UK Road Trip Part II: Seven Sisters and the Roman Baths

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Following the directions we got from Mr. Martin at Jeake’s House, we drove south from Rye, towards the coast and then along the shoreline through some charming coastal towns. They all appeared ready for summer with beach toys and umbrellas on display, despite the fact that it was already mid-May and we were still wearing scarves and jackets.

Based on Mr. Martin’s suggestion we stopped at Beachy Head to see the Seven Sisters, a series of sheer white limestone cliffs with a drop so sudden it made me dizzy. He called this the suicide capital of England. He told us the pay phone here is free but only dials the National Suicide Hotline. He chuckled with a dark sense of humor as he told us this.

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From the carpark you can’t really tell that you are walking towards a sheer cliff. To me, it just looked like a hill. I assumed the cliffs were on the other side. I started walking up the “hill” at a rather fast pace (I was excited) and Brandon kept telling me to slow down. Apparently I was about to walk right over the edge!

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Brandon says that I was really more like twenty feet from the edge and not actually about to plummet towards my death, but I’m clumsy and he was rightfully concerned. Once I realized the sheer size of these cliffs, I simply couldn’t get over it. My fear of heights got the better of me and I was completely convinced that I had nearly fallen right over the edge.

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This was more or less my “comfortable distance from the edge” after that. It wasn’t funny at the time, but afterwards I can see the humor in the situation. My reaction upon realizing how close I was to the cliffs — “Where is the f**cking railing?! Why isn’t there a warning sign?!” I can’t escape the fact that I am still a lawyer from America. I see liability everywhere. Here they just let you waltz right over the edge.

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We never checked to see if Mr. Martin’s story about the suicide hotline was true but we did find the old crusty telephone box he told us about.

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I liked this section of the cliffs much better. They had railings and the drop appeared to be far more survivable.

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The cliffs are beautiful and I’m glad I went but I’m not sure this one is going on my list of repeat adventures.

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Brandon, on the other hand, thought it was fabulous and had a great time walking right up to the edge for photos while I screamed at him not to get so close because I honestly thought he might just topple over and be lost to the ocean.

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I was so incredibly relieved once we were back in the car.

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Our drive took us through lots of farmland, but instead of cows (like in Texas) they raise sheep. The tiny lambs were just adorable. Also, I believe the dye on their wool has to do with shearing, maybe which sheep are ready for shearing. We saw this practice all over the English countryside.

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For lunch we stopped in the pretty little town of Arundel, again at the recommendation of Mr. Martin. Like Rye, Arundel is full of well-preserved tudor-style buildings. Unlike Rye, it had a castle that was a REAL castle! On one side of the street were the typical shops and restaurants and on the other was a legit castle wall. I wish we had time for the tour but we didn’t want to arrive at our next destination after dark.

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However, Arundel did not disappoint. We had an amazing lunch at The Burger Shop, which was a much needed break from all of the very British food we had been enjoying.

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Brandon had the Holy Fire with jalapenos and Ribman’s Holy F@@K Sauce. I had the Sergent Pepper with caramelized onions and peppercorn cream sauce. Both were delicious.

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I also found my favorite beer of the entire trip, a grapefruit IPA from Washington state called Elvis Juice.

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Back on the road, we drove towards the New Forest National Park, which really isn’t much of a forest. The New Forest was designated as the King’s hunting grounds a long long time ago but continued to be occupied by Verderes, horse keepers who were given limited rights to occupy the land by the king. The area was designated as a National Park in 2005 but is still used by the Verderes for grazing.

 

The area is mostly grasslands, with a fence to keep the horses from roaming across the highway. We stopped as soon as I sighted a herd of horses. I walked along the highway, stepping over long-lost car parts and trash, trying to get a good picture of one of the horses. This really wasn’t working so I hopped the fence for a closer look. The horses seemed completely unfazed by my presence. I didn’t get too close out of respect for the animals but I have since learned that most of these horses are incredibly tame and will let you walk right up and pet them. Clearly I am not the first tourist to hop the fence.

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While I was stalking the horses, Brandon was perusing the roadside for souvenirs. He found an English flag from a football match a few years ago and an Irish license plate. Yes, my husband brings home trash from foreign countries as souveniers.

