Exploring Edinburgh in Technicolor

Skyline of Edinburgh from Calton Hill
PART 1 ] [ PART 2 ]

Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland, is known for many things. There’s whisky, which I don’t partake in, but I can vouch that tastings are a popular activity on offer for those who want to sample a beverage that is practically synonymous with the country. There’s its architecture: the “newer” parts were built during the Scottish Enlightenment of the 18th and 19th centuries, when architects looked to classical Greece and Rome for inspiration; this saw the city nicknamed the Athens of the North because of the proliferation of columns, urns, and porticos. There’s its place in literary history, with its brooding medieval castle serving as J.K. Rowling’s muse for the creation of Hogwarts; further back, it was the birthplace of Robert Louis Stevenson and the haunt of Robert Burns.  

One thing, however, is not on this list: good weather.

I have been four or five times before and each of the previous visits had rain, high winds, cloud cover, or a combination of all of the above. Either way, the results were the same: the city was bathed in shades of grey. Don’t get me wrong: Edinburgh is the type of city that looks good no matter the forecast. When overcast, it is moody and looks suitably ancient, perfect for the setting of a noir film or Ansel Adamsesque black-and-white photography.

However, I was fortunate to have both sun and blue skies during a recent visit, and they showed the city to me in a whole new Technicolor light. I was able to take a day just to wander from one landmark to another, which is an inefficient way of travelling as I occasionally doubled back on myself, but having no particular aim meant I was able to pinball through the city to take in both new and familiar sights.

I began by setting off towards a place I had never visited before: Calton Hill. This is one of three outcrops of volcanic stone that have shaped Edinburgh through the millennia, and on a clear day the climber is rewarded with views across the whole of the city: you can look at the shops down Princes Street, see the Firth of Forth and its bridges, and look up to the second volcanic ridge, Arthur’s Seat. The hill itself is home to a number of distinctive monuments that perfectly illustrate why Edinburgh received the Athens of the North moniker.

National Monument, Calton Hill, Edinburgh

There’s the National Monument, a replica of the Athenian Parthenon that was dedicated to soldiers lost in the Napoleonic Wars. Unfortunately the city ran out of money, so only half of the monument was ever built, but in many ways this makes it an even more poignant memorial to those whose lives were likewise cut short and left unfinished. One of the more unusual monuments is the one dedicated to Dugald Stewart, a philosopher of the Scottish Enlightenment. It is based on the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates in Athens and takes the form of a round temple with Corinthian columns (i.e. columns with leafy tops) and a central urn. Classical Greece is well and truly represented within the Scottish capital.

Dugald Stewart Monument, Calton Hill, Edinburgh

Yet when gazing across the city from Calton Hill, it was Oxford I found myself thinking of. It’s known as the city of dreaming spires, but Edinburgh is quite pointy as well. Church towers, random bits of Victorian Gothic architecture, and elevated statues all contribute to a very distinct and rather sharp skyline.

The Royal Mile, Edinburgh

After descending Calton Hill I headed in the direction of the Royal Mile. This street covers the 5,280 feet (give or take) between Edinburgh Castle and the Palace of Holyroodhouse. In the past, parts of the street formed a market place for linen, yarn, and cloth, and in many ways its use hasn’t changed much over the years. Today it is one of the main tourist thoroughfares, with numerous shops hawking souvenirs ranging from shortbread to cashmere. There are, however, little architectural and historical gems if you keep your eyes open.

Like Advocate’s Close. The entrance is a bit hidden—indeed, I only stumbled across it because a tour group disappeared down it—but it is one of the oldest of the narrow, winding streets that snake off from the Royal Mile. It is thought to date to the late 16th century and offers lovely views down to Princes Street and the Scott Monument.

A bit easier to spot is the distinctive crown of St. Giles Cathedral. This is the High Kirk of Edinburgh, and much of the modern church dates to the late 14th century, with its famed steeple being added a century later. The Victorians also did a bit of restoration in the 19th century, with the aim of creating a Westminster Abbey for Scotland. They succeeded, with St. Giles continuing to play a central role in the religious life of the nation.

The end of the Royal Mile brings the visitor to the third volcanic outcrop. Edinburgh Castle was originally built here in the 12th century, but with such incredible views over the surrounding landscape from the top, it’s no surprise that its occupation goes far further back. Archaeological evidence shows that humans were exploiting the area at least a thousand years beforehand, with Iron Age artefacts dating back to the 2nd century AD.

However, its slightly more modern history is one being a royal residence, at least until the first half of the 17th century. It then became a military barracks, and the 19th century saw the start of a daily castle tradition: the firing of the One O’Clock Gun. This was a time signal to the ships moored on the River Leith so that they could set the clocks that were vital for navigation. While this original purpose has long passed, the gun continues to be fired daily. Which, despite being aware of it, still made me jump in surprise!

Grassmarket Views, Edinburgh

From the castle I went down Granny’s Green Steps (I am still trying to figure out the reason for this apostrophe placement and, according to this article, I’m not the only one!) and into Grassmarket. This is a lovely area with pubs, cafes, fun shops, and incredible views looking up at the castle. A previous trip to Edinburgh saw me visit the local cat café, but this time I headed off to a place that is has gone to the dogs. Well, one dog in particular.

