Sunday, September 29, 2013

Bath — Abbey

Called the "Lantern of the West" by locals, Bath Abbey is a magnificent example of so-called Perpendicular Gothic architecture. This Anglican church formerly a Benedictine Abbey shows off an emphasis on vertical lines, high vaulted ceilings, gigantic windows with delicate tracery, and a colorful light and airiness from the stained glass. This architectural style followed the heavy and dark edifices of the Romanesque style, as well as the ornately carved Decorated Gothic style that covered available surfaces with statuary and geometric designs.

Gigantic windows dominate the walls of Bath Abbey.
Much of the abbey in its current form was built in the early 1500s, though it was "restored" (i.e., added to and "enhanced") during the Victorian era. Its western facade is most notable for ladders of angels climbing upward toward heaven.

The ladders go up the front towers framing the gigantic window. (Incidentally, the Roman baths are housed in the building on the right with faux-Roman temple facade.)
Angels climbing heavenward.
I'd be bummed if I had angelic wings but still had to climb ladders.
Not all the angels are going the same direction. Here's a bad angel being sent down from heaven.
Stepping inside the abbey, it's immediately apparent how much light streams through the stained glass. The interior is bright. The nave is narrow but tall, and your gaze is pulled upward toward the gorgeous fan vaulting of the ceiling.

The creamy Bath limestone accentuates the light and airy style.
Fan-vaulted ceiling in Bath Abbey's nave.
Delicate masonry in the fan vaulting.
The abbey's light comes from its many windows. Many, many windows: 52 of them. In fact, about 80% of the wall space in the Abbey is windows. It's remarkable to ponder how the immense weight of the stones making up the walls and ceiling are supported with so little substance.

The stained glass in the apse takes up nearly the entire height of the building.
A similarly large window in the transept.
King Edgar I was crowned in Bath in 973 A.D.
The abbey also boasts two organs, including this fine instrument:

The organist was practicing during our early morning visit.
Not everyone was impressed with the abbey. Jackson couldn't tear himself away from a Kindle game:

Until 1957, you had to rent these pews to have a seat, and if you weren't in your seat five minutes before the service it would be given away to the little people who had to stand in the back.
Next post we'll move ahead a couple of centuries to the fine Georgian architecture that dominates the city's downtown.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Bath — Aquae Sulis

At the end of August we headed to southwestern England. The impetus for our trip was to get Kate's veterinary license in the U.K., as mentioned here. Her appointment was on a Tuesday, in London. Since we've previously visited London, we decided to take a long weekend and explore a part of England where we've never been.

On the Friday afternoon we flew from Glasgow to Bristol. We didn't spend any time in Bristol, just picked up a little rental car and drove to Bath on delightfully narrow country roads. Sometimes, the road was not wide enough for two cars to pass, but no one seemed to mind, even though we were often walled in by giant hedges. Fairly similar to Scotland, really.

Narrow country roads in Somerset
No escape! This photo was taken from the passenger's side, so the view on the driver's side is even more unsettling.
Bath is a tourist's dream. Its attractions span the ages: ancient Roman, medieval, Enlightenment (i.e., Georgian), Victorian, and modern. Bed and breakfasts abound. Great restaurants. Beautiful parks. A river perfect for boating. All the sites are compact and walkable; indeed, you'd be foolish to drive and miss the experience of wandering in the town. Flowers and charm and beauty seem to ooze out everywhere.

So, of course, I have too many pictures. Way too many pictures.

Bath, England
Medieval cathedral, wide Georgian avenues, flowers, creamy limestone a snapshot of Bath.
Consequently, I'm dividing up an ungodly long unwieldy blog post into a handful of comparatively shorter posts.

This post will focus on the Roman spa that gives Bath its name. As a town established by the Romans in the AD 60s, Aquae Sulis ("waters of Sulis") took advantage of a natural hot spring. Although originally the Romans just built a temple over what had previously been a shrine to the native Briton god Sulis (whom the Romans associated with Minerva), by 200 AD they had built a spa complex of a hot bath, warm bath, and cold bath (calidarium, tepidarium, frigidarium). After the Empire collapsed in the fifth century, the spa fell into disuse and silted up.

