The next portion of of our trip felt very different from the previous ones filled with hiking, sheep and walking sticks. Out came the city clothes. And the credit cards. Our first adventure of Tuesday was a visit to Blenheim Palace.
I find it hard to write about Blenheim. I have such ambivalence about places like this one. It is a HUGE castle with sprawling, beautifully manicured gardens. The entire place belongs to one family and though the site is open to the public for much of the year, it remains a private home. Our group entered the grounds together, then broke up into smaller clusters dependent upon which tour we’d signed up for. There was an “upstairs” tour and a “downstairs” tour, as well as tours of the gardens, main or “state” rooms and the special exhibit area focused on Winston Churchill (who was born there). I’d opted for the upstairs tour. Seriously, after five seasons of Downton Abbey, I think I get the idea of what downstairs looks like and it’s much less glamorous than “above stairs”.
I can’t remember if we were allowed to take pictures. The upstairs tour took us through many of the rooms the family used before moving into their present wing and then through many of the guest suites. The family rooms were resplendent with family photographs, tall and heavily-drapiered windows, uncomfortable looking furniture, bric-a-brac and ornately bound books. The guest suites were as follows: a large bedroom with canopied bed, wardrobe, dressing table/vanity and sitting chairs, adjoining “dressing” room where the maid or valet would lay out clothes or pajamas and also wake the husband (who,coming in late from drinking or gaming would prefer to sleep in there on a single bed rather than disturb his wife) and (much later) added bathroom. In the days before plumbing, all water for bathing had to be brought up from the basement by servants – and then taken down again! Chamber pots were under every bed. Later, with the invention of indoor plumbing, the family had to figure out where to squeeze in bathrooms. Sometimes it was done gracefully, by taking up part of the dressing room. Sometimes bathrooms were added in a less graceful manner. One of the light wells in the guest wing corridor courtyard was taken up almost entirely by two stories of blocky, unsightly bathroom additions. Ick. Our guide also thought it was ick, but used a more polite word. What surprised me most about the rooms was that although large and in a much- visited castle, the furnishings were a bit shabby. I kept having the funny thought that if these rooms belonged to my parents, they certainly would have gotten new furniture by now!
I have no pictures from the tour. Don’t remember if they were disallowed or if I was just being lazy. I do have a few from the downstairs, state rooms and the grounds. Anyways, lots of pictures of Blenheim available online if you want to see more or read about its history.
I did enjoy this one tidbit from the tour immensely:
Since the family still uses the house, our tour of the upstairs had to enter via the servants’ stairway. As we climbed up the stairs, we held on to the rails but noticed that on the opposite walls there
there were scores of black marks and even grooves in the stone wall. Someon asked what caused them. Our docent told us that the servants used to gather all the laundry in big baskets, gathered at these service stairs. Then the staff would ride them like sleds down the stairs all the way to the basement. And they’d done it so consistently for so many years they’d actually worn grooves into the stone structure! I thought that was great. A little fun time in between hours of silver polishing and other scrubbery.
The Blenheim did have a fantastic gift shop though. And I found this terribly, terribly swell hat. I do believe it ranks in my all-time top 5 hats.
We left Blenheim and settled in for a two hour ride down to the city of Bath. Yes, Bath, where all those Regency romances take place and many of Jane Austin’s characters delivered their best lines. The entire town is a world heritage site (not exactly sure what that means but it does sound lovely). Traffic into the center of the city is quite restricted. Our driver had to let us off a fair distance from the inn at which we were staying. We lugged suitcases up a flight of stairs and across some terrifying Brit traffic and through corridors of buildings until we came upon a quiet little square, fully circles by lovely Georgian buildings and watched over by a singular, magnificent tree. And when I say magnificent, I truly mean magnificent. It’s trunk would likely require two peoples’ arms to encircle it and possibly even three. Its boughs canopied the entire square, just about reaching the buildings on all four sides. I mean it. Magnificent.