Greyfriars Kirkyard has some interesting architectural details, with funerary monuments built against the neighbouring houses and, in a few cases, blocking the windows (on the bright side, the neighbours are at least quiet). The church’s main claim to fame, however, is due to a Skye terrier named Bobby. The story goes that after Bobby’s owner died, the dog spent the next 14 years guarding his master’s grave. He became a local celebrity during that time, and after his own death the legend only continued to grow. A water fountain topped with a terrier was built nearby and a local pub bears his name. I certainly found it touching that people are still making offerings of sticks and chew toys at Bobby’s grave.

Greyfriars Bobby, Edinburgh

From Greyfriars I returned to the centre of the city and found myself thinking about Harry Potter along the way.  It was hard not to: every corner seems to offer a connection to the boy wizard. The Elephant House advertises that J.K. Rowling wrote the early novels there. There’s the obvious castle that dominates the skyline as well as a joke shop that could easily be the inspiration for Weasleys’ Wizarding Wheezes (or vice versa). And I found the Victorian architecture of Edinburgh’s New Town to be rife with random turrets and narrow passageways that made it easy to imagine Diagon Alley had come to life.   

But you don’t have to escape into a fantasy novel to get away from the hustle and bustle of Edinburgh. Princes Street Garden is a sunken park that stretches alongside the city’s main thoroughfare, but walking down into it is a bit like entering another world. It is a fantastic oasis of green in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle, with rose gardens, fountains, and poignant war memorials, and I found it an ideal place to cool down on what was turning out to be a hot autumn afternoon.

As I finished my circuit of the gardens, my time in the city was drawing to a close but there was still one more thing I wanted to do. During previous trips I had visited the castle, Holyroodhouse Palace, St. Giles, and the main museums, but I had never climbed the Scott Monument. It seemed a waste to venture to the top on such grey days but if I was ever going to climb it, today was going to be the day.

Check in next week for the second part of my Edinburgh adventure in which I face my old nemesis: spiral staircases. Please consider signing up to the mailing list to have the latest MissElaineous blog post delivered directly to your inbox each week, and check out social media for (almost) daily photos. ]
Polish War Memorial, Edinburgh
Polish War Memorial, Edinburgh

London Accompaniment

Visiting the Tower Bridge, London

Our inside joke started way back in the distant year of 2010, when MrElaineous was still known as Jon and I was just about to embark on the phase of my PhD euphemistically known as “writing up” (reality: “academic hell”). I had a paper accepted to an archaeology conference in Granada, Spain and Jon was interested in going as well; when registering for the conference I had the option to include him for events like the pre-conference drinks, conference dinner, and post-conference drinks. Yes, academics in general (and archaeologists in particular) like their libations.

When we arrived for the introductory drinks and collected our name tags, I was amused to see the job description that had been added to Jon’s: Accompanying Person. Little did I know then that he had plans to make the role permanent: a few nights later, between pre-tour drinks and a night-time tour of the Alhambra, Jon proposed. Since then, he has accompanied me to academic events across Europe and while I would attend the conference, he would have the chance to explore the city to his heart’s content.

Finally, the tables were turned when he had a convention in London … the MCM ComicCon to be precise. It has more costumes than an academic conference, but I imagine slightly less drinking. I tagged along as his accompanying person and, while he was getting his geek on, I had the opportunity to have my own adventures.

I started off by catching up with a friend out in Greenwich. This former village is located across the Thames and can be reached by a tunnel under the river. It’s home to the Cutty Sark (a former tea clipper), the Royal Observatory and Prime Meridian, the National Maritime Museum, the Christopher Wren-designed Old Royal Naval College, and some of the best views in London. MrElaineous and I only discovered the joys of Greenwich ourselves a few years ago (which, admittedly, is when many of these photos were taken), but it’s a place I am always happy to return to.

Visiting the Cutty Sark, Greenwich, London

Above: The Cutty Sark was built in 1869 to carry tea between China and the UK, later serving as wool transport between Australia and the UK. Although her travelling days are behind her, the ship has been turned into a museum and is well worth a visit. 

Below: Why have just one lovely building when you can have two? The iconic buildings of the Old Royal Naval College are described by UNESCO as the “finest and most dramatically sited architectural and landscape ensemble in the British Isles”. I tend to agree! These were originally built at the turn of the 18th century as the Royal Hospital for Seamen. 

Visiting Greenwich, London

The next day he set off early to avoid the ComicCon queues and I had all of London at my doorstep, quite literally in the case of the Tower of London and the Tower Bridge. Our accommodation was only a five-minute walk from these landmarks, and while I had visited the former a few years ago, I had never made the time to go inside the bridge. The beautiful weather—and the promise of great views from the top—were all the encouragement I needed.