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We arrived in Bath before dark — thankfully — and made our way to The Dukes Hotel, where I had made a reservation online.

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The hotel is right on Great Pulteney Street, one of the main areas of Georgian architecture. It was a great location for exploring on foot but close enough to the edge of town that we didn’t have to navigate central Bath by car.

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We were led up to our room — third floor, six flights of stairs, no lift — which I had been told about when booking, but our legs were still a bit surprised. We decided to just bring up our toiletries and a change of clothes, leaving the suitcases in the car. It appeared to be a safe neighborhood. Note to our parents: This isn’t me foreshadowing our car being broken into later on in the post. It really was a safe neighborhood and everything was fine.

We honestly weren’t that impressed with the Dukes Hotel. Nothing was particularly wrong with it but it didn’t have as much personality as the last few places we’ve stayed. It was still a historic building (I tried my best to book all of our stays in historic buildings) but the whole place seemed rather dull. Also, there were no amenities. No bar, no restaurant, nothing particularly special to encourage spending time at the hotel itself. But also nothing bad. The bed was very comfortable and the whole place was very clean. Service was also good. It was just a little plain.

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Once checked-in, we made our way out to find dinner.

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We ended up at an Italian Place called Ponte Vechino right on the River Avon, which runs  through town. The woman at the front desk of The Dukes had recommended it. I seriously disagree with her recommendation. Brandon ordered some kind of whiskey cocktail that was inexplicably bright blue and my very simple pasta with tomato sauce was so undercooked that it was actually crunchy. How can you possibly run an Italian restaurant that can’t properly cook pasta? But it wasn’t all bad, Brandon’s chicken dish was very good and the view from the terrace was amazing. I never send back food at restaurants but the waiter eventually noticed that I didn’t eat my dinner and asked if it was okay. I explained that the pasta was undercooked and inedible so they didn’t charge us for it and brought me a free glass of wine. Liquid dinner! So at least the service was good. Maybe it was just a bad night for the cook. But honestly, Italian food in the UK was universally bad this entire trip. I love Italian food so it took three rounds of terrible dinners before I finally decided that good Italian in England was just not going to happen.

Disregarding my crunchy pasta, this view made it a night to remember.

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This bridge over the river is actually made up of shops and restaurants. When walking or driving over it you don’t even realize it’s a bridge!

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This maze was directly below the terrace where we ate dinner. We got a good laugh watching a group of college kids sitting on one of those benches, trying to hide the fact that they were clearly smoking a joint. They all got stoned and then walked through the maze laughing. It made for excellent dinner entertainment. NOTE: The girl pictured below is NOT one of the kids that was smoking the joint. I’ve decided to be kind and not post a photo of their illicit (but entertaining) activities.

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After dinner we walked over to the Roman Baths, unsure of what to expect. For all we knew, they were open and we could tour the place at night. They were not, for what are now obvious reasons. Bath is also a college town and college kids would inevitably try to sneak in for a late night swim. At least that’s what college-aged me would have done. However, we did get a fantastic opportunity to view the Abbey and courtyard in front of the baths without the usual throng of tourists that swarm there during the day. It was a wonderful experience to be there, nearly alone, at nightfall.

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The day before had been a big day, so we decided to sleep in and skip the complementary breakfast. Like I mentioned before, The Dukes wasn’t the most interesting hotel but the beds were amazingly comfortable. For some travelers, that’s all that really matters.

Once we crawled out from under the covers, we made our way towards the Roman Baths. We had read that they were open air and had been surprised to find them all closed up the night before. But first, we stopped by The Whisky Shop for a tasting of scotch. We like to keep a bottle of something around when we travel because bar drinks can be so darn expensive. I’ve found some great wines but Brandon has been drinking Jack Daniels (which he doesn’t particularly like) because that’s all we could find when we first arrived in London. But then we stumbled across this place! And entire store full of nothing but whisky, scotch, and bourbon! We tried a few based on the store clerk’s suggestions before finding something we both liked. There were just so darn many to choose from!

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They only let so many people inside of the baths at one time so we spent a few minutes listening to this street musician before we could go inside. He was playing very soothing acoustic guitar music. I picked up a CD of his original songs as a souvenir.

