Aquae Sulis

They arrived at Bath. Catherine was all eager delight;–her eyes were here, there, everywhere, and afterwards drove through those streets which conducted them to the hotel. She was come to be happy, and she felt happy already.

–Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey

Like Catherine, I came to Bath with eagerness. Jane Austen set at least part of two of her book in this city, and I was excited to explore Bath myself. Jane Austen lived here between 1801 and 1806, and her two “Bath novels” (Persuasion and Northanger Abbey) reflect her changing attitudes about the city over time.

The Pump Rooms in 1806 (
The pump rooms today.

In Jane Austen’s time, people came to Bath to “take the waters,” as the Romans had done before them (“Aquae Sulis” literally means “the waters of Sulis,” or Minerva). One cannot use the Roman Baths today, of course (something about bacteria in the water), but I read that there is a wonderful modern spa in the center of town–Thermae Bath Spa–that apparently contains the only mineral-rich hot spring waters in the UK (the waters are heated to a temperature of about 92-95 degrees Fahrenheit). I’m not normally a spa person, but in the spirit of “do as the Romans (or Georgians) do,” this place seemed like it was worth checking out.

The spa doesn’t take bookings, and it has a “one-out-one in” policy to control the number of people who enter at one time, so when I arrived this morning in Bath via a train from Paddington, the first thing I did was go directly to Thermae Bath Spa, bathing suit in my bag, in attempt to avoid the crowds.

It’s a beautiful building, with a contemporary glass and Georgian limestone facade. One session gets you two hours’ use of the spa’s natural thermal baths, steam baths, and open-air rooftop pool, and it was incredibly relaxing to float around in the pools for a short while and gaze out over the view, which includes Bath Abbey a short distance away. Even through the rain and cold, it was pretty incredible, with steam rising from the water. And the spa was a lot less crowded than I thought it would be.

After only an hour of using the spa, I took a shower, dressed, and headed out into the town; everything is very near everything else, and it’s easy to get around. I found a shop selling Cornish pasties, and bought a cheese and onion pasty to munch on as I meandered up to the Jane Austen Centre, a museum which celebrates the life and times of the famous author. The staff at the center all dress as certain characters from her books; Georgiana Darcy was my tour guide, and Colonel Brandon was working the till at the gift shop when I came in. Most of the rest of the tour is a fun, interactive self-guided tour, and there are interactive quizzes, among which is a “Which Jane Austen heroine are you?” (FYI, I’m Anne Elliot from Persuasion). I even learned a few things about Jane Austen and her books I hadn’t known before!

jane austen 1

I even got to dress up in semi-Regency clothing!

jane austen 2

I’ll write about the rest of my day in Bath later!



Regent’s Canal

Yesterday after work, I went to the British Library to stroll about in their collection of rare books–and got to see one of Jane Austen’s notes, as well as what are believed to be her spectacles. I then walked along Regent’s Canal, behind King’s Cross Station, because I’d heard about this bookshop on a barge called Word on the Water. book bargebook barge 2

I browsed for a while and then walked further along Regent’s Canal, stopping to sit for a while on some steps. Regents canalregents canal 2

Most of the walkway is roped off due to construction work, but there’s a floating walkway up right now. Kind of nerve-wracking when pedestrians and bicyclists were on it at the same time, and a barge passed at the same time!

Behind King’s Cross Station is also an old warehouse called the Granary, which has been revitalized recently as shops, restaurants, and office space. I found an Indian restaurant that was redolent of old cafes in Bombay. Had some very good lamb samosas and chicken tikka masala wrapped in naan bread.

Today was quiet; more work, followed by dinner at a new fish and chips shop I wanted to try that was very good. It’s run by a couple of nice young Italian guys in Notting Hill. Today at the gym, the news programs are concerned with the upcoming election in Britain.

I am currently re-reading an old childhood favorite: a collection of the first three books of the Malory Towers series by Enid Blyton. I bought it a few days ago at Foyles bookshop. Just as good as I remembered it!

malory towers


Few Eggs and No Oranges: Vere Hodgson’s Diary

pic12_london_skyline-1One of the reasons I decided to live in the Notting Hill area was a book called Few Eggs and No Oranges: Vere Hodgson’s Diary, which was reprinted by Persephone a number of years ago. During WWII, Vere worked for a Notting Hill charity and documented her experiences throughout the war. She began keeping her diary on June 25, 1940, as the Blitz began, and she wrote about everything, from what was going on in the world down to the doings of her neighbor’s cat. I recently re-read this book and was struck anew by how much this book is a testament to how ordinary people can do on with their lives, even as extraordinary things go on around them. One of my favorite passages is as follows:

[Sunday 11th May 1941] Just heard the terrible news that Westminster Hall was hit last night. Also the Abbey and the Houses of Parliament. They saved the roof to a large extent. In the Abbey it was the Lantern. At first they thought Big Ben had crashed! One cannot comment on such things. I feel we must have sinned greatly as a nation to have such sacrifices demanded of us. Indeed future generations will say we have not taken care of what was handed down to us. We should have been more careful to defend it. We must pay the price now; but it is terrible to think of the wasted years, when, sunk in enjoyment, we did not realize that the days we looked on as precious were numbered.