The first thing to note is that despite being an icon of London, this is not the London Bridge. There are 33 bridges that cross the Thames in London, and London Bridge is the next bridge to the west. And, despite claims you may have heard to the contrary, London Bridge did not fall down. A bridge has spanned the river in this location since Roman times, with a 600-year-old medieval stone bridge (Old London Bridge) being traded in for a newer model in 1831 (New London Bridge). It was this replacement that was sold to an American businessman in 1967, and he had it moved it to Lake Havasu in Arizona and rebuilt brick by brick. The newest of the bridges to bear the name London Bridge was opened in 1973.

View of Old London Bridge by Claude de Jongh (1632).
Visiting the Tower Bridge, London

The Tower Bridge, however, takes its name from its location next to the Tower of London. Construction on it started near the end of Victoria’s reign, and it took 8 years to complete, finishing in 1894. After my experience in the Scott Monument in Edinburgh (more about that in a future blog post, I promise!), I was relieved that a lift (US readers: elevator) takes visitors up to the first stage in the north tower. Many of my fellow passengers quickly moved on to the tower walkway, but I stopped for several minutes in the first room, mesmerised by film footage from 1903 that showed London at the turn of the century.

It is perhaps the closest thing we have to time travel, a chance to see to see familiar landmarks through new eyes. Some aspects were very much of the time—a woman selling flowers a la Eliza Doolittle, double-decker buses being pulled by horses—but the general scramble of London life was still present and, in many ways, hasn’t changed. The style of clothing is a bit different—although the fashion for flat caps seems to be making a comeback—but the people who looked into the camera over 100 years ago would likely recognise the London of today despite the constantly changing skyline. If you have some time on your hands and want to disappear down a YouTube rabbit hole, check out some of the similar videos that are available: here and here are good places to start!

After viewing the film, the visitor enters the first of two walkways that have stunning views over the Thames and various London landmarks. A new(ish) addition is a glass walkway that allows visitors to seemingly stand in mid-air over the river and roadway below. As I walked on to it, an employee handed me a sticker: “Glass Floor: I did it!” I laughed and put it on my coat. I asked if many people did it; he shook his head and said, “No, they’re too scared.”

However, some certainly managed to find their courage by the time they got to the second glass walkway and its views over the Shard, HMS Belfast, and dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral. A mirrored ceiling has been installed to allow those with a fondness for selfies to easily take photos, and I enjoyed the resulting architectural funhouse effect.

Visiting the Glass Walkway, London, England

Next it was down the south tower and into the engine rooms where it was possible to see the massive technology that once powered the bascules (the bits on the bridge that go up and down). While MrElaineous had the chance to see followers of steampunk, I instead learned about the steam power and hydraulics that meant that the bascules could be raised to their full height in 60 seconds. Today, it’s oil and electricity that allow the bridge to be lifted at the touch of a button, but at the time of its construction this was the most technologically advanced bascule bridge in the world.

I then hopped onto another bit of updated Victorian technology—the London Underground—and crossed the city to pay a visit to the British Museum. I spent some time photographing the Roman sculptures and mosaics in the Enlightenment Gallery and then parked myself in the Members’ Room to make a start on this blog post while enjoying tea and the quiet hum of museum patrons.

Visiting the British Museum, London

In the evening, MrElaineous and I met up at what is perhaps one of the fanciest Starbucks I’ve ever come across, a round temple dedicated to caffeine in St. Katharine Docks. This was a chance for us to chat about our day, share photos, and show off what we had purchased in the course of our respective trips around London (him: board games; me: tea towels). All in all, I highly recommend accompanying: you get two experiences for the price of one and costumes are always optional.

Starbucks, St. Katharine Docks, London

In the US, the character in the red-and-white stripey shirt and bobble hat is known as Waldo; in the UK, he’s Wally (check out this link for a more detailed history of the famously lost traveller).  Either way, many thanks to Jon Paget for finding him and sharing this photo.

Wally: Found (photo by Jon Pageet)

Opening Doors in London

British Museum Rotunda

Imagine a house you’ve lived in for years. You can navigate to the bathroom in the middle of the night without turning on a light or stubbing your toe. You know those spots of scuffed paint or the peeling wallpaper you keep meaning to fix. You are familiar with every step, every floorboard creak, every quirk of architecture or design.

Now imagine waking up in this house and discovering a door you had never seen before. You open it and it leads to an entirely new wing of the property you weren’t aware even existed.

This was, in essence, what happened to me during a recent trip to the British Museum. MrElaineous and I had some time to kill before seeing the new production of Stephen Sondheim’s Company, and a visit to the museum—recently ranked number 4 in the world by Trip Advisor—is always inspiring.

Yet this time we did something a little different. Rather than visit familiar favourites like the Rosetta Stone or Elgin Marbles (or just scoff down cake in the Members’ Room), we decided to venture a little further afield. After seeing Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s fantastic series Africa’s Great Civilizations earlier this year, we chose to start in the Africa gallery, which, I am ashamed to say, I had never visited previously.  However, its collection of 16th-century Benin Bronzes was incredible to see first-hand, even if the way the pieces ended up in the British Museum—via warfare and colonialism—is less than laudable.

