The life of a tourist

June 1, 2009 - 8 Responses

Come with me, if you dare, on a fantastic journey through the biggest tourist attraction in the city of Bath. Unsurprisingly and perhaps a little disappointingly for those who weren’t already aware, this tourist attraction is a bath. More specifically, it is the ruins of a Roman bathing house and temple.

Bath (or Aquae Sulis to the Romans) has been a city for nearly two thousand years at this point, and probably even longer. It is the site of the only hot springs in Britain, and as such it was of significant interest to the Romans and the cultures that existed here before them. The general consensus according to the museum displays is that the Romans constructed their bathing facility around the springs in about 76 A.D. during the seventh year of the reign of Vespasian. Though artifacts from earlier cultures have been found here, the Romans subscribed to the “bulldoze it and build over it” school of urban planning and the ruins that can be seen today are all of Roman origin. I am using the word bulldoze as a metaphor here – the Romans were relatively advanced but I don’t think they had bulldozers.

I imagine you are duly impressed with the sheer amount of facts I’m throwing down in this post, so you have a pretty good appreciation for how I felt upon entering the museum here. There are placards and ancient relics and artifacts galore, to the point where if you really want to examine everything you’d have to stay for hours, and you’d probably lose touch with the fact that the museum itself is set in the ruins of the baths. There are even three different audio tours throughout the museum – one for adults, one narrated by Bill Bryson giving his thoughts on various exhibits, and one for children. You could spend a long time here.

I doubted for a moment whether I was mentally ready to attempt the adult commentary instead of the children’s, but I eventually decided to press my luck and took an audio tour device which theoretically contained all the information necessary to occupy the adult mind. Looping it around my neck, I set to the task of completely ignoring it for most of my stay in the museum.

Naturally, the tour starts with a view of the main bathing area and of the hot springs. The springs are the only of their kind in Britain, and it is to this fact that Bath owes its origins as a Roman city. The baths existed as a meeting place, commercial center, and there was even a temple somewhere nearby apparently. The only ruins I was able to see were of the bathing area, unfortunately, but they are indeed fantastically preserved. From the springs and the main bathing area I strolled into a few rooms containing a some of the stone sculptures that had been found at the site. One of them was of a woman’s head with a fairly impressive hybrid afro/updo. The sign on its pedestal informed me that the hairstyle dated from the later 1st century A.D., which rather surprised me because I didn’t know that anyone studied historical hairstyles.

The museum was teeming with other guests, all of them listening to their handheld tour devices. For their sake I put on what I thought was an air of intelligent appreciation for the various boring inscribed tablets they were considering and left the room.

I followed a staircase down out of the Room of Boring Artifacts and into the much more interesting ruins of the open-air courtyard to the baths, which is now enclosed and covered up by the foundation of the museum above it. A wooden pathway had been built over the ruins, but looking down I could see the remains of the ancient roman stoneworks that had formed the courtyard. A few yards off a pool of water had formed that contained what were no doubt Ancient Roman Coins, and nearer to the edge of the pathway (just over the handrail in fact) was an Ancient Roman Mathematical Study Guide. Clearly a job for an Ancient Roman Janitor. I moved along the pathway but was trapped behind a large guided tour group, and briefly considered making my escape through an Ancient Roman Fire Exit before managing to snake my way through the crowd and deeper into the museum.

Probably the most impressive part of the whole facility is the incredible ingenuity the Romans applied to its construction, and this is most apparent in the steam rooms. Hot steam flowed beneath the floors and through hollow tiles up the walls, resulting in walls and floors that were warm to the touch. Water from the hot springs was channeled into the main bathing area, while water from a more distant and cooler spring was brought in to form a cooler pool. Very impressive considering the entire thing was complete by around the 4th century AD.

I’m going to gloss over the rest of the museum because A.) I’m running out of time and B.) I stopped paying attention anyway. The only thing I want to mention is that the area around the pools (which are not fenced off in any way) contains signs with a message similar to the following:

“Warning. The spa pool water is untreated and is not safe to drink or even to touch. Spa water can be tasted in the Pump Room.”

Spa water can be tasted in the Pump Room.

This isn’t the first time I’ve been to Bath, so I can’t immediately attest to my first thoughts upon seeing the murky green waters, but I’m relatively certain they were not even remotely close to “Ooh, I want to taste that!” At this point I had planned to tell you how the water tasted. However, the best I can do is “light and airy” because the tasting booth was closed for renovation.