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The roman baths are like a combination of walking through a museum and an archeological site. I think some people come here thinking they are going to bathe where the Romans bathed. In reality, they won’t even let you touch the water. Much of the site is in ruins, but the large open air pool was largely intact when it was discovered. The entire site was actually discovered in the 20th century. The city had been built right on top of it, hiding the ancient pool for centuries. The raised terrace that we’re standing on (and all of the statues) are not actually original. All that was left were the portions at ground level. The surrounding structures were built after the site was uncovered, both as a means of protecting the ruins and to allow the public to visit.

Learning that this pool wasn’t discovered until the 20th century made me wonder how the town of Bath came to be named. I suppose they knew about the hot springs nearby even if they didn’t know about this particular ancient bath.

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The tour price includes an audio guide narrated by travel writer Bill Bryson. He described the various statues and faces in terms of who he would and would not enjoy grabbing a pint of beer with. The woman below — not on his list of potential drinking buddies.

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These pillars once held up a floor. Warm steamy water ran around the pillars under the floor, heating the stone floor.

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This is one of the original aqueducts that carried the hot mineral water into the baths. The mineral content of the water has built up over time, creating that orange color.

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During Roman times, the baths consisted of a number of indoor pools and spa-like treatment rooms in addition to the large outdoor pool. The ruins show below are what is left of one of the indoor rooms.

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You can see the color difference in the modern stone additions in the photo below. The grey stone (below the pillars) is original. Everything above is a modern reconstruction.

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The pool is still filled with the same warm mineral water that the Romans would have used. Towards the end of the tour they have a drinking fountain where you can taste the water. It was awful! It tastes bitter and metallic.

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We probably wasted £5 worth of coins trying to make one into the center circle of this wishing well.

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The elaborate building in the background is the abbey we took photos of the night before. The towers are so tall you can see them from most places around the city. A great way to find your way if you get lost.

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After touring the baths we stopped for lunch at a place called The Stables, a local pizza place specializing in hard cider. I ordered the tasting flight, which was nearly two full pints of cider! Brandon had a Velkins lager. He’s found that the only way to get a cold beer in England is to order a lager. Everything else is kept at cellar temperature, which is not exactly cold, at least not to an American used to drinking beer from a cooler full of ice.

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The pizzas were all very unusual but also very good. Brandon’s had pulled pork, sour cream, and jalapeno. Mine had a spicy chorizo with mushrooms and harissa sauce. We also tried their “breadsticks” which was essentially just a plain pizza crust covered in olive oil, herbs, and garlic. So simple but so good. It was like a very garlicky cracker.

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After lunch we walked back to the Dukes for a mid-afternoon break. Also, we needed to figure out where we were going the next day! We wanted to keep our plans flexible so I didn’t book anything beyond our first two stops. The loose plan was to drive north to the Cotswolds, an area known for its quaint little villages. The Cotswolds are also a hugely popular tourist destination. Only a few hours from London, it makes a perfect weekend escape from the hustle of the big city. So of course, everything I found online was booked solid. I usually do all of our bookings but I was struggling and Brandon wanted to help. He went on TripAdvisor and clicked on the highest rated place in all of the Cotswolds, a place called Buckland Manor just outside the town of Broadway. It looked incredible and was way over our usual nightly budget. But they were having a spring special that included breakfast and a 5-course dinner for two. We had talked about doing one splurge night and quickly decided this should be it.

There was only one problem — they required men to wear jackets at dinner and Brandon didn’t pack one! We had about an hour before all of the shops closed so we immediately rushed out to find Brandon a decent dinner jacket that wasn’t also over-budget! We finally found one, with about 5 minutes to spare!

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Have I mentioned that Brandon has a thing for Land Rover Defenders? While going through our vacation photos I’ve found nearly a hundred photos of these things!

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Because you can’t actually swim in the Roman Baths (a disappointment to many first-time visitors) a number of luxury bath spas have popped up around the city. The largest is the Thermal Bath Spa, a multi-story facility directly behind the Roman Baths that uses the same warm spring water that the Romans used, though noticeably cleaner and without the strong mineral smell. The facility is designed to mimic the experience of a Roman bath, which took many hours and was as much about socializing and relaxation as it was about getting clean. The basic spa experience costs £35 and gets you access to the entire facility for 3 hours. Spa treatments are extra and should probably be booked in advance.