Eventually, the local inhabitants had no idea the Roman bath was nearby and below them. Though there were still places to bathe in the hot springs, the spa was eventually filled by silt and then forgotten. The town carried on in importance due to its church, and an English king was crowned in Bath in the 970s. But gradually the town declined until only a few thousand inhabitants remained in the sixteenth century. Late in the sixteenth century, the baths were improved and Elizabeth I issued a royal charter to make the town into a city.

In the 1700s the city exploded in popularity because of the supposed restorative powers of its thermal waters. The city's economic boom resulted in a gorgeous neoclassical city of wide avenues, tall pillars, large doors and windows, and sweeping vistas. This "Georgian" style so named in England for successive kings named "George" who were ruling at the time, but known to the rest of the world as neoclassical style now dominates the heart of the city.

It wasn't until the 1880s that the Roman baths were rediscovered, though some of the surrounding Roman ruins had been found many centuries earlier. The spa was excavated and then, in classic Victorian fashion, "enhanced" by adding a fake Roman promenade above to look down into the baths. The spa waters are now 18 feet below the modern ground level.

We visited the baths in the evening, when they are lit by gas lamps. We thus enjoyed much smaller crowds and atmospheric lighting. Here is the view you get when you start your visit:

Roman spa from Aquae Sulis in Bath, England
Looking down into the Roman spa at Bath, from the Victorian era balcony.
Viewing the Roman baths from the Victorian-era balcony
Kate and Jackson peer down between two faux-Roman statutes.
Your visit to the baths is enhanced by a good museum and extensive audioguide. You get a lot of detailed information regarding topics such as the usage of the rooms, models of the complex, coins tossed for luck into the pools, surviving pediments, and even curse tablets (e.g., patrons cursing people who stole their clothes while they were in the baths). Oftentimes, historical reenactors wander the site to try to give a flavor of Roman life.

There's a fair bit of scholarly debate about whether the fellow on this pediment is Neptune, or a Gorgon (but those were usually female), or something else. Are those possibly snakes in his hair?
Roman coins from Aquae Sulis
Display of Roman coins found in the spring, dated from 50 to 176 AD. Coin portraits continue in modern times, too.
Historical reenactor in the Roman baths
Who knew the Romans sported beehive hairstyles?
The thermal waters bubbling up from underground rise at a supposedly uniform temperature of 114.8 Fahrenheit. It certainly has a fair amount of iron:

Iron-rich thermal waters at Bath
Looks like your ideal bathing water, right?
Some parts of the baths have almost vanished, while other parts are remarkably well preserved:

These little pillars supported the floor. Hot air could flow amidst the pillars and heated the floor and room above.
A bath at Aquae Sulis
This room is walled off from foot traffic.
I think the best time to experience the baths is at night. It might even be romantic. Except for the other tourists. And the toddler.

Wandering amidst the Roman baths in Bath, England
Early or late hours = fewer tourists.
Mood lighting in Aquae Sulis
Mood lighting in the evenings.
Coins tossed in one of the baths
Wishing well bath: we donated more than our fair share of coins because tossing them in was Jackson's favorite part of the evening.
You can also drink as much of the water as you can choke down want. As a Dickens character opined in The Pickwick Papers, "I thought they'd a very strong flavor o' warm flat irons." Jackson, of course, drank multiple cups.

Drinking the water at Bath, England
"Please, sir, I want some more."
These ruins are one of the best-presented Roman sites I have come across, including Italy. Between extensive displays and a thorough audioguide, visitors can spend hours delving deeply into as much history as they would like. Meanwhile, those who want a quicker visit can stroll through the guided path and still pick up key points merely by glancing at exhibits without stopping. It's very user-directed, catering to different tastes.

In the next post, we'll jump ahead more than a thousand years to take a look at the medieval church.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

You don't know Jack

Like all toddlers, Jackson provides the occasional nuggets of observation or wisdom or humor. These are generally unprompted, often silly or nonsensical, and usually come out of the blue with no context. Here are some recent ones:

Jack with monkey, on a trampoline.
  • "I want make my monkey happy." 

  • "Holy moly!"

  • "My mommy loves my garbage truck."

  • "My belly tooted."

  • "Mommy, lick my arm. Little lick. Big lick!"  

  • "KABOOM!" 

  • "Stephen makes meatballs. Stephen makes meatballs on his truck."

  • "'W' is for 'Wookie.'" 

  • "I'm sleeping! I'm sleeping! I'm sleeping!"

  • Describing American football: "Big guys run around, chase ball, go kaboom."