Tomorrow I’m off on the Cotswold Way, my first encounter with a National Trail. I’m already scheming a few ways to shave off some of the trail’s more frivolous departures from a direct line to the northeast, but I’m encouraged by the fact that I have thus far walked 233 miles at an average of 13.7ish per day, which includes the three days I was laid up in St. Columb Major. Since then I am averaging closer to 17 miles per day.

As usual I will update next time I get a chance. Cheers!

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Bath

June 1, 2009 - One Response

It’s astonishing how computer time just evaporates before you have a chance to do anything useful. I spent the last hour or so tracing out my route on the Where I Am map, so you can at least enjoy my updated progress, but as of right now I have a lot of stuff to say and only around three minutes to type it in. I’ll probably come back later in the day and update this post, but I want to enjoy the nice weather for now.

As you know if you read the title of this post, I’m in Bath, which is the site of an ancient Roman city. There’s a reason for the name, which I’ll tell you about at the end of the day. For now, suffice it to say that I have suffered from an incredibly ironic lack of soap, which I corrected early this morning. More to come later today, because it’s a rest day and I’m not walking an inch farther than I have to.

Glastonbury

May 30, 2009 - One Response

I’m in Glastonbury for the next few hours, a beautiful town that also happens to be experiencing some beautiful weather, so the plan is to stay here for lunch and a little while after, then move on to Wells for the evening. Unfortunately all the libraries in Somerset (out of Devon already) only allow visitors 20 minutes with no option to buy additional time. That’s hardly enough time to type up a blog post of any length, or really even update the map of where I am, so this is unfortunately all you get for now. As soon as I get a chance for some longer computer access I promise I’ll type up a bigger update to fill you in on the exciting events of the past few days.

I’m going to spend the rest of the time I have on this computer trying to update the ‘Where I Am’ map, but no promises…

What would you like to hear about?

May 27, 2009 - 8 Responses

Since I’m spending most of my time alone these days, I’ve got a lot of time to think about things. I might as well make it productive. Reply to this post with things you’d like to hear more about, questions you have, or anything. I haven’t been replying to comments so far (though I have been appreciating them, thanks everyone!) because that would take up a lot of time, so now’s your chance. Also there’s a new update right below this one if you somehow missed that.

Tiverton

May 27, 2009 - 2 Responses

Most of the towns in Cornwall are St. Something or other, and most of the hills in Cornwall are St. Eep. Unfortunately I sat on that (terrible) joke for too long because I passed out of Cornwall several days ago and I’m now well into Devon.

I’ve finally made it to a library and gotten myself some quality time to update this blog and do various other internet-related activities. I added a page up at the top with a few pictures from the trip so far – if it was a faster process I would just upload the majority of what I’ve got for you to peruse, but it’s difficult enough to cram all the things I need to do into an hour and a half of computer time. Buying more time would be pretty costly, both in terms of cold hard cash and also time I could spend getting from point A to point B. The first thing I want to remark on is that Bank Holidays in this country are no laughing matter. As usual I was completely unprepared for a 3-day weekend during which most stores kept limited hours, and so I was forced to operate without a map for a few hours on my way from Launceston to Okehampton. This was not even the actual bank holiday itself, but the Sunday preceding, and all the stores were closed. Ultimately I have decided that any further bank holidays should be treated like a miniature Y2K and I should buy 2-gallon vats of ketchup and baked beans (not in the same vat) before the abrupt end of commercial transactions.

The past few days have seen me from Bodmin to Liskeard, to Launceston, to Okehampton, North Tawton, and finally Tiverton last night. Most of the walks have been rather unremarkable – As we departed Bodmin Trevor embarked on a day trip to the ruins of Tintagel castle, which is reputedly the actual site of King Arthur’s castle (though it’s not called Camelot, which I find suspicious), and I have not seen him since. He called a couple days ago, and is making the most of the public transit system and darting around from place to place slightly ahead of me. Yesterday he was in Taunton, which is where I hope to be by this evening. Regardless, I have been walking alone for most of the time since then.

I’ve done two twenty-plus mile days in the past week, separated by a seven-mile light day to give myself time to recover. This seven mile journey was between Okehampton and Tiverton, and it turned out to be an incredibly bad idea because it left me stranded in a small town called North Tawton. I stayed at the dingiest tavern I have ever seen, called the Copper Key. There was no library, no cell reception, and no TV. The building itself was nearly six hundred years old, my room was just slightly larger than the twin bed it contained, and the bedding was a picture of what I’m going to call “Mystery Man”, a superhero with an M on his chest. As a matter of fact he could easily have been “Mr. Muscle,” the people’s champion of spotless surfaces (think Mr. Clean) who appears in glorious computer-generated 3D and with inglorious fake American accent in TV commercials here.

