This time around, Memo from Devon is from Bath, which isn’t as crazy as it sounds, because Bath is where I’ve been for four days and three nights, meeting up with some of my old Nottingham college buddies who like to get together in various places of interest from time to time.
Bath is a fascinating and attractive city. It is cosmopolitan, quite literally, with abundant numbers of American, Japanese and European visitors as well as those from the rest of Britain, even in the last days of September. Much of the central city area is pedestrianized, and it does make for a much more relaxing time of it when walking around a centre is possible without the ever present danger of being splatted against a wall by yet another lunatic playing guess and go without the traffic lights. It is also startlingly and immaculately clean, suggesting that the Bath authorities that be, knowing the worth of presentation to the city, have managed to avoid or somehow lessen the ubiquitous budget cuts here, there and everywhere.
The Roman Baths are astounding, and I use the term carefully; I defy anyone not to be astounded. Wandering through them isn’t particularly cheap – £17 for a single adult ticket – but, bearing in mind what must be the mountainous costs of maintenance, not so unreasonable, and even less so when the whole complex is revealed. Unlike other survivors of ancient times, sometimes little more than piles of old stone, the Baths have been gloriously supplemented with multi-media displays, and all the various rooms in the whole complex revealed, with guidance as to their purpose. The effect is extraordinary; bringing to life how people went about their daily business in the first four centuries A.D. is not easy, but it has been achieved here, and congratulations to all responsible.
Bath Abbey, which looks like a cathedral and is apparently standing on top of a Norman one, seems to have escaped the worst depredations of the Reformation and boasts probably the greatest amount of stained glass, all of it breathtakingly beautiful, which I’ve ever seen in a single church. Like many old buildings, it has enormously expensive structural issues to contend with as a consequence of centuries of wear and tear, including thousands of burials in its grounds. I feel no resentment at making a payment towards such costs, but I do wish we could do away with ‘suggested donations’ and simply charge a standard admission price. People are well enough aware that old buildings have to be sustained and maintained, and to lose buildings such as the Abbey would be an indictment on us all.
Bath also has a breadth of cuisine and accommodation which reflects its cosmopolitan nature. People who criticise English food might do well to remember that Britain caters for a huge extent of national tastes and diets for such a relatively small country, and you would have to belong to a fairly narrow and unusual food culture not to be able something to suit you in Bath.
As a Devon resident, do I feel overawed by such a richly diverse place? No, not at all. Bucolic and yokel-like notions of Devon are widely out of date these days; the cuisine is as varied and all-embracing as anything you’re likely to find elsewhere, and Devon has its own historical and cultural hot spots in Plymouth, Exeter, Dartmouth, Sidmouth, etc. The whole south-west of England is becoming an international tourist hot spot, mainly for the best of reasons, which not only sustains both the local and the national economy but speaks to other countries of how Britain can present its past without ignoring its present and future.