  • "My grape fell on floor. Daddy, eat it."

Giving a fake smile for Daddy.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Machrie Moor stone circles

Machrie Moor stone circle
Machrie Moor at its atmospheric best.
The best attraction on the Isle of Arran is the Machrie Moor stone circles. Located on the southwestern edge of the island, these Bronze Age (circa 1800 to 1600 B.C.) stone circles are reached after a mile and a half long hike from the island's coastal road.

Path to the Machrie Moor stone circles
The start of the path to the stone circles. Sheep roam freely along most of the path.
The first place of interest you come to, about half a mile before reaching the stone circles, is an old burial mound marked by some small stones. This cairn — over the millennia, the stones have been covered by soil and grass is approximately 4,000 years old. Strangely, no one has ever excavated the mound to see who or what is inside.

Excavating this cairn seems like a good project for a doctoral thesis.
The creation of the stone circles predates the cairn by around 500 years; excavations around the circles have revealed at least two timber circles from around 2,500 B.C. Stone replaced timber in the circles sometime between 1,800 and 1,600 B.C.

The first stone circle you reach is a double stone ring called Fingal's Cauldron Seat. According to myth, a giant named Fingal cooked a meal within the inner ring. As he cooked, he tethered his dog, Bran, to one of the stones in the outer circle.

Fingal's Cauldron Seat; double stone ring
The inner ring of large stones is an almost perfect circle, while the outer ring is more of an egg-shape.
Double stone circle
Reverse view of the double circle.
Mattie reenacting the tethering of Fingal's dog
My rather less-than-ferocious dog, Mattie, reenacting the tethering of Fingal's dog.
Adjacent to Fingal's Cauldron is the ruins of an old farm. It's a reminder that, until quite recently, people did not have the same reverence we have for ancient sites and structures, frequently plundering them for building materials or destroying them in religious exhibitionism.

The occupants of "Moss Farm" had fine views of all six stone circles.
From Fingal's Cauldron, you're lured to the striking sight of three tall standing stones. This is by far the most impressive of the circles. The stones are more than 15 feet tall (the tallest is just over 18 feet tall), and the full circle was approximately 50 feet wide. All that remains of the full circle are the three tall stones and two small nubbins.

Three standing stones at Machrie Moor
Impressive to us in the 21st century, these stone circles at Machrie Moor must have inspired awe thousands of years ago.
Moss growing on the standing stone
What would the stone look like if folks hadn't wiped away the moss from the bottom half?

Dog photobomb
Mattie photobombs.
Millstone from one of the standing stones
After spending thousands of years as part of the stone circle, some 19th century bozo decided to make a millstone out of this rock . . . but then abandoned it in place.
One of the stone circles has only one standing stone left in place. The other stones of the circle have fallen and been buried in the peat, or seized by later generations for building.

Solitary sentinel stone at Machrie Moor
A solitary sentinel at Machrie Moor.
Due to the isolated location on the Isle of Arran, as well as the 3 mile roundtrip hike needed to see it, the Machrie Moor stone circles are far less touristy than other stone circles in the U.K. We found it to be appropriately atmospheric, in contrast with Stonehenge's location next to a highway, and Avebury which literally has a road and buildings within the massive site. Stone circles were intended to inspire reflection and awe in the visitors; it's impossible to achieve such a feeling with hordes of tourists jabbering or cars whizzing by.

Communing with the old gods at Machrie Moor
Kate communes with the old gods in one of the stone circles at Machrie Moor.
If you want to properly experience a prehistoric site, you have to do so without big crowds and away from modern trappings. We had Machrie Moor all to ourselves. The rain and overcast skies enhanced our experience. We could feel the bouncy peat underfoot, smell the wet earth, and ponder the big questions that the builders must have been asking.

Our visit to Machrie Moor was the highlight of the trip to the Isle of Arran.

Brodick Castle on the Isle of Arran 

For more on the Isle of Arran:

You might also like the Isle of Bute:

View from the ruins of St. Blane's Church on the Isle of Bute 


Part I:

Town of Rothesay on the Isle of Bute


Part II:

Monday, September 16, 2013


That's a lot of letters to have trailing after your name.


I never write "Esq." after my name, but now I'm feeling a little pressure to add it or else be washed away in the torrent of letters following Dr. Kate.

She started with Doctor of Veterinary Medicine in 2009. Then proceeded with Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Pathologists in 2012. And just last week added Member of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons.