NOTE: I did not take any of these photos of Thermae Bath Spa. All images were found on Google Images and come from a variety of different online publications. Personal photography was not allowed inside the spa.

You begin by changing into your swimsuit in the locker room and putting on the robe and flip-flops provided. Your belongings are stored in a locker that only opens with a sensor attached to a special waterproof bracelet they give you. Then you shower before entering the first pool — The Minerva Pool.

The Minerva Pool is a large indoor pool naturally heated to 92 degrees fahrenheit. You can lounge on a pool noodle, float through the lazy river, or sit in the bubble pool. The Romans managed to spend incredible amounts of time bathing because it was a multi-step process. The first step was an indoor cleansing pool, followed by treatments such as massage or the steam room. The open air pools, such as the one we saw earlier, are actually just the final step in the process.

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Up next is the wellness suite. This area consists of a number of smaller rooms all designed with a different purpose. There was a shower room with hot and cold showers and a rainbow of colored lights that changed with the water temperature.

Below is the traditional dry sauna.

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There were two different steam rooms. I had never been in a steam room before and found it to be stiflingly hot, humid, and smelled strongly of perfumed oils. Neither of us stayed in the steam rooms long. The air was so thick that you couldn’t see the person next to you. We were dripping with sweat almost as soon as we walked inside. I understand that this is sort of the point, but I found it to be a bit much.

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The last two rooms were a bit odd but surprisingly enjoyable. Below is the celestial relaxation room. It was comfortably warm and dark with artificial stars blinking on the ceiling and walls. Essentially, you just sit in these tiled lounge chairs and watch this very trippy video of space scenes. It sounds a bit like new-age baloney but it was actually quite nice. I could have easily took a nap in there.

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This is the ice room, intended to help cool you down after using the sauna or steam rooms. It was humid but cold and had a trough of chipped, salted, and perfumed ice that you can rub on your skin. Again, it sounds weird (and it is) but it was really refreshing after feeling like we were literally melting in the steam room.

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From the Wellness Suite we made our way to the rooftop pool — the final stage of our spa experience. Like the Minerva Pool, the water is naturally heated to 92 degrees. None of the pools are heated to hot tub temperatures. I think the only true hot tubs are in the specially booked treatment rooms, which cost extra.

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The whole experience was just lovely and worth every pence. Afterall, do as the Romans do, even if you’re not technically in Rome.

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It was nearing dark when we left the spa but we decided to walk over to the two big tourist attractions that we had not yet seen — the Circus and the Royal Crescent. We had seen both of these places marked on our map and had read short blurbs about them in the guidebook for some reason expected something a bit more that what we found. The reality is that both of these places are just round apartment complexes. Impressive architecturally but somehow just not what I was expecting.

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To be honest, we weren’t that impressed with the Georgian style of architecture to begin with. Everything is made of stone, all the same color, and perfectly symmetrical. We found it all to feel a bit cold and sterile. Impressive but boring. It was lacking the quirky personality that we loved about the Tudor style we had seen in Rye. We also may have come to Bath with unnecessarily high expectations. Every time we mentioned going to Bath, people would gush about how gorgeous it is and how much we would love it. And, don’t get me wrong, we did have a wonderful time in Bath. But my favorite part was not the architecture that the city is famous for. It was the water. The river running through town is beautiful and the spa experience was absolutely heavenly. I would visit Bath again simply to go to that spa.

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From here we’re continuing our road trip north to visit the picturesque Cotswold villages and stay at the very posh Buckland Manor. You are seriously not going to believe how beautiful this place is. I wanted to move in and never leave. Stay tuned!

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2 thoughts on “UK Road Trip Part II: Seven Sisters and the Roman Baths

  1. There’s a Little town called Schleitheim in the North of canton Schaffhausen. Built on Roman ruins, it was once called Iulimagus. You can tour ruins of the bath there, the same system where they circulated the hot water beneath the floor.

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