Bath, England: town of unspoiled beauty. Its Roman ruins and 18th-century flavor are just an hour from London
To many travelers, one of the delights of a country like England is its manageable size. You can journey from London to almost any corner of the kingdom in less than a day. Trains are excellent, and there are even some superspeedy ones that hurl you through the landscape at 125 m.p.h. This service is called the ``1-2-5,'' and it will get you to Edinburgh or Glasgow in just a few hours. Or, if your stay in England is very short, and you feel you can only manage a day-trip out of London, one of the loveliest -- and easiest -- places to visit is Bath.Skip to next paragraph
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If Bath conjures up images of 18th-century dandies, women in sedan chairs arriving at the Pump Room, or lovingly excavated Roman ruins, you won't be disappointed. But if you imagine, as I did, that by now Bath has become just another modern city with a few historic points of interest, you will be in for a delightful surprise. This little city seems so unspoiled that you feel Jane Austen herself could stroll down Milsom Street today, or climb the hill to Lansdown Crescent, and feel perfectly at home.
If you catch the 1-2-5 at Paddington Station, London, at about 10 in the morning, as we did, you can enjoy a delicious English breakfast on a thick white linen tablecloth, served by a liveried waiter, as the rich and varied greens of the English landscape glide swiftly by out the window. In an hour and five minutes, you're in Bath; it almost seems too soon.
Even before you arrive, though, you are aware of one of the special qualities of this western part of the country. The villages are built of a warm, golden-colored stone, which glows against the deep greens of fields and trees. And as you pull into Bath Spa station, you find the whole city comfortably spread over a hill before you. This is your first indication that Bath has not been spoiled by the 20th century: the whole town seems to be built of that wonderful, honey-colored ``Bath stone.''
To plant yourself firmly in history, a few steps from the station will take you through the Roman thermae of Aquae Solis (the Latin name for Bath, after the goddess Sul Minerva, patroness of wisdom, arts, science, and war). Here the hot sulfur springs, for which the city is named, still bubble up at the rate of six gallons a second, as they have for centuries. The Romans were only among the first of a long line of aristocrats who flocked to Bath through the ages, to drink and bathe in these waters.
The entrance to the Roman Museum is in the delightful little square facing the cathedral, Bath Abbey. And you can walk right out of the enclosure of the huge Roman bathing pool -- which is still fed from the hot springs through a 2,000-year-old lead pipe -- into the elegant 18th-century Pump Room.
Dickens in ``The Pickwick Papers'' makes you expect something much larger, as it is clear that in his day everybody who was anybody congregated there every morning to see and be seen, and generally to outdo each other in their displays of finery. They also took a drink from the pump, which looked a bit like a large baptismal font to me. Sam Weller, Pickwick's stand-up comic of a servant, remarked that the water tasted like ``warm flat-irons.'' A great deal went on in this room in English social history, as in English literature. Could it be that even the flat, slip-on shoes worn by those well-dressed crowds around the turn of the 19th century took their name from the Pump Room, coming down to us as pumps?