From there we jumped even further back in time, to a collection of Mesopotamian artefacts held in the very top level of the museum. From cuneiform tablets that echo the story of Noah’s flood to one of the world’s oldest board games, this collection brought back memories of my internship in the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

In the early 20th century, Sir Leonard Woolley led a joint British Museum/UPenn expedition to the Middle East. The team excavated the site of Ur in Mesopotamia, finding the tombs of royalty and incredible artefacts that showed the richness and complexity of Sumerian culture. After the expedition, half of the material went to the British Museum, while the other half ended up at UPenn’s museum in Philadelphia. Having written my undergraduate dissertation about the latter, it was nice to see the second part of the collection. From Mesopotamia we then travelled to Mexico. This is a small gallery, but the incredible turquoise mosaics alone are worth visiting the museum for.

Enlightenment Gallery, British Museum

And then I discovered a secret that the British Museum had been keeping from me all these years.

Even if I hadn’t visited the other galleries before, I was aware of their existence. But this was completely new, and I am still trying to figure out how I have never stumbled across it during my wanderings: books, statues, and collections of artefacts and fossils from around the world filled one beautiful hall. I was in love. Indeed, I was ready to move in.

I learned this was the Enlightenment Gallery. Originally known as the King’s Library, it was constructed in the early 19th century to house George III’s collection of over 60,000 books (hence the name), and it was restored in the early 21st century for the British Museum’s 250th anniversary. It provides a glimpse of how collections were once assembled as Enlightenment thinking and curiosity about the natural world, ancient people, and contemporary civilisations swept across Europe in the 18th and early 19th century. This was a time when Western cultures were trying to make sense of the world and their place in it, and it opened the door to the development of archaeology, geology, palaeontology, and a whole host of other –logies.

For me, seeing something so completely unexpected in a familiar setting turned my own world a little askew. What else was the British Museum hiding?!  I didn’t have a chance to find out on this visit because it was soon time to make our way to the Gielgud Theatre for the next (and final) stop on the itinerary.

Company, Gielgud Theatre, London

Last year my birthday present from MrElaineous was a trip to London to see Stephen Sondheim’s Follies with the incomparable Imelda Staunton. While at that performance we learned that a new production of Company would be launched in 2018 and the main character of Bobby would become Bobbie. Having previously seen a stunning gender-swapped production of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, we were intrigued. Finding out that Patti Lupone would be in it meant that getting tickets became imperative. Her rendition of “Ladies who Lunch” brings the audience to its feet in the Sondheim birthday concert, and she is simply musical theatre royalty—full stop.

So MrElaineous kept an eye out for tickets and pounced on them as soon as they were available. Unbeknownst to us at the time, this meant that he pounced on the very first night of the previews: this would be the first time the cast was performing the show in front of an audience. The buzz as we entered the theatre was incredible. Like us, these were the Sondheim fans: people who booked well in advance, and knew and loved his work—they hadn’t picked up a last-minute ticket in Leicester Square at random.

But, I have to admit, I was only familiar with Company from a 2011 concert version with Neil Patrick Harris. It is very good, with some outstanding performances, but the show originally opened on Broadway in 1970—and it showed. While it was revolutionary at the time, dealing with more mature themes that got it dubbed “musical theatre for adults”, it is now approaching the half-century mark and, as you might imagine, some of it is a bit dated: the language (does anyone still use an answering service?) and the attitudes around gender felt a bit stifling. It was definitely time for Company to have the opportunity to shine through a contemporary lens.

On the night, director Marianne Elliot provided a brief introduction, asking for mercy if anything didn’t quite go according to plan. Then we were off on a roller coaster ride that, for sheer enjoyment, is in close competition with the only other musical we saw on the West End this year, a little show called Hamilton.

The new version keeps the plot intact: a single person with a fear of commitment, in this case 35-year-old Bobbie, and her well-meaning-but often-intrusive friends muse about life, marriage, and the pursuit of happiness in New York. Never has co-dependency been so funny.

Besides Bobbie’s gender change (and the ensuing switch of her paramours from female to male), the production also cleverly swaps the lines of one of the couples, converting a housewife into a businesswoman and her husband into a stay-at-home dad. The heteronormative focus of the original is also softened as Paul and Amy become Paul and Jaime. Beyond the characters, mobile phones and computers make an appearance, and it’s amazing how a little change like this can help modernise a performance.

Designer Bunny Christie’s staging was likewise minimal and modern, with most scenes taking place within large boxes that called to mind a dollhouse; the feeling was of Bobbie being constantly on display. Doors seemed to constantly open and close between them, echoing Bobbie’s knack of closing down relationships and the connections that form and dissolve between her and the men she dates. From a practical perspective, this also allowed sets to be changed without slowing down the action, and the audience (let alone the always-active cast) rarely had a chance to catch its breath. Props are also used to great effect: I’ll certainly never look at birthday balloons the same way again. Combined, the staging and props serve to underscore the fantasy nature of the show: we seem to be in Bobbie’s head, viewing her life through a fun-house mirror of memory and imagination.