We were booked into rooms at the Three Abbey Green inn. (Susan, I’ve not given the hotel name in Cleve Hill because it was entirely mediocre and I wouldn’t recommend anything there except the view from the bar’s outside terrace. Wait, no, we did have a great dinner there. Anyway, it’s generally forgettable.) The inn was beautiful, elegant, and newly remodeled with all sorts of wonderful amenities. Our rooms were in suites and were the most spacious accommodations of the trip. I can’t say enough good things about the place. Oh, there’s this – the host greeted us with a Glaswegian accent. That was the clincher for me. Wait, no… Breakfast was the clincher. But we’ll get to that later.
So we dropped all our stuff, grabbed bathing suits and headed across the street for our scheduled time at the Thermae Spa. Bath has long been famous for its mineral bathing pools. At this point, I believe the Thermae is the sole operating spa in the town. Kind of confusing for someone like me, who comes from an area of the US brimming over with mineral springs, natural hot springs and luxury spas. I don’t quite know what to expect.
You enter the building and are given a wrist band much like the ones we use for music festivals. You also receive a towel, a robe, a set of slippers and another wrist apparatus that locks and releases your clothes locker. Everyone changes in one giant room by entering a little cubicle, putting on your bathing suit, and exiting out the opposite side to the rows of lockers. It felt very rushed and very confusing. Then you can kind of roam about and see what you might enjoy. We started at the rooftop pool.
The Thermae Spa is a very contemporary, three story building located in the heart of Bath. From the top floor pool, you look out over the city. We had wonderful weather. The sky was clear and blue and the late afternoon sun was low in the sky. Hey! I think this photo must be from the spa’s website because there were tons more people there. Tons. The water in the pool was not hot- more like lukewarm. There were a few spots where they had air bubbling up from the bottom of the pool, but not powerfully, the way jets would behave. What came from the floor and sides of the pool was more like a gentle carbonation. It was a bit like swimming in champagne! We floated and chatted and basically just hung out. Eventually I went exploring to the other floors. Found the steam rooms on the second floor.
Now this floor I wish I’d taken pictures of. You entered a large room and found with in it four, circular rooms built of floor to ceiling frosted glass. Each was about twelve feet in diameter and had circular, stone benches. Each had a door with a sign reading “eucalyptus”, “lemongrass and ginger”, “lotus flower” or “sandalwood”. In the center space, equidistant from the steam rooms was a circular steel apparatus in the ceiling. From it, various types of showers of tepid water poured forth – rain shower, droplets, waterfall. It was like a fountain only you stood under it and the water poured down in fanciful patterns rather than up. On the far side of the large room were a series of hot showers and on the near, cold ones.
Normally, I can’t spend a great deal of time in a sauna. I usually feel the heat and humidity is oppressive and the rooms just a bit claustrophobic. But these “steam tubes” were great. Light, spacious and filled with beautiful, aromatic steam. I spent time trying out each of them (lotus flower, too sweet – eucalyptus, too strong) and alternated each with time under the cold showers or the middle fountain-in-reverse in between.
Next I ventured to the first floor. I found a repeat of the tepid water pool that was on the roof. Since that held no new excitement, I went back to the top floor to enjoy the view. In general, though the Thermae was a nice break from our travels, I would not classify it as a great spa experience. I hereby invite the ladies of the tour group to join me (and participating friends) to a jaunt to nearby Ojo Caliente, Tamaya, or a run up to Pagosa Springs. I promise you will love all of those spots.
Our group agreed to meet in the top floor restaurant at eight. Everyone eventually made it there, some dried and dressed and some of us still in our suits with new, dry robes. It was a great meal (yet another – we did eat very well on this trip) and paired with some wine and the soaking, had us all relaxed and ready for our beds by the time we returned to the hotel. At Three Abbey Greeen, we tucked in for the night. The next day in Bath would be our final full day of the tour.