We had time to kill before Kate got her license, so we admired Parliament and the London Eye.
She's now licensed on two continents. My understanding is that if she works in the U.K. for at least three years, she can be waived in for a license in any of the countries of the European Union.

Swinging outside Parliament, waiting for Mommy to finish.
Kate is unimpressed with her thirteen letters. Points out that she could have added a master's degree or a Ph.D.

Thank God she didn't. I don't think I could handle my envy.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Isle of Arran

Brodick Castle on the Isle of Arran
Brodick Castle on the Isle of Arran.
We recently took a day trip to the Isle of Arran. Located within the Firth of Clyde southwest of Glasgow, the island is approximately 20 miles wide and ten miles long. The northern half is steeply hilly; the southern half is more gently hilly. Some folks like to claim Arran is a "Scotland in miniature" because of its geography, with a highland northern half and a lowland southern half.

Arran dominates the Firth of Clyde.
To get to Arran you need to take a ferry boat. For our 7:00 am ferry trip, we had to arrive at the dock no later than 6:30 to check in with our car, which means we had to leave Glasgow by 5:15, which means we had to get up damn early to be showered and dressed and ready to go. Like all the ferries on the western coast of Scotland, our ferry ride was run by the monopolist ferry company Calendonian MacBrayne, called "CalMac" by the locals.

Caledonian MacBrayne ferry to Isle of Arran
The boat can hold up to 120 cars and 1,000 people.
On our trip in the middle of the week, most of the passengers seemed to be commuting for work, whether delivering goods on trucks or to work on the island. The boat had multiple levels, with the vehicles at the bottom, some restaurants and shops in the middle, and observation levels up top.

Top level of the CalMac ferry boat
The top level was deserted in the rainy and blustery weather.
The Isle of Arran is an attractive place, even in the gusty and rainy conditions we had during our visit. Few guidebooks even mention Arran, and if they do they generally devote only a paragraph or two. Accordingly, it has far fewer tourists than some other islands.

Seaside view of Brodick
The little town of Brodick is the arrival point for the ferry. Goatfell, the highest point on the highland, looms in the distance.
Only 4,600 or so people inhabit the island, almost all of whom live clustered in villages and hamlets on the coastline. A winding two-lane road rings the isle. Along with a few streets within the villages on the island, only a couple of other roads bisect any part of the island and generally only in the southern half. Thus, the vast majority of the interior of the island is pristine and unpeopled.

Our first stop after arrival was at the Arran Cheese Shop. They make a variety of cheeses on location; you can watch through the window. One of their blue cheeses is very highly regarded by cheese connoisseurs and by laymen like me. This is the same cheese that might have given me an allergic reaction (see here), but the cheese was awesome and I'm tempted to try it again, consequences be damned. We ended up buying five cheeses, as well as some mustard and chutneys. Indeed, we liked the cheese so much we came back again later in the afternoon.

Arran Cheese Shop
Arran's Cheese Shop it was so nice, we went twice.
We then headed over to Brodick Castle, a scenic country estate with miles of hiking trails and beautiful gardens. So scenic, in fact, that the castle served as the set for a movie called "The Governess," starring Minnie Driver. I haven't seen the movie, but I understand why the castle was chosen as the location.

Brodick Castle squats atop the leveled hill. The term "castle" in Scotland is used loosely and seems to be applied to any large country estate that wants it.
Brodick Castle
The Royal Bank of Scotland . . .
Brodick Castle on the Royal Bank of Scotland's £20 bill
. . . has Brodick Castle on its £20 bill.
The interior is essentially frozen in time after the last owner donated it to the government in the 1920s. No interior photos are allowed. But it's the kind of place that has lots of Victorian furniture and old paintings and elaborate crystal goblets and deer heads on the walls.

Brodick Castle entrance hall
Brodick Castle's entrance hall features, among other things, 87 stag heads. (Photo courtesy of the National Trust for Scotland.)
Dining room of Brodick Castle
Dining room. (Photo courtesy of the National Trust for Scotland.)
Bedroom in Brodick Castle
One of the bedrooms. (Photo courtesy of the National Trust for Scotland.)
Brodick Castle drawing room
The drawing room is just like it was at the turn of the 20th century. (Photo courtesy of the National Trust for Scotland.)
The castle has acres of gardens and a large country park, with more than ten miles of trails. We spent a couple of hours wandering on the grounds and exploring the gardens.

