bronze statue of Sulis Minerva, who was worshipped at the Baths. The Baths are naturally warm, positioned perfectly over a hot spring, and the Romans viewed them as gifts of the gods, and believe their waters to be possessed of healing powers.
One problem (and it’s a pretty big problem), was that lead was a metal that occurred in large quantities nearby Bath, and the water pipes that channelled water into the Baths were made of lead. The Baths themselves were also lined with sheets of lead, and people bathed in and drank that very same water. One of the last things you can do at the Baths is actually taste some of this water (purified, of course). I ran my fingers through it and was shocked that it was really quite warm. Following the actions of two French tourists who had gotten there first, I filled up a cup and took a sip. And it was horrible. Warm and metallic and just pretty disgusting. We all made faces, poured the water out, and moved on.
I spent the rest of the day wandering aimlessly through Bath. I walked across a bridge full of stone shops, and walked down to the river, past a number of cosy looking canal boats, and a massive rugby pitch. I found a park, and went into the Bath Abbey, which was huge and beautiful. I won’t try to do it justice, but it was absolutely gorgeous. I always love that moment I get in a cathedral when I realize that I can see everything, but there are no lightbulbs, and then look up at an immense, gorgeous ceiling full of stained glass windows and carved buttresses. Perfect.
So essentially, I’m moving to Hay-on-Wye as soon as possible. It is the most wonderful place I have ever been in the entire world. I may still be on a bookshop high, but it is honestly amazing.
I left Cardiff this morning at around 11:30, with my hiking backpack, big coat, and most of a package of digestives in case of emergencies. From now on in this trip I’m going to be travelling from town to town every few days. I planned the trip, basically, after looking at a map of the UK, and picking out places based on my own, admittedly eccentric interests. My route across the UK is a bit cock-eyed, but it is wholly mine.
From Cardiff, I had to take a train to Hereford, and then a bus to Hay-on-Wye. I liked the bus ride best, probably because I spent most of the train ride worrying about missing the bus. All went according to plan, however, and the bus ride took me rocketing down a number of skinny country lanes, with tall hedges immediately on either side. I’ve only ever seen roads like that in the UK - I don’t think they would go over very well in America, because back home someone would look at them and ask sticky questions like, ‘What happens when two cars going opposite directions meet?’. They’re not too concerned about it here, and what happens is that the smaller vehicle backs right into the hedge so that the larger vehicle (our bus) can squeak by.
In Hay-on-Wye, I found my B&B, dropped off my things, and went for a walk around the town before it got dark. On a street corner, I met a busker dressed in a navy blue suit with Ringo Starr hair, and a moustache, covering Bob Dylan songs. An auspicious start. From there, I went in search of what I had come for: bookshops. And they weren’t hard to find. Hay-on-Wye is a tiny town, with over fifty booksellers in it, and I have never found such an utter bibliophile’s paradise before.
I walked around and around a shop called Booth’s, a massive secondhand shop with charming, creaky floorboards, a basement full of meticulously ordered science fiction, and a cafe that would not have been out of place in Greenwich Village. I settled back into where I was staying quite early in the evening (it gets dark early here), and went to bed.
I woke up early this morning in the most luxurious bed I’d slept in since arriving abroad. Hay-on-Wye is full of B&B’s, and I stayed in one that was owned by a lovely old couple. Since it was off season, I was the only one staying in the beautiful, colorful old house, although they had one of their daughters, and her three children kipping there as well. I ate breakfast with their smallest grandchild - two years old, and just learning to speak - and she ate all of the raisins in my muesli.
It was a crisp, cold day, so I wrapped up and went exploring. Hay-on-Wye is a tiny little town, with a lot of charming, windy alleys, and more bookshops than even I knew what to do with. I didn’t go in everywhere, but some of the highlights were the Cinema Bookshop, where I got thoroughly lost for about fifteen minutes while looking for the exist; Barnabee Books, which only sold Penguin editions of the classics, and whose shelves were the most wonderful array of faded orange spines; and Hay-on-Wye booksellers, where I curled up for a while in a sunny corner with a book on the Holy Grail.
In November, Hay-on-Wye is sleepy, friendly, and calm. I can’t imagine what it must be like over the summer during the three-week long book festival, when this town of 1,500 suddenly hosts 70,000 booklovers. It really is a magical place, though, full of kind people, secondhand and antiquarian bookshops and fellow voracious readers.
I only wish I had stayed for one more day, so that I could have gone for a scramble up one of the nearby mountains (where my hosts said it snowed the day before!), which are all green, sheep-dotted, and lovely.
I headed out of Hay-on-Wye, bound for Bath in the early afternoon with crackers and Welsh cheddar for the train journey, as well as a few books that I loved enough to get sore shoulders carrying them home. The journey to Bath was unfortunately tedious, involving another manic bus ride (there was a tremendous moment when our bus met another bus on a single lane road - I still don’t know how we got past), and three trains. Bath seems lovely, although it was dark (save for the occasional Guy Fawkes day firework) when I got there, and I can’t wait to explore in the morning.