It was clear that the entire cast put their hearts and souls into bringing Marianne Elliot’s vision to life. Standouts include Rosalie Craig as Bobbie, who carries the whole show on her shoulders but makes it look effortless. George Blagden and the entire company turn “Another Hundred People” into a love song to New York, connections made, and connections lost. “Getting married today”, sung at an impossibly breakneck speed by Jonathan Bailey, had the audience howling with laughter, yet both he and Rosalie Craig managed to silence an entire theatre as the scene takes a heart-breaking turn—all without changing any of the original lines.

And, it should go without saying, that Patti Lupone was born to play Joanne.

Company Previews, 26 September 2018

I think one of the reasons the British admire Sondheim so much is that he shares the cultural love of words. You can see the fondness for a good pun in business names—Curl up and Dye (hairdresser), Reckless Engineer (pub near a railway station), Yak Yeti Yak (Nepalese restaurant)—and there is a reason Shakespeare remains popular over 400 years after his death. In a similar way, Sondheim manages to sketch a character’s mindset in just a few picturesque lines:

So take back the cake
Burn the shoes, and boil the rice

Throughout all of his shows, Sondheim likes to look beneath the surface: What happens after the fairy tale ending? What sacrifice is made for art? What’s really in those pies? Those expecting a pleasant, unthinking rom-com based on the tagline that has popped up on posters around London—What do you want to get married for?—will be sadly disappointed.  Sondheim lifts the hood on marriage and friendship, showing both in an honest, if not necessarily flattering, light.

So go ahead, open that door. Take the time to look at the familiar again with fresh eyes—it might just surprise, delight, and enthrall you.

Dive into Bath

Roman Baths and Bath Abbey, Bath, England

“Hi, would you like to participate …”

“Hello, I’m researching the audio guides and …”

“Hi, would you like to take part in a survey about the audio guides here at the Roman Baths? You would? Great!”

Over a period of months, I accosted hundreds, if not thousands, of visitors to the Roman Baths Museum with a spiel like this. The vast majority would ignore me. Others would say no or, in a more extreme reaction to the question, would look at me as if I had asked them to sacrifice their firstborn.  However, a few would stop and share their thoughts, what worked well for them, and what didn’t; this became the backbone of my PhD research. As a result, it was a museum I got to know intimately.

A few years later I moved to the city of Bath to be with MrElaineous. We would pop out to the Theatre Royal to grab last minute tickets for a tenner, shop and dine along Milsom Street and the small alleyways and winding side streets, and enjoy stunning skyline views from the hillside near our house. In this case, familiarity didn’t breed contempt, but rather blindness. Like the fish who doesn’t know it’s in water, it became easy to take the architecture, history, quirky shops, and numerous events and activities that were on our doorstep for granted. After all, I was constantly surrounded by it.

However, having recently had the opportunity to catch up in Bath with a friend from the US helped me see the city again with fresh eyes, and was a reminder of why it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Centre—I simply can’t think of anywhere else that crams as much heritage into such a small space.

The perfect weather didn’t hurt either. It was a beautiful autumn day, with morning temperatures cold enough to remind you that winter was on the way, but without a cloud in the sky. Much of Bath is built from the eponymous Bath stone, a honey-coloured building material that is quarried locally. On a grey, overcast day you might not think there’s anything special to it but, when the sun is out, it catches the light and practically glows. This is the first thing visitors tend to notice but once you dig just a little bit deeper, it’s incredible what you find below the surface of the city.

Like the origin of Bath itself: legend tells of Bladud, an ancient British prince who caught leprosy. He ran away from court and became a swineherd, tending pigs in the region. He noticed that the pigs that covered themselves with the warm mud were free from skin ailments. He did likewise and—hey presto—his leprosy was cured and he could take his rightful place on the throne.

The actual history of the baths is far more interesting and spans millennia. Rain that fell thousands of years ago on the Mendip Hills filters through limestone and is carried nearly 2.5 kilometres (1.5 miles) underground. Here the water is heated by geothermal pressure before finding its way out through the cracks in the limestone, bubbling to the surface as hot springs with a flow of over one million litres a day and a temperature of over 40 C (104 F).

This did not go unnoticed by the ancient Britons, who dedicated the area to Sulis, a goddess reputed to have healing powers. The Romans, known to be fond of a good bath themselves, arrived in 43 AD. A natural hot spring was the perfect location to construct a bathing complex around, and over time temples, a gymnasium, and a thriving community developed. There was even underfloor heating in the form of hypocausts: stacked bricks that allowed heat to flow between them and warm the tiled floor above.

The area became known as Aquae Sulis—the Water of Sulis—and Sulis became conflated with the Roman goddess Minerva, who was associated with wisdom, medicine, artistic endeavours, and, somewhat incongruously, warfare. This led to the worship of a hybrid goddess, Sulis Minerva. Offerings of coins, gemstones, and utensils have been found in the Sacred Spring, likely to curry favour with the goddess on behalf of the petitioner or as thanks for an answered prayer. However, some of my favourite finds are slightly less holy.

Lead curse tablets show that the desire for revenge was a motivating factor for worship: the supplicant would write who should be cursed, for what, and potentially what form the curse should take on a small piece of lead, roll it up, and toss it into the spring for Sulis Minerva to mete out the desired punishment.

