I never caught the guy’s name, and I guess he didn’t catch mine, either. I put his age at around 70 years old – a fit and wiry gentleman, with long gray hair tied back in a ponytail and a full gray beard. His wife looked about 20 years younger. We were sitting outside of the Hilton Doubletree Inn in Bath, England, on a damp Saturday morning. I was enjoying a nice peaceful cup of coffee out on the covered patio when they journeyed outside, mainly so he could vape.
My family and I were in Bath for a three-night vacation while the kids were on mid-term break. This was a couple weeks ago. It was one of those short, relatively hassle-free journeys we sometimes take around southern England when we have some time off and don’t feel like going through the headaches and time commitment of international travel.
The man and his wife were in town for a single night only, to catch a Genesis tribute band made up of French Canadians. The couple were from Oxford, England. We got to talking about the weather, because you always talk about the weather, no matter the place, no matter the time, no matter the people. We agreed the weather was not ideal – drizzly and cold – but could have been worse (even drizzlier and colder).
Then we exchanged pleasantries about who we were, what we were doing in Bath, all that. He had several grown children and many grandchildren he doted on.
“You’re from further away than we are,” the man said, recognizing my American accent.
I told him I was originally from the States and moved to London from North Carolina. Then I told him North Carolina was not too far from Florida. That’s my automatic follow-up line, because everyone in the UK knows Florida, and maybe 27% know North Carolina.
I quickly learned he was a rocker of the old school, a few years older than me and still making it out to club shows. He was a fan of prog-rock and hard rock groups from the 70s and 80s. Last night’s show in Bath had run long, he said.
“I don’t think the band stopped playing till half past 10, was it?” he said, looking at his wife. “A late show, that one. But we stuck around till the end.”
I nodded my head and bit down the urge to say, “10:30? You consider that late? Bloke, that’s when shows kick into second gear back where I’m from.”
Which is true. When I was still in full rocker mode, many decades ago, I’d go see bands all the time at rock clubs. The second sets usually started around 10:30 p.m., and the last set might not start until midnight. The clubs themselves usually stayed open until around 2 a.m., after which you’d head to a packed 24-hour diner to chow down on eggs and coffee and hash browns and burgers or whatever.
This is one of the things I’ve had to get used to after living in London for five years and bopping around Europe – how early everything closes. Getting a meal after 10 p.m. is a challenge. Hell, getting coffee and dessert after 10 p.m. is a challenge.
Even in a huge metropolis like London, much of the city looks like a ghost town around 11 p.m. or so. It was the same in most of the other cities we’ve visited in the UK and elsewhere on this side of the pond. The only exceptions (as I recall) might have been Amsterdam, Prague, and Barcelona.
Compare that with American cities like New York, New Orleans, Las Vegas – plenty others. It can be 3 in the morning and some areas are still bustling with action. Even my hometown of Charlotte – which was only a mid-sized city until about 25 years ago – stayed up late compared to European capitals like Vienna and Copenhagen.
I suppose the reason the U.S. stays up late compared to other places comes down to good old capitalism. When there is a buck to be earned, many businesses in America will stay open to earn it. The wheels of American capitalism churn and churn and churn. No matter what you think about chasing dollars after hours, there’s a certain comfort in knowing that if you have an urge to buy a burrito or doughnut at 3 in the morning, you can probably find some place to buy it.
I’m not sure there was anywhere within 1,000 miles of Bath, England, to buy a burrito at 3 in the morning. But then I didn’t have the urge, so it all worked out……
Bath was maybe the fifth or sixth city in England we’ve visited since moving here. We’ve spent much more time traveling around the rest of Europe. But we have visited the quaint – always quaint – villages of Bath, Oxford, Cambridge, Watford, Canterbury, and Brighton.
I always wondered how a city ended up with the name “Bath,” and the reason is simple: A couple thousand years ago the Romans landed there, found natural hot springs, and established Roman baths. Voila! Bath was born!
We visited the Roman Baths Museum during our trip there. If you ever visit, this is a must-see. The place is quite a feat of engineering, considering it was originally built around 70 A.D., when the roamin’ Roman empire landed in the area. There have been many modifications since then. But the original idea would ring familiar to modern times: Let’s build a nice structure around what amounts to a swimming pool. The structure also includes other smaller rooms that the ancient Romans would use to change clothes, bathe, and maybe get up to some hanky-panky.
Another tourist site is the Bath Abbey, formally known as the Abbey Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul. This is another one of those grand and magnificent structures you find all over Europe. The site itself started out as a Benedictine monastery in the 7th century as part of the Roman Catholic empire. The current Abbey church was founded in 1499, ruined following the dissolution of the monasteries in 1539 by order of King Henry VIII, and then completed in 1611. It is now an Anglican church, or Church of England church, which sounds clunky.
Weird thing while walking around the cathedral: We spotted a U.S. flag hanging high up on one of the walls. Not what you’d expect to see in an Anglican church in England. I didn’t bother researching it because I figured the mystery would be more interesting than the reality. I figured it probably had something to do with the role America played as a British ally during World War II. This was later confirmed by a friend in the States who hails from England, and who said it was not unusual for many British landmarks to honor the USA with these kinds of memorials.
UPDATED LATER: Oof! I forgot to add in the original blog that we also visited the Jane Austen Museum while in Bath. The renowned author lived there for a few years during her short life. That’s a whole other interesting story, how when she was writing they did not use her real name because it was considered scandalous for a woman to write books. She wrote some of the world’s most famous novels without realizing that one day she would be a revered literary figure. For my money, “Pride and Prejudice” is maybe the most readable classic novel of the pre-20th century.
We always try to hit the historic/cultural landmarks in cities we visit, which we should. It’s good to soak these up and expose our daughters to them. But for me, the main thing I like doing is just walking around and marinating in the vibe. I want to see the town through the eyes of the locals.
Bath, like most European cities, is a great place to do this because it’s very walkable and has a very concentrated center city. You can get everywhere you need to get on your own two feet, which is my preferred mode of transportation. The streets and architecture have the usual Old World charm, even when you are passing a Starbucks or McDonald’s or H&M every two blocks.
Sometimes, when given the chance, I would just sit in a plaza or on a street bench and watch the parade of people go by. This, to me, is excitement.
Also exciting: the food! Bath is another one of those little cities that punches well above its weight when it comes to the number of really good restaurants per capita. We basically did a world food tour in a city of 100,000 best known for being called “Bath.”
We had excellent Moroccan food at Boho Marche (order the tagine), excellent Japanese food at Robun, excellent Thai at Thai Basil, and excellent Italian seafood and pasta at Portofino Oyster Bar & Restaurant. (Oddly – or maybe not so oddly – my hometown of Charlotte also has or had restaurants called Portofino and Thai Basil. Or is it Basil Thai?).
We also hit the oldest pub in Bath, the Saracens Head, est. 1713. Charles Dickens used to frequent this joint – and so did we! I honestly can’t remember what I ordered there. Maybe a chicken sandwich and a half-pint of lager?
The pub is not as old as the Roman Baths, by a long shot. But even back in 100 A.D., I bet the Roman Baths stayed open later…
Note: I took these photos around town. I’m not a great photographer, but they should provide a peek into what you might see there.