We arrived in Bath on the same Saturday afternoon as every single university student in south-west England, AND their families, AND their family cars, AND their bicycles ... well, you get the idea. Our cabbie from the train station was a humorous and apparently good-natured chap, although I am certain that he thought that I didn't notice that he overlooked giving me my change as he leapt out to assist the girls with their bags. But, as I was going to tip him that amount anyway, we elected to call it a draw and speak no further of it.
I feel like I've struggled to get to know Bath; firstly in a geographical sense because the city centre is something of a sandstone maze and the placement of street signs is somewhat irregular, like a partially completed crossword puzzle. But also in a personal sense. Have you ever stayed at a "nice" hotel (only during a conference at someone else's expense for me) where it's shiny and clean and comfortable and the staff are all so, so friendly - and yet there is an absence of genuineness to the experience? Bath has been that hotel for me.
I suppose the analogy holds when you consider that Bath has been a city for visitors since it's inception. Right from the moment when Stone Age chaps out for a stroll noticed warm, smelly water bubbling up out of the earth, people have "visited" this place, and the place has developed to accommodate those visitors. I am sure that somewhere behind the practiced facade there is a "real" Bath, but I suppose it's naive to expect to discover it in a few short days of standing in queues to visit the various attractions - particularly at a time of the biggest influx of students since the invention of cheap cider.
Now, having dwelt on the difficulty in discovering the real Bath, let me stress that our welcome to the city could not have been more genuine and friendly. Uncle Jack Mackay gave up a large chunk of his Sunday to come into the city and guide us around the streets, shops and attractions. Jack was personable and knowledgeable and I suspect that, without his welcome, the feeling expressed above of "visiting" may have been far more tangible than it is currently.
We took the opportunity to hop on a tour bus which pretended that it's primary function was to travel the hour or so to Stonehenge and to visit the picturesque village of Lacock on the return journey; but it eventually became apparent that it was in fact a Peter Gabriel homage. The tour diver: pointed out that PG was part owner (along with Robert Plant and bunch of local shareholders) in the community-owned Bell Hotel; drove us past Mill Lane, the address of Real World recording studios; pointed out Solisbury Hill and told us the story behind the song; then, for good measure, played us the song on the bus audio system. At the end there was a moment of silence, then he asked, "Has anyone heard that song before?" to which the response was: (me) beatific smile; (Mollie & Ella, sitting behind me) death-dagger stare at the back of my head; (Mog) resigned, slow rolling of eyes; and (rest of the bus) blank, uncomprehending stares.
I was SO inspired (a little PG pun there for those in the know) that the following day I went on my own little pilgrimage and climbed to the top of the hill.
Lacock was interesting in that it looks like a film set that people live in. The village is owned by the National Trust who let the properties to tenants. It confuses the senses a little to see buildings from a Jane Austen period drama with Audis and Fiats parked outside.
Stonehenge was yet another significant and thought provoking monument where the visiting experience is cheapened by being shepherded out via a "gift shop" that offers the most tasteless tat that you have ever seen as a "souvenir" of the experience. I promise you that my default position is for minimum regulation, but I'm beginning to think that a National Standard for Minimizing Souvenir Crapness might be a reasonable proposition. What they have done well at Stonehenge is to construct the viewing areas in such a way that the visitor can take photographs of the monument without including many of the several thousand other people doing the same thing at the same time.