• 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

    The Autumn Collection

    Autumn Colours at Westonbirt Arboretum
    [ If you have been following along with my daily posts on Facebook or Instagram, this might look familiar! ]

    Growing up in Florida, plants consisted of flowers, palm trees, pine trees, and evergreen shrubs. There were two seasons—hot and hotter—but every building had air conditioning so most time was spent in a climate-controlled bubble.

    So going to Bryn Mawr College​ in Pennsylvania as an undergraduate brought with it a host of changes beyond the usual freshman adjustment period. There was no air conditioning, so summers were warm and humid with no escape. Winter would dump inches of snow on us and we were still expected to go to class (so much for those fabled snow days I had only ever heard about). Spring would be a riot of blossoms. And autumn? A profusion of colours that, for a few weeks at least, would turn ordinary leaves into jewels.

    One day during my freshman year I was picking up some fallen leaves to press—family and friends in Florida always talked wistfully about autumn leaves and missing the change of seasons, so my plan was to send them a few.  While I was choosing the most brightly coloured leaves, a friend stopped by to ask what I was doing, and the impression she gave was that leaf collecting was a little unusual. Indeed, I think she thought I had lost it.

    So I explained to her what I was doing, and why. Her confusion turned to surprise. “Leaves don’t change colour in Florida? It’s green all year?!” It was a revelation: lack of seasonal variation was just as much a novelty to her as the changes were to me. Since moving to England, autumn at Westonbirt Arboretum​ is always one of the highlights of the year. I have, however, swapped collecting leaves for photographing them!

    Besides the simple fact that there is a change of seasons in the UK compared to Florida, one of the things I have had to get used to is terminology. In the US, “fall” and “autumn” are used interchangeably, with the former being the most common. In the UK, however, autumn is the given name for the season.

    Why the difference?

    According to my good friend Google, “fall” was actually used in England up until the 17th century, and was short for “fall of the leaf” (which makes perfect sense since that is what tends to happen). It replaced “harvest” as the name for the period between summer and winter because more people were beginning to move into cities and the usual agricultural rhythm of the countryside started to be disrupted.

    However, the British then decided to adopt “autumn” from the French “automne”. English settlers on the eastern seaboard of the US had brought the older phrase “fall” with them, so that remains in the States with other Old English words (spring, summer, winter), and the UK continues to use the slightly more modern “autumn”.

    Ever wonder what makes autumn so spectacular?

    Leaves contain the green pigment chlorophyll, which captures energy from the sun and turns it into food for the tree. However, the decreasing amount of daylight and cooler temperatures cause the chlorophyll to break down and allow the other pigments in the leaves—such as the yellow xanthophyll and orange carotenoids—to become visible. While this basic process is repeated year after year, the weather can affect the duration and intensity of the colour. The temperature, light, and amount of water the tree receives all have an impact. For example, low temperatures that stay above freezing will bring out the red of the anthocyanin pigment in maple trees, but an early frost can reduce the colour.

    What will this year bring in terms of autumn colour?

    I have a suspicion that it may be more muted than usual due to the stress of the summer’s heatwave, plus a few early autumn storms are already knocking the leaves from the trees. But please feel free to enjoy these photos from past years to help get you in an autumnal mood—pumpkin spice latte optional!

    [ If you’re interested in seeing even more of autumn in the UK, check out this earlier blog post about visiting Westonbirt Arboretum. ]
    Autumn Colours at Westonbirt Arboretum

    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.]

    Wiltshire Round Up

    If you have ever watched any television series, you’ll be familiar with the phenomenon of the clip show. These often string together the best segments from previous episodes, or perhaps are built around a particular theme. Welcome to the clip show in blog format!

    This past summer I’ve been exploring closer to home and enjoying the wonders of Wiltshire, but in the not-too-distant future I will be heading off slightly further afield. Until I have a chance to share that trip, I thought I would collect all of my miscellaneous writings about Wiltshire into one place.

    Take a seat, Manor House Hotel, Castle Combe, Wiltshire

    To the Manor Born (published by Professional Travel Planner): I think everyone has a “happy place” they call upon when stressed, bored, or simply daydreaming. That location they mentally return to again and again to reminisce about good times, and which serves as a reminder to revisit in person as soon as possible. I consider myself fortunate to have several such places; some are located halfway around the globe and are more difficult to get to on a regular basis, but there is one that is practically on my doorstep: the Manor House in Castle Combe.

    Exploring What’s on Your Doorstep (published by Visit Wiltshire): And speaking of doorsteps, it was wonderful to discover new places and revisit an old favourite this summer. From the Devizes Marina Café to Bowood House and Gardens, this trip was a great reminder that you don’t necessarily need to travel great distances to have a great time.

    Salisbury Cathedral, Wiltshire

    Discovering Historical Salisbury (published by Visit Wiltshire): I loved exploring the different time periods on offer in Salisbury, from the far distant past at the Salisbury Museum to the heights of the medieval cathedral to the Victorian architecture of Fisherton Mill (and its modern and very delicious cakes). If you have ever daydreamed about hopping aboard a time machine, Salisbury is the city for you.

    Seduced by Salisbury: I enjoyed Salisbury so much I wrote about it twice! These are the immediate thoughts I jotted for social media that got “slightly” longer than anticipated.

    Wiltshire Wonderland: This is a slightly different blast from the past. A few years ago MrElaineous and I went out to look for bluebells one evening and instead found a captivating countryside bathed in golden hour light.

    Wiltshire Wanderings: Not only did we find bluebells during this early morning trip to the beautiful West Woods, but we also paid a visit to the standing stones at Avebury. While less well known than its counterpart at Stonehenge, it is an incredible place to visit—just watch out for the sheep!

    Avebury, Wiltshire
    Lacock Abbey, Wiltshire

    Around Lacock: I first stumbled across the National Trust village of Lacock on television, standing in as Jane Austen’s Meryton in the famed 1996 production of Pride and Prejudice. Since writing this blog post, I am pleased to say that it has become part of my walking routine.

    Delightful Devizes: One of the things I love about travelling is how it one trip often leads to another. A visit to the quaint market town of Devizes sparked even more explorations this summer, from the rolling fields of Somerset Lavender Farm to picturesque gardens in the heart of Somerset.

    If you enjoyed this glimpse into the wilds of Wiltshire, please consider signing up to the mailing list to get the free eBook Off the Beaten Track: 7 Wiltshire Walks (a.k.a. The (Mis)Adventures of a Novice Walker). It is full of even more photographs of the English countryside … and a few outings that didn’t go quite according to plan!

    Summer, Shakespeare, and Sightseeing

    National Trusts The Courts, Holt, Wiltshire

    It was Shakespeare—and a very dedicated English teacher—who brought me to the UK in the summer of 1999. Since then, I’ve had the pleasure of enjoying a number of plays (and the odd musical or two) in gardens across the country. This is because once the weather warms up, outdoor spaces are converted into open-air theatres for local amateur dramatic groups and professional touring companies.

    It was one of the former that I had the opportunity to catch this summer at the Glove Factory Studios in the nearby village of Holt. I was familiar with the quality of Holt’s productions from past performances: from murder mysteries and 18th century plays to Jane Austen and Shakespeare, they are willing to tackle it all. This production happened to be one I was unfamiliar with, Shakespeare’s  Measure for Measure.


    The Glove Factory Studios, Holt, Wiltshire

    This is considered one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays” because of the abrupt shifts in tone, from dark drama to comedic word play (even Shakespeare wasn’t above making a bum joke!), yet it is also a work that seems specifically written for the #MeToo era. For a modern audience, the play cannot be neatly pigeonholed into comedy or tragedy, but is something rather different: complicated and thought provoking. The cast did a fantastic job handling this difficult material, wringing laughs from centuries old jokes while also underscoring that abusers and their victims have been locked in a battle for belief for centuries. This was brought home with a line from the corrupt Angelo:

    “As for you,
    Say what you can, my false o’erweighs your true.”

    Beyond getting acquainted with one of the Bard’s more difficult works, this also served as my introduction to the Glove Factory, which houses studio space and a café in converted historic buildings (their original use is in the name). My curiosity was piqued; I decided to make a return visit to check out the café properly and spend some time in the lovely gardens at The Courts, a National Trust property in the very heart of the village.

    It was a good decision. The Field Kitchen at the Glove Factory was a great place for a bite to eat, with fresh, local food and a fantastic atmosphere. The only downside is that it is slightly too far away to visit on a regular basis; otherwise, my laptop and I would have a reserved table as it’s the perfect place to work in.

    It is only a stone’s throw to The Courts, which was built in the early 18th century for a wealthy cloth merchant. However, it takes its name from its secondary use: serving as a village court of law for local weavers to settle disputes. Two centuries later, the owner was influenced by famed landscape architect Gertrude Jekyll to create a series of “garden rooms” that flow into each other while retaining their own character. This makes it a wonderful place to explore and, at seven acres plus an arboretum, there is plenty to see in the course of a visit.

    Although most of the flowers were slightly past peak when I was there, not helped by the summer’s heatwave, the raised pond was spectacular. Water lilies and their reflections added bright spots of colour to the surface, and darting here and there above the water were colourful dragonflies and damselflies. The dragonflies in particular were making the most of the beautiful day to court, mate, and lay their eggs in the water. The ravenous nymphs of both species will overwinter in the pond before emerging as adults, with the dragonflies potentially taking several years to reach maturity.

    I have been fortunate this summer to enjoy a little of everything that Wiltshire has to offer, from quaint market towns, grand houses and gardens, and the spire of Salisbury (and beyond). However, stay tuned: I’ll be venturing a bit further afield soon, and going a lot further back in time.

    Waterlily reflections at National Trust The Courts, Holt, Wiltshire
    Pond reflections at the National Trust's The Courts, Holt, Wiltshire
    MissElaineous Blog: Escape & Explore & Discover & Enjoy