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“Bath?” exclaimed the bulbous figure behind the glass at Paddington Station. “Why would you want to go to Bath?”
There was no mistaking his tone: we were about to embark on a pointless day trip. Suppressing my mounting embarrassment, I pursued his innuendo in an attempt to gauge the extent of our folly. He blew me off; remembering himself, he assumed his official capacity as the captain of information and answered our initial question about the train schedule.
Most of the UK travel guides mention Bath as a destination for anyone visiting London. With images of Roman aqueducts, pastoral scenery and quaint Georgian architecture wafting through my mind, I needed little convincing. The mere hour and a half commute from Paddington Station made it the perfect short trip for a Thanksgiving weekend. My partner Jonathan and I figured we’d go out and soak up the local color, get back on the train and be back in Bayswater by dinnertime.
As the trip commenced though, the raised eyebrows of the information clerk came back to haunt us. Having left our hotel in the throes of jetlag, we’d neglected to consult the weather. The day went from sunny to bleak, as the train plowed through a mix of farmland and industrial tracts. By the time we pulled out of Reading, our visibility was totally obscured by sheets of rain. Remembering that this was the site of Oscar Wilde’s incarceration for “gross indecency,” I began to muse on omens, praying that the deluge was but a dream that would vanish when the conductor called our stop. No such luck, and as we approached our destination we realized that the rain wouldn’t be the only obstacle: because of our late start, we were also losing sun.
Welcome to that moment when, in the course of traveling, the best laid plans go awry. In our case, complications were brought on by the weather and our laissez-fare attitude, as we were stubbornly determined not to schedule every minute of what was basically a long holiday weekend. It isn’t always the traveler’s negligence: issues beyond one’s control, like a tourist site that’s closed for refurbishment or a venue that revises their scheduling to accommodate a change in seasons, can also screw you up.
At the station’s information booth we learned that a tour bus circled the main city at regular intervals. Minutes later in what felt like freezing rain, we waited for its arrival with a gangly youth whose job it was to collect the fare. Despite it being the end of his shift, he consented to wait and make sure we boarded alright. We appreciated the company—nothing brings on the willies like finding yourself in a strange town in the dark.
When the double-decker tour bus arrived I inwardly groaned, resigned to circle the historic district in a heavy downpour with no hope of seeing anything. As our bus captain exchanged banter with Mike the driver, and an alert young woman named Kirstie who turned out to be our guide, we found seats, all the while dodging the drips from above and the puddles on the floor. There were no lights on the bus and the darkness made us feel less like tourists, more like freedom fighters being smuggled across the border.
Having said goodbye to a trio of young hip Asian women, Kirstie turned her attention to us. Sporting clear-framed eyeglasses, her flaxen hair and preternaturally pale skin pulsated in the gloom. Aside from the driver and a crony (who we later discovered was a tour guide in-training), we were the only folks on the bus. Being used to solitary travel, I’ve always shunned the guided chaperone, preferring to do my own research before visiting a place of interest. The realization that we would be the sole focus made me want to bolt, but we’d paid for the tickets; better to settle in and endure the claustrophobia.
As it turned out, Kirstie knew things we were unlikely to discover on our own. Beginning with a history of how the Romans discovered the town’s notable hot springs, her commentary painted a picture of the valley over the span of hundreds of years. As the bus crawled uphill through narrow streets, the city revealed itself through her English lilt as we hear of the city’s chance escape from bombing during World War II (only the town square sustained damage), the differences between Georgian and Victorian houses (the Georgian residences were basically apartments; the architecture evolved to accommodate the Victorians who preferred separate houses to insure privacy), and the architectural drama wrought on the town by its chief builder John Wood.
In fact, the beautiful beige limestone (or bath stone, quarried there for over 2000 years) cast a glow that even the afternoon’s gloom couldn’t dampen. Halfway through the ride I actually stopped wiping the fogged bus windows in an effort to see, content to trust Kirstie’s acerbic, informed takes on the sites we passed. It was as if she was regaling us with a bedtime story for grownups, carefully setting the scene as she played all the parts while dishing up catty scandal (in the 1800s, the mineral spas made Bath the destination of the well-to-do; ridiculed by the social elite for her fat ankles, the young Queen Victoria vowed never to return) and solid scholarship. Despite the damp cold and our initial cynicism, we were transported. Improbably, this young woman single-handedly salvaged our day-trip by word-painting a vivid portrait of the town’s rich history.
Later at the Royal, a local pub, Jonathan and I had our first afternoon tea in the United Kingdom. Amidst the worn, dark-rose upholstery, we decided the trip had been worth it, though we concluded that until we saw it in the clear light of day, Bath would forever be unfinished business.
- From Paddington station, trains to Bath run at half-hour intervals. A round-trip fair is 33 pounds. Plan for an early start in the fall and winter—the sun goes down quickly in the afternoon.
- Various buses tour the sights of Bath with a guide in tow. We chose the Bath Bus Company, which stops at the town’s center every half-hour with stops along the way. For 8 pounds they issue a ticket valid for 24 hours. Exiting the rail station, they’re located just across the intersection on Manvers Street.
- The Royal Hotel (also on Manvers Street) provides a perfectly serviceable tea for two (included are scones and clotted cream) for around 6 pounds.
- Weather is unpredictable. Pay attention to forecasts, especially in the fall; it never hurts to pack a folding umbrella.