Solinus to the goddess Sulis Minerva. I give to your divinity and majesty [my] bathing tunic and cloak. Do not allow sleep or health to him who has done me wrong, whether man or woman or whether slave or free unless he reveals himself and brings those goods to your temple.

Docimedis has lost two gloves and asks that the thief responsible should lose their minds and eyes in the goddess’ temple.

 …so long as someone, whether slave or free, keeps silent or knows anything about it, he may be accursed in (his) blood, and eyes and every limb and even have all (his) intestines quite eaten away if he has stolen the ring or been privy (to the theft).

I find hearing from ancient people in their own words helps bring the past to life better than any modern interpretation ever could. And the lesson is clear: never cross a Roman!

Although the baths fell into decline after the Romans left in the 5th century AD, they would be given a second life over a millennium later. In the 18th century, “taking the waters” became fashionable and the great and the good—as well as the desperately ill—flocked to Bath, seeking a cure for everything from gout to infertility to paralysis. Water could be prescribed to be imbibed, soaked in, or a combination of the two.

The museum itself takes you through this history and, no matter how many times I’ve been there, I never grow tired of the atmosphere or chance to see some incredible artefacts. Indeed, it almost felt like I was introducing one friend to another! Over the past decade since I conducted my PhD research, changes have been made to make the site even more accessible to visitors through new displays and interpretative techniques; if you’re interested in going yourself, I recommend visiting first thing in the morning to avoid the crowds, and give yourself a few hours to immerse in the history and take in the sights.

Next to the Roman Baths sits Bath Abbey. Although the land was used for Christian worship for centuries, the present building was completed in the early 17th century and is rather distinctive. One of the first signs that it is slightly different from the typical church or cathedral is the Jacob’s Ladder decoration on the front. Most churches, such as the medieval Salisbury cathedral, depict saints, Biblical heroes, and angels in very formal poses, but Bath shows angels climbing up and down a ladder between heaven and earth.

Step inside and the differences continue: due to the pale stone and mainly clear windows, Bath Abbey feels light and airy. Adding to this feeling of weightlessness is the Abbey’s fan vaulting, which is a relatively late addition added by architect Sir George Gilbert Scott in the mid-19th century to fulfil his vision of a Gothic structure. During our visit they were preparing for TEDx Bath, and I love this contemporary use of such an iconic Bath monument. It is also a useful reminder that just because a building is historic, it doesn’t mean it’s static.

Pulteney Bridge and Weir, Bath, England

From the Abbey we walked through the Parade Gardens and along the River Avon. When I lived in Bath, this was an area I seldom visited, but it provides a different perspective on familiar Bath landmarks, like the weir. This horseshoe-shaped structure has its origins in the early 17th century to help prevent flooding, and today it still helps to keep the water levels in check (while also serving as a boundary for the river boats!).

Just above the weir is the picturesque Pulteney Bridge, one of only four bridges in the world that still have shops on it (if you’re curious, the others are the Ponte Vecchio in Florence; Venice’s Rialto Bridge; and Krämerbrücke in Erfurt, Germany). Pulteney Bridge was constructed in the 1770s by the Pulteney family to connect the city centre with their new development of Great Pulteney Street. The Palladian design is by Robert Adams, one of the 18th century’s leading architects. Although a number of tweaks have been made in the intervening years, it still has to be one of the prettiest sites in Bath.

Another landmark that seemed to crop up in many of my photos is the former Empire Hotel, which was built in 1901. MrElaineous and I went on many dates in the restaurant on the ground floor, so it has happy memories for me. Clearly having a lot of time on his hands, Sir Nikolaus Pevsner wrote a 46-volume, county-by-county architecture guide called “The Buildings of England”, and in it he describes the hotel as a “monstrosity and an unbelievable piece of pompous architecture”. He’s entitled to his opinion, but I’m still rather fond of it!

So far on our meanderings through Bath, my friend and I had kept to my mental itinerary of things to see and do, but we veered slightly off course and headed to the local rugby ground to see a flock of owls. The goddess Minerva (Athena to the Greeks) is often shown with an owl—one of the many reasons the bird is associated with wisdom—and this summer the Minerva’s Owls public art trail could be found throughout Bath, following in the trotters of King Bladud’s pigs. Each owl is decorated in a different style and it was great fun to see the enormous talent and creativity on display; follow this link to check them out yourself and let me know your favourite! With perfect timing, we managed to catch the owls all in one place before they flew the coop at auction.

Minerva's Owls Art Trail, Bath, England
King Bladud's Pigs, Bath, 2008

From contemporary art to Georgian architecture, we headed along Great Pulteney Street and up the hill to see two of Bath’s iconic buildings, the Circus and the Royal Crescent. The former was built by John Wood the Elder in the mid-18th century, and has nothing to do with elephants, clowns, or the big top. Instead, circus comes from the Latin word for ring or circle, and that’s exactly how these townhouses are constructed. There are three sets of buildings that form a circle around a central green space, and each frontage is decorated with the neoclassical designs that were popular in the Georgian period.

Just down the street from the Circus is Bath’s splendid Royal Crescent. This was constructed by John Wood the Younger between 1767 and 1774. At that time it consisted of 30 individual townhouses in the Palladian style, which takes its name from designs developed in the 16th century by Italian architect Andrea Palladio. Today, 10 of the townhouses have been left as full-size homes and 18 are divided into flats. The remaining two houses can actually be visited: one is a museum and the other is the Royal Crescent Hotel. MrElaineous and I stayed there once to celebrate jumping through one of my immigration hoops; I admit to not being very impressed by our room, but the swimming pool—heated by Bath’s hot springs—is top notch!

Royal Crescent, Bath, England

As my friend and I headed back toward the city centre, we popped into the Jane Austen Centre. While the building itself has nothing to do with Jane, she did live in Bath at different points in her life, reflected in both the highs and lows of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. Visiting the Centre is an opportunity to learn a bit more about Jane the person, and it’s something I would recommend to anyone who is a fan of her work because it helps put her writing into context. It is also useful if you’re looking for any “I ❤ Darcy” souvenirs.

We wrapped up the day at Sally Lunn’s Restaurant, which, with a construction date of approximately 1482, bills itself as one of the oldest houses in Bath. According to legend, Huguenot refugee Solange Luyon escaped persecution in France, settling in Bath in the late 17th century. She is credited with bringing a form of French brioche to Georgian England, yet her French name was mispronounced by colleagues, giving rise to the “Sally Lunn bunn”.

Today, Sally Lunn’s offers local food based on authentic historic menus and remains the home of this very special baked good (the recipe is a closely guarded secret!). In a masterstroke of PR, this is described as part bun, part bread, and part cake; doesn’t this description make you want to run out and try one?

The bun is generally eaten with a knife and fork but there are no fixed rules. Most guests enjoy their bun with a huge smile on their face.

I can vouch that they are very tasty! Beyond that, it was an excellent venue to relax and reflect on the day. For starters, I was very grateful to have had an opportunity to catch up with a dear friend I hadn’t seen in almost two decades, as well as fall in love all over again with a city that has played such a large role in my life. After all, Bath is where MrElaineous and I spent our first year of marriage—and it’s the place that always causes me to say “Yes” if anyone asks me to fill out a survey.

Great Pulteney Street, Bath, England

She seeks seashells (and fossils) by the seashore

High tide at Lyme Regis, Dorest, England

Fishpond Bottom. Thornfalcon. Monkton Wyld. Cricket Malherbie. Beercrocombe. Curry Mallet. Cheddon Fitzpaine. Queen Camel.

MrElaineous and I were heading south, and as I followed our route across the map I couldn’t help but wonder about the subconscious impact of cartography on a nation’s mindset. After all, this is a country that has given the world both Monty Python and Middle Earth, and as the towns and villages flashed by it seemed that local atlases may have been fertile ground as a source of inspiration for generations of comedy and fantasy writers!

Rather than Rivendell, our destination was the seaside town of Lyme Regis. Located just inside the Dorset county border, Lyme is one of the jewels of the 95-mile long Jurassic Coast. This is one of the only areas in the world where it is possible to see three geologic time periods—the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous—on the surface. The coast itself spans a remarkable 185 million years, and during this time it has been desert, tropical sea, and swamp. The plants and animals who once called it home have made their mark: near Lulworth Cove, there are the remains of a fossilised forest, and the fossils of animals ranging from tiny insects to gigantic marine reptiles can be found across the coast. At Lyme in particular, the eroding cliffs have been spilling out fossils for centuries.

Cliff face, Lyme Regis, Dorset, England
Painting of Mary Anning (pre-1842)

Mary Anning: 
A Paleontological Heroine

Indeed, Lyme Regis’ most famous fossil hunter got her start in the early 19th century. Mary Anning was born in 1799 and, at the age of twelve, found an ichthyosaur skeleton. These marine reptiles (not dinosaurs) looked a bit like dolphins due to convergent evolution, and many of the finest examples in London’s National History Museum were collected by Mary from the cliffs at Lyme.

Twelve years later Mary found the first complete skeleton of a plesiosaur and, a few years after that, uncovered the first British example of a pterosaur. Mary was working at a time when people were beginning to question the biblical timeline, investigations into the new science of geology were taking off, and men of learning—or at least those who wanted the appearance of learning—assembled cabinets of curiosities that contained wonders from the natural world.

To cater for this need, Mary ran a shop in Lyme where she sold fossils to individual collectors and museums. Yet she was more than just a shopkeeper: she also scoured the cliffs to look for fossils as they emerged, and she educated herself about extinct creatures by dissecting their modern counterparts. She herself became a tourist attraction, with King Frederick Augustus II of Saxony stopping at the shop, and many of the budding geologists of the day relied on her for guidance and specimens.

Despite being described as someone who “understands more of the science than anyone else in this kingdom”, she was unable to join the Geological Society of London because she was a woman, and many of the scientific papers that were based on her discoveries failed to mention her. It’s no wonder a friend of hers reported: “These men of learning have sucked her brains, and made a great deal of publishing works, of which she furnished the contents, while she derived none of the advantages.”

Although her contributions to geology and paleontology were not fully recognised in her lifetime, she was named by the Royal Society as one of the most influential British women in science, and it is claimed that the tongue-twister “She sells seashells by the seashore” was inspired by her activities in Lyme.

Visiting Lyme Regis Today

While Mary Anning’s shop is long gone, Lyme is still known for its fossils: you can barely walk more than a few feet without stumbling over an ammonite, whether used in a business logo, on the town’s lampposts, or on one of the sculpted pavements outside the town museum. As someone with a small ammonite collection of my own, this is like coming home. Indeed, every few years I wash up at Lyme Regis for a spot of sea, sun (if I’m lucky), and fossil finding (if I’m luckier). However, this was the first time I went on one of Lyme’s fossil walks organised by the museum.

My verdict? Go. In fact, go now. Just check the tide table before you do. I am kicking myself for not doing the walk sooner.

First of all, it’s informative: guides Chris Andrew and Paddy Howe clearly know their geology. Their ability to compress 185 million years’ worth of information into three hours is incredible, and actually being in the location makes it come to life in a way that can’t be captured in a YouTube video. Second, it’s inspiring: Chris and Paddy love what they do. Even though they have probably delivered the same spiel hundreds, if not thousands, of times to the tourists and school children who flock to the shore, their enthusiasm never wavers. Finally, it’s incredible value for money: not only do you get Chris and Paddy’s expertise, but your ticket also gives you free admission to the Lyme Regis Museum. Oh, and did I mention that Chris and Paddy also double as a comedy act? For seaside education and entertainment, it’s hard to beat.

Chris Andrew, Lyme Regis Museum

Besides the fossil walk itself, I spent several hours looking for ammonites, belemnites (a type of squid), and any other fossils I could get my hands on. I consider myself an intermediate fossil hunter: I grew up finding fossilised sharks’ teeth and other prehistoric bits and bobs while vacationing in Venice, Florida, but the beaches of Lyme Regis require a whole new level of fossil detecting than I am used to.

The sheer number of rocks and their colour are the first things to contend with. In Florida, there’s sand, shells, and seaweed. Anything black in colour has a good chance of being a fossil, and light reflects differently off bone and the enamel of sharks’ teeth. At low tide in Lyme, however, there is mud, black rocks, grey rocks, and everything in between. Added to all of this, a decade ago a landslip brought part of the old town dump crashing down onto the beach. This dropped a generation of detritus—glass bottles and jars, ceramic containers and bits of tile, metal bits and engine parts—right into the middle of a fossil zone. These pieces are being constantly turned over by the surf, leading to unusual shapes that trick the brain into seeing what isn’t there. It is, however, a useful place to look for sea glass!

Ammonite on a beach at Lyme Regis, Dorset, England

So fossil hunting in Lyme can be a challenge, but I also find it meditative. Because you never know what you might find, your focus is purely on the patch of beach in front of you—it becomes the ultimate mindfulness exercise. Worries drift away on the tide and every find, no matter how small, is an encouragement to look for the next. There’s then the excitement of actually discovering a fossil, a piece of the past that hasn’t been seen by anyone in millions of years.

All of that being said, fossils were thin on the ground during this visit. The best time to go hunting is after the winter storms when the sea washes more of the cliffs onto the beach below. But for enjoying the ambiance of a seaside town during the off-season, September proved to be ideal. The crowds were practically non-existent, and most of the people present were locals walking their dogs along the shore. Indeed, I came to the conclusion that it is a requirement to own a dog if you live in Lyme Regis as it is a town that seems more pet friendly than most (and most UK towns are pretty welcoming!).

There is also more to Lyme than just fossils. MrElaineous and I took advantage of the free entry to the Lyme Regis Museum and, while much of it is dedicated to the local geology and fossilised flora and fauna, it also provides a useful reminder about other aspects of the town’s cultural history. For example, Jane Austen set part of her novel Persuasion in Lyme, and the medieval jetty known as the Cobb plays a pivotal role in the plot of this underappreciated romance. For a romance of a different sort, John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman is also set in Lyme, and the award-winning film adaptation used the town as a backdrop to the movie.

All too soon it was time to leave Lyme, and we retraced our journey home past Queen Camel, Cheddon Fitzpaine, Curry Mallet, and the rest. If you’re curious, the name of Lyme itself originates from being at the mouth of the River Lim (a.k.a. Lym). It was granted a royal charter in the 13th century, allowing it to use the term Regis (literally “of the king”, or the King’s Lyme). Whether you’re looking for a seaside escape or a journey back in time, Lyme Regis is the spot: you don’t have to be royalty—or a camel—to enjoy it.

Sunset at Lyme Regis, Dorset, England
[ As the days get shorter and nights longer, I will be travelling and blogging less. However, I am working on a new project that I am looking forward to sharing with you as soon as it’s ready, and I will also be continuing to share daily photos on social media. Consider following me on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter to see more MissElaineous images of the UK, and sign up to the MissElaineous mailing list to have the blog posts emailed directly to you.]
MissElaineous Blog: Escape & Explore & Discover & Enjoy