Lovely gardens adjacent to Brodick Castle
Lovely gardens adjacent to the castle.
Exploring the gardens
Jackson exploring and spinning in the gardens.
After lunch, and a purchase of a case of the award-winning Isle of Arran dark beer, we headed south around the island. We stopped briefly in Whiting Bay, which has a soft sand beach that would have been quite inviting if not for the weather.

Whiting Bay on the Isle of Arran
Whiting Bay.
Whiting Bay beach
This beach on Whiting Bay is just steps from the handful of B&Bs in the area.
Swans, ducks, and seagulls in the bay
Swans, ducks, and seagulls enjoying low tide in the bay.
To circumnavigate the island on its ring road takes longer than it looks on a map. First you're slowed by the twisty and hilly route. Then you're sometimes stopped by farm equipment slowly chuffing down the road, or wild sheep and deer roaming. And you also find yourself stopping to gaze at vistas or islands in the distance.

Holy Isle off the east coast of Arran
A view of the Holy Isle east of Arran. Once the site of a sainted hermit, it's now owned by a Tibetan Buddhist community.
Young buck deer in Lochranze on the Isle of Arran
A young buck wandering in the town of Lochranza.
Roadside sheep on the Isle of Arran
Time for a shearing? That's a whole lotta wet wool to carry around.
Or maybe you just stop to admire a stubby rainbow.
By mid-afternoon, we made it to the trail head for a hike to see some prehistoric standing stones in a moor. It's a three mile round trip hike to the Machrie Moor stone circles, across gently rolling hills and along the edges of farms. Because of the rain, we ended up seeing the site all by ourselves (a far cry from the stone circle of Stonehenge). Solitude is the best way to see prehistoric sites.

Standing stones at Machrie Moor
Three standing stones remain from this stone circle at Machrie Moor.
Kate pretending to try to push over one of the stones. Don't worry, it didn't budge.
Machrie Moor is my favorite prehistoric site in the U.K. so far. I liked it better than Stonehenge and Avebury (in southern England), both of which are too near roads and civilization and crowds to provide much suitable atmosphere, or even to enjoy them much. At Machrie Moor, you have a pleasant hike to thin the crowds, an appropriately desolate setting, and the occasional bleat of sheep as you pass by. Gloomy weather helps, too.

With not a person in sight, we felt free to linger and peruse the stones. Feel their texture. Smell the boggy peat. Ponder the thousands of years these stones have stood in the moor and the immense effort it took to transport and erect them.

Double stone circle at Machrie Moor
In this double circle you can see many more stones, but only nubbins remain.
Mattie, Kate, and Jackson
Mattie, Kate, and Jackson.
Solitary standing stone at Machrie Moor
Only one standing stone is left for this circle at Machrie Moor, which otherwise has low nubbins in the grass.
The hike back to the car was rainy, and neither Kate nor I was smart enough to bring a change of clothes or shoes. We were a bit damp for the rest of the day. Jackson, who enjoyed a great rain cover, nevertheless had a complete change of clothes and shoes waiting for him in the car. Even Mattie had multiple towels to get dry.

Departing the Machrie Moor stone circles
Starting the return back to the car.
We finished our hike in the early evening and had to get in the car and make our way around the northern tip of the island to get back to the ferry. The hills are severe on the north side of the island, and it did feel a bit like driving through the valleys in the highlands.

Our return trip on the ferry was at 7:30, so we got back to the mainland around 8:20 and home to Glasgow by a bit after 9:00. Jackson, who had plenty of time for good naps in the car, was still going strong when we got home. Indeed, the highlight of the trip for Jack was to see an eighteen-wheeler carrying an immense yellow digger drive onto the ferry boat. How cool was that for him? A construction vehicle on a big truck on a big boat! You can picture a Muppet who gets so excited he simply explodes into smithereens. Jack talked about it for days.

Trying to "do" an island all in one day trip was ambitious but achievable. If we had managed our time a bit better we might have been able to make a quick stop at distillery or brewery for a tour, and if the weather had been better we might have considered a longer hike near Goatfell or the surrounding hills and glens. Arran would make for a pleasant two or three day trip. But we were pleased with taking a long but excellent day trip from Glasgow.


For more about the Machrie Moor stone circles:

You might also like the Isle of Bute:



Part I:

Part II: