This month’s theme is Jane Austen locations, particularly Bath, which immediately brought this story to mind.
My husband works for Boeing and he occasionally travels with his job, jetting off to exotic vacation destinations like Glasgow Montana, Roswell New Mexico, and Fairbanks Alaska in the dead of winter. Needless to say, I’ve never felt the desire to accompany him on these business trips. But then, several years ago now, he casually dropped the news that he was being sent to Venice, Italy, for a couple of weeks, and asked if I wanted to go along.
When I finally finished squealing with delight and jumping up and down, I ran to find my passport, arranged for a sub at work, and began making reservations. Boeing had taken care of my husband’s travel arrangements, but I was on my own. The first thing I discovered is that there were no direct flights from Seattle to Venice. I would have to stop over, or at least change planes somewhere – Rome, Amsterdam, Berlin, or London.
London? Hmm. That’s when the wheels started turning.
I was at the time working on my second Jane-Austen-inspired novel, For Myself Alone, which is set partially in Bath. I’d gleaned what I could about the town from Austen’s writings and other sources, but I couldn’t help thinking how fantastic it would be to visit the place in person. If I had to pass through London anyway, why not stay a day or two and hop on an excursion to Bath? An inspired idea! So, I booked two nights at a London hotel and started hunting for a tour to Bath.
In hindsight, it probably would have been smarter to consult a train schedule. But, since I wasn’t a seasoned international traveler, I still hoped to avoid the scary prospect of navigating public transportation on my own in a foreign, albeit English-speaking country. So I signed on to the only bus tour I could find going to Bath, with the bonus that it made stops at Hampton Court Palace and Stonehenge on the way. The big plus was that it was supposed to pick me up at my hotel. Nothing could be simpler or more convenient. Right?
They arrived at Bath. Catherine was all eager delight – her eyes were here, there, everywhere as they approached its fine and striking environs, and afterwards drove through those streets which conducted them to the hotel. She was come to be happy, and she felt happy already. (Northanger Abbey, chapter 2)
As you may have already guessed, my carefully laid plans didn’t work out exactly as I had envisioned. Turns out that when the tour company advertised “hotel pick up service,” they didn’t mean my hotel. But, a city bus and subway ride later, I caught my tour and I was on my way. Hampton Court was very interesting and Stonehenge captured my imagination more than I had expected, yet I was chomping at the bit to move on to Bath. I longed to see for myself the places Jane Austen mentioned in her books, and to spend the entire afternoon strolling the cobbled streets she knew so well.
When we at last rolled down from the hills into town, I craned my neck and was delighted to catch sight of the Pultney Street Bridge over the Avon. That was the first “check” on my list of must-sees. Yay! The bus parked behind the Abbey and, before turning us loose, our guide matter-of-factly informed us what time we needed to be back aboard. I gasped. I want to scream in protest. An hour and a half?!? That was nowhere near enough time!
Nothing I could say or do would change the schedule, however. It was be back at the appointed time or get left behind. So, with the stopwatch already running, I raced off.
I hurried through the Roman Baths, learning from an on-site guide how the place would have looked entirely different in 1800 (check). Next, the Pump-room (check), where I sampled the healing mineral water from The King’s Fountain (check) – warm but not nearly as redolent of sulfur as I expected. Then I crossed the churchyard for a quick tour of the Abbey (check), with its soaring ceiling and magnificent stained glass windows on all sides. I paused in a pew for a couple precious minutes, to take it all in before reluctantly moving on.
With a glance at my watch, I decided to head for the Royal Crescent. Here’s where Bath’s terrain comes into play. The oldest part of the town was established on a fairly level area beside the river. But it later spread out from there, up the slopes of the surrounding hills. So when you read in Northanger Abbey that Catherine Morland is attending a ball at the “Upper Rooms,” it’s called that because these newer assembly rooms are literally at a higher elevation than the old ones. What it meant for me, however, was that the hike to my destination would be all uphill.
Along the way, I had the presence of mind to turn and look for Beechan Cliff (check), which I could see peeking out over the tops of the Georgian-style buildings. Then I luckily stumbled across the Jane Austen Center (check) on my way up Gay Street. Wishing I had an hour to spend, I popped in just long enough to purchase a couple of informative books from a helpful clerk.