The Notting Hill and London that Vere Hodgson knew is much different today, but in many ways, her sentiments–of resilience and not giving up in the face of difficulties–ring true today. I feel that, given recent events, we are teetering on that precipice now.


The library of Holland House, Holland Park, just after the Blitz

Today was a busy one! One of my first stops in London is always the Museum of British Looting the British Museum, so after working out, I got to the museum as it opened at 10 am. I was there for only about two hours, but feel like I barely saw anything, there’s so much there! I intended to visit the medieval art room, but it was filled with school children, so I’m reserving that room for another visit.

I had lunch at the outdoor cafe in Russell Square, where my lunch companion was:


I then went over to the Persephone shop, another one of the first places I stop when I’m in London, and picked up three books: Vain Shadow, by Jane Hervey; Heat Lightning, by Helen Hull; and London War Notes, by Mollie Panter-Downes. I saw a dozen more that I haven’t read, so I’ll definitely be back!

I walked down towards Temple Church, a beautiful Romanesque church which was built by the Knights Templar in the 12th century. William Marshall, who was directly involved in the signing of Magna Carta in 1215, is buried there, and there’s a small exhibition set up that tells the story of Magna Carta and its impact, even today. Temple Church is located somewhere within the enclosure of “the Temple,” which consists of two societies of lawyers that maintain the church. It’s a quiet enclave in the midst of hustle and bustle of the city, and I stayed there for about half an hour in peace and solitude, which was incredibly nice.

I killed some time in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, and then went to Sir John Soane’s Museum at the north side of the square. Sir John Soane was a late 18th and early 19th century architect and collector of art and antiquities. The house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields is actually three different houses that were torn down and rebuilt over time to house his collection, which eventually became a museum. When Sir John Soane died in 1837, the house-museum was preserved just as he left it. On the first Tuesday every month, the museum has a museum by candlelight event in the evening, which is just what it says on the tin. So this evening, I went to the museum to see what it’s all about, lining up for nearly an hour in order to get in (they don’t take bookings).

It’s quite cool, and perhaps a bit creepy–the exhibition begins in a crypt in a basement, and the lighted candles at intervals on the floor and tables made everything seem just that much more sinister! The museum is organized in what appears to be a haphazard fashion. But Sir John Soane actually arranged his artwork and sculptures very deliberately. There are guides throughout the museum who explain highlights of the collection, and I got to see, and learn about, the series of paintings called “A Rake’s Progress,” by William Hogarth. The series shows the decline and fall of Tom Rakewell, the son and heir of a rich merchant, who comes to London and wastes all his money on luxurious living, prostitution, and gambling. As a result, he’s imprisoned in the Fleet Prison and ultimately Bedlam. The guide had a lot of enthusiasm for Hogarth’s work, needless to say!

Until tomorrow!



Accompanying me on this trip is Peter Ackroyd’s London: The Biography. It’s a behemoth doorstopper, crammed with poetic little jeweled details about the city from prehistory to the present (around the year 2000, when it was published). I’ve been dipping into it every now and then over the past couple of months while prepping for this trip.


On the plane, I read about the neighborhood I’m going to call home this month: Notting Hill, which Ackroyd describes as “an enclave of quiet urban solidity.” Forget the film with Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts; I wanted to explore the neighborhood on my own!

Up until about two hundred years ago, Notting Hill was comparatively rural; in the eighteenth century, it was home to brick layers and pig farmers. In the early nineteenth century, a horse racing course was established around the hill, so that spectators could watch races from the top. The race course wasn’t successful, and the area became mostly residential. Since then, the neighborhood has experienced several periods of decline and recovery. The entire neighborhood gives off an air which is at once both urban and rural. Such was the knowledge I had as I stepped off the plane at Heathrow, took the early-morning Heathrow Express train to Paddington.

An example of the kilns that would have been used in the 19th century.

While the housekeeper finished cleaning the flat, I went for a long walk around Holland Park, Kensington, and Notting Hill, stopping for lunch in the cafe at Holland Park. The park was the site of a Tudor-era mansion that was almost completely destroyed in WWII, except for the ballroom and library, which still exist as public event spaces for hire. There’s a long walk down the spine of the park called Holland Walk.

… and I have a feeling that Holland Park is going to be one of my favorite places on this trip–not only because of its traditional English gardens…

… but because then you’d turn the corner, and there would be a Japanese contemplation garden (overrun with people out on the Bank Holiday, despite the cold and rain).

japanese garden

Turn the corner again… and you’d see a peacock!

holland park 5

The flat I’ve booked is on the ground floor of a Victorian terraced house on a quiet street that’s just off one of the more elegant streets in the area. I’m very close to the Central as well as Hammermith and City lines on the Tube. The flat has one bedroom and access to a beautiful terrace and one of the semi-private gardens that Notting Hill is famous for–it’s one of the reasons I decided to book this particular flat. The trees are beginning to be green and beautiful again, and I can see myself taking a book out to the communal garden for a good read on a warmer afternoon, or sitting out on the terrace with a cup of coffee or tea (or Pimm’s–when in England, do as the English!).

But for the moment, I’m off to do some more exploring–back again soon!