In any case, about the only thing to do in North Tawton (apart from considering my comforter) was to drink, and do my best not to touch anything, which I started doing almost as soon as I arrived at around 1:30 PM. In the end I abandoned even that – this was supposed to be a recovery day after all – and went to bed around 5. After about fourteen hours of rest I arose, skipped a shower as I felt it might actually make me dirtier, ate breakast and departed.

This was yesterday, and following my departure I accidentally walked 23 miles to Tiverton, where it is currently raining steadily. I had hoped typing up this blog update would allow me to wait out the rain, but that doesn’t appear to be the case so I’m going to go find a way to keep my pack dry and set off again. I’m hoping to follow the Grand Western Canal Towpath to Taunton, but that’s contingent on whether the Grand Western Canal Towpath actually goes there or not. I suppose I’ll let you know at the next library.

Cheers!

A Quick Update

May 24, 2009 - 5 Responses

This is just a quick update to let everyone know I’m still alive despite my best efforts to walk myself to death over the past few days, plus the numerous attempts on my life by vicious dogs.

I’ve updated the map to show where I am now. Just so everyone knows, and I haven’t confirmed this, but I think I’m hovering somewhere around 200,000 footsteps on this walk so far. Think about that.

I’m updating from a laptop belonging to the owners of the B&B I’m in now and I don’t want to impose so I’ll keep this short. It’s a Bank Holiday here which means everyone drops what they’re doing and goes God knows where – this means I am experiencing a shortage of library access. I’ll have a newer, longer, and perhaps even more exciting post up within a couple days.

Drivers

May 22, 2009 - 2 Responses

The American brain has difficulties with certain things. Some of these difficulties are only brought to light when you spend some time in the UK. For example, because everyone drives on the left here, I still don’t know which direction to look when crossing roads if I don’t think about it first. This leads to many excitingly brief moments of panic as I stop myself from stepping directly in front of a moving vehicle. I expect I will soon be a UK-street-crossing pro in short order, but it hasn’t happened yet.

On the subject of traffic, there is a disturbing trend taking place here in Great Britain that I think I should inform you of. I’ll highlight the issue with a short story. Nearly all of the roads here are lined on both sides by very tall, very thick hedgerows. In addition, they also tend to be very windy. (That’s windy as in they go back and forth all over the place, not windy as in there is a lot of wind (the roads on top of hills are both!)) As a result, on those occasions that we do follow streets it’s sometimes a good idea to switch from walking on the right side, which gives the best view of oncoming traffic, to the left, especially when faced with a blind corner. This gives you a much greater chance of being seen by an oncoming driver – even if they don’t see you, you’re still in the opposite lane. Unfortunately, this does expose you to the traffic coming from the rear. The backpack, while I was carrying it, masked the sound of vehicles coming from behind me until they were almost on top of me. I tell you all this because of what happened as I was rounding a corner the other day. I had crossed to the left side so as to give myself and others a better view around a blind corner, and was just nearing the end of the curve when a car came suddenly and loudly hurtling by from behind me, giving me virtually no room and scaring the bejeesus out of me. I whipped my head around to give the driver a scornful stare and perhaps shake my fist, only to see that this car was being driven, recklessly no less, by a very large, very friendly looking golden retriever. My brain did a backflip as I tried to figure out what had just happened. My first thought, I believe, was to wonder how the dog had managed to turn the car to avoid me.

Remember when I said there are certain things that the American mind has trouble with here in Britain? Yeah, because everyone drives on the left here, all of the DRIVERS are on the right side of the car. Up to this point I still glance at the wrong side of the car when trying to make eye contact with the driver, which is why so many dogs are driving cars over here.

Anyway, I’ve updated the map showing today and yesterday’s progress (I tend to update the map even if I don’t have time to update the blog.) I’m in Liskeard now, making for either Launceston or Tavistock tomorrow. I’m still not sure yet, but I’m pretty used to operating without a plan at this point. 5 minutes left on my library computer use time, still have to find a place to stay for the night. Until next time.

Modern medicine

May 20, 2009 - 14 Responses

I have spent the past three days in a campsite just north of the Middle Of Nowhere, Cornwall. Of course, I am in reality only nine miles away from the nearest large town and only a short walk from a small town nearby, but with only one serviceable leg the distance doesn’t matter – you aren’t going anywhere. There was a hint of foreshadowing in my previous update, but I have been dealing with somewhat severe tendinitis in my right knee since (stupidly) deciding to push through it the day before making it here. One of several lessons here is that there are certain things you can push through, and certain things you really shouldn’t.

Regardless of the reason, I’m stuck here, or at least I have been for the past few days. And these days have been miserable. I sleep in a tent on the ground at night, it has been raining on and off every day, I am never warm, and on top of everything, I’ve finally come down with a cold I must have picked up on the airplane. Even worse is the feeling of utter helplessness. I want nothing more than to continue putting the miles behind me, but even my body has betrayed me. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, but such are my days here.

I have subsisted primarily on a steady diet of ibuprofen and pasties bought from the nearest possible butcher shop (these are the only bright side of the whole affair.) The campsite is, in truth, one of the most beautiful campsites I have ever seen, complete with a stone hall dating back to the 1600s, a massive and very impressive garden, perfectly manicured lawns, and even a library from which I am currently posting. I wish I could upload a picture, but the upload on my wireless card seems utterly useless, so suffice it to say I expect to be attacked by a ghost at any second. It’s that kind of library.

One of the reasons it has been so long since my last update is because I had hoped to keep the rather depressing details of my convalescence to myself until I had healed up completely, but it’s becoming more and more clear that this isn’t a recovery break so much as an important juncture in the journey. Though I don’t suspect the weight of my pack was the original cause of the injury, I am pretty sure it is the one obstacle standing between myself and the ability to resume my walk (more of a hobble at this point) and to move my recovery out of the campsite and onto the road. I have realized that up to this point I’ve been carrying a variety of (mostly) unnecessary items, and if I want to continue without wasting too much time I’ll have to ditch them. As such, I have resolved to become a sleeker, more sophisticated walking machine by ditching my backpack completely, if possible, and only traveling with absolute necessities. This means I’ll only be able to update the blog from public libraries, of which there are plenty, but apart from that the impact to you, dear reader, should be minimal. In fact, you’re likely to have a good deal more to read about as a result.

To accompany my new mindset I have invested in the latest in walking technology. Take, for example, my knee brace. Obviously three days is not nearly enough time to recover from inflamed connective tissue (maybe that’s not obvious, so I’ll just say it: that’s not enough time) so I have fashioned for myself a medical breakthrough. Medically speaking, it is a device to move the insertion point of my illotibial band farther up my knee so it no longer rubs on the bone. Practically speaking, it’s an ace bandage with a sock shoved in the side. It works – more or less- and allows me to walk without pain and hopefully will give the tendon itself time to recover as I press on. The only caveat is that it really can’t support much weight so, again, I need to shed a lot.

Tomorrow I am making my last walk with a backpack, to the post office in town, and mailing it to my parents’ house east of here. We may be reunited at some point in the trip, as I move into the less populated regions of Scotland, but for now the most sensible approach is to do whatever it takes to keep going.
Until the next library, then!

Reasons

May 16, 2009 - 5 Responses

Here are some good reasons to do something like this:

-You want to feel soreness in muscles that you didn’t know existed.

-You want to get blisters on top of your blisters. Honestly, I thought this was just a cliche expression until I looked at my foot this morning and my blister had a blister. No lie.

-You are excited by the prospect of a 3000 pound automobile whooshing past you at a distance of about 3 feet. To my parents, don’t worry, I’m not in any danger because there are signs thanking people for driving safely. I make sure to stop at each one and make an offering to the god of Irony. In point of fact, I’ve noticed that it’s actually safer to assert your pedestrian status on the B-roads, walking near the center of the lane. This allows drivers to see you sooner, and also gives you a better choice of directions to dive for your life.

So there are just a few of the many reasons you, too, should walk england!

To say that my feet hurt at this point would not do it justice. As a consequence of the damp weather we’ve been having my shoes are never really dry inside and I’ve got blisters to spare. On the other hand, to say that my feet hurt is somewhat of an exaggeration. The first sixty or so steps (I counted them) after a rest stop are painful, but after that my feet start to go numb and I’m only vaguely aware of them after that. The knowledge that I’ve got between eight hundred and a thousand miles to go is also both a blessing and a curse. I can either grin and bear the pain or I can not, and be miserable. Each step is a drop from a vast reservoir of discomfort that, if it were concentrated or if it were to give way, would probably be quite painful. On their own, though, they’re bearable.

That said, today was a short day of around ten miles. We made it to Truro, and decided to call it quits to buy some recovery time for our muscles and feet and my knee (ITB was acting up. I bought an orthotic which promised miracles, so I should be fine, and will probably be able to take shortcuts over bodies of water after inserting them into my shoes, if the tone of the literature is to be taken seriously.)

Days 0.5, 1, 2

May 15, 2009 - One Response

A lot has happened since the last post, so I’ll quickly bring you up to speed:

I would like to tell you that we rose early on the day following our grueling day of travel, but unfortunately that was not the case.  Trevor had hopes of seeing Stonehenge, which I have of course seen so many times I may as well have been involved in the planning of it, but I was willing to go along for the ride – especially considering Salisbury’s train station had direct service to Penzance.  We made the short walk to Ringwood, and by around noon we were being carried toward Salisbury, where we saw one of Britain’s most iconic landmarks.  I won’t bore you with that.  The important thing is that by the time we were done with our sightseeing, the earliest train we could catch to Penzance was scheduled to depart at 5:30pm – a little later than we had planned.  In a rather similar mood to the one I was in when I booked my return flight for the end of this journey (July 16, by the way, in a near-suicidal display of self-confidence) and also eager to start my hike, I decided we should chance it.

We arrived in Penzance six hours later, disembarking from our train to find a darkened city and deserted streets.  It wasn’t raining, but it had plainly just finished and a fog hung over the steep streets of the town that, in combination with the cries of the seagulls, gave it a very eerie atmosphere.  We stopped at several pubs to ask about a place to stay, and were eventually directed to the area YMCA – an “absolutely massive building” that we “just couldn’t miss,” though we needed the help of a pair of friendly Japanese men to find it, regardless.  I may never know why they were wandering the streets – they looked lost but plainly they had navigational ability to spare – but I’m glad they were.  A few more minutes and we had checked into the YMCA, where we spent the night.

After breakfast the next morning, we caught a bus to Land’s End, which took the scenic route and eventually deposited us on the doorstep of the Atlantic at around 1 PM.  To my dismay, the entire area had a fun park theme, complete with Dr. Who iMax and all kinds of other tourist traps.  The commercialization even extended to the famous sign depicting the distance to New York (3147, I believe.  I’ll edit this later to make myself look smart if I’m wrong.) and John O’Groats (874).  If we wished to stand next to the sign and be photographed, it would have to be done by a professional photographer and it would cost us 9 pounds 50 pence.  On a once in a lifetime expedition such as this one, after traveling literally thousands of miles and for which I had budgeted enough money to stay in moderately hospitable accommodations for every night of the way, you might think it silly to pass a “beautifully framed” photograph such as this one up for a mere 10 pounds, but that is just what I did.  Trevor and I snuck a photo from a more distant location.

From Land’s End it was a ten mile hike back to Penzance – a route that took us along footpaths, roads, through a narrow ravine with spiked vegitation on both sides, up a hill, down a hill, through someone’s yard, through the remains of an ancient village, through a farmer’s field, through another farmer’s field, onto another road, and finally deposited us at a campsite just to the north of Penzance a mere four hours later.  We were exhausted, and it began to rain just as we arrived, so we hurriedly pitched our tent, crawled in, and listened to the neighboring tent, which contained a man who had evidently just cycled from John O’Groats talking about his voyage.

All of this brings us to this morning.  We struck camp around 7, thoroughly damp and miserable from the rainstorm that had taken place during the night.  The campsite owner came out to offer us a cup of tea, which brightened my mood but not the weather.  Shortly after our gear was packed up, the skies opened up and we walked into Penzance in a downpour.  Today’s walk was pretty ambitious.  I haven’t mapped it out yet, but I would guess it was anywhere from 20 to 21 miles.  We traced a route east from Penzance, along the southwest coast path, before turning slightly northeast.  We stopped for lunch ten miles away in Leedstown,  and there decided that we hadn’t had enough walking for the day and would instead very much like to walk the same distance again.  The sun came out during the afternoon and finally, blistered and tired, we shambled into Redruth and engaged in an arduous process of calling B&B after B&B in order to hunt out the best bargain.  For those that believe I really did that, I’ll give you this fact:  I placed three phone calls.  One was to a campsite 2.5 miles away (no way), one was to a B&B that went to voicemail, and one was to the Bed and Breakfast we’re in now.  The part about it being the best bargain was true, at least.

I have a lot more I could write, including some miscellaneous thoughts I had along the way, but I feel as though I’ve already written a lengthy novel and should end it here.  I think it will be pretty easy for you to imagine what it is I do in a given day (hint: I walk) so for the next posts maybe I’ll keep the descriptions to a minimum and leave room for some other stuff.  I’m also intending to create a page that shows what I’m carrying, as well as a page with a map that shows where I am.  This last one, at least, should be up tonight.

I’ll update again the next time I have a power outlet.