BATH

“I’m scared of the dark,” said Little Bear.

“What dark?” Big Bear asked from the other side of the bear cave and the light of the fire.

“The dark all around us,” Little Bear replied.

When we visited Bath several weeks ago on a fieldtrip, we followed a road of pilgrimage originally blazed by the Celts, who were fascinated by the hot springs that bubbled up from the ground in southeast England in the valley of the river Avon.

They dedicated the spring to the goddess Sulis, a female deity with flowing hair, and consecrated the area as a shrine. Both wisdom and vengeance were associated with this goddess, who received thousands of folded-up slips of metal enumerating crimes visited on those who visited the baths and asking for Sulis’ intervention in everything from stolen clothes to stolen husbands.

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Big Bear left his book by the fire, opened up the kitchen cupboard and pulled out the smallest lantern he could find. He lit it and set it next to Little Bear’s bed—“is that better, Little Bear?”

But Little Bear was still frightened, and Big Bear had to admit it was rather dark within Little Bear’s corner of the bear cave.

When the Romans came to Britain in the first century they discovered the shrine and the mysteriously warm waters. They identified the Celtic goddess with their own deity Minerva, female sponsor of the arts, trade, medicine and magic, and virgin patron of wisdom. The Romans merged the deities and dubbed the town which had sprung up around the hot springs Aquae Sulis.

By the second century, the spring had been enclosed within a wooden building and the temple enlarged to include a stable wooden foundation, a large sporting yard, and a massive gold-shellacked bust of the goddess. The Romans funneled the waters into the caliadarium, or hot bath, and also built chambers for a tepidarium (warm bath) and frigidarium (cold bath).

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Big Bear returned to the cupboard and pulled out a medium-sized lantern. He lit it and set it by the small one next to Little Bear’s bed—“is that better, Little Bear?”

But Little Bear was still frightened, even with the light of the second lantern, and snuggled close to Big Bear in the dark.

The Romans abandoned Bath when they fled Britain in the fifth century and it was returned to native and eventually royal possession. Grounds were allocated for an abbey built kitty-corner across the square from the bath complex, and Bath became the seat of the local bishopric.

In 1500 the abbey had fallen into poor condition and was rebuilt and restored, albeit on a smaller scale. Little did the restorers know their work was virtually in vain—a scant four decades later and Henry VIII would call for the dissolution of Catholic monasteries and abbeys, including the one in Bath.

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Big Bear was exasperated—he didn’t know what to do. He returned to the cupboard and pulled out the biggest lantern he could find. He lit it and set it next to the others by Little Bear’s bed—“is that better, Little Bear?”

The bear cave glowed warmly with light from the lanterns and the fire and for a little while Little Bear wasn’t afraid. Big Bear went to back to read his book by the light of the fire.

But still Little Bear could not sleep. “I’m scared of the dark,” said Little Bear in a small voice.

“What dark?” asked Big Bear, looking up from his book by the light of the fire.

“The dark all around us,” said Little Bear.

By the time of Elizabeth I’s reign, the abbey had been restored as the city’s parish church and the spa enjoyed a revival thanks to royal and noble visitors enchanted with the bubbling warm waters. In the mid-seventeenth century an Oxford doctor moved to Bath and began to investigate the curative properties of the strong mineral waters, expounding on their health-giving properties and healing atmosphere. The aristocracy flocked in.

Charismatic playboy and stickler for style Beau Nash took the town in hand in the first half of the eighteenth century, conducting a giddy circuit of promenades, balls, and teas in the Pump Room. Contestants were vetted not by rank or by income but only by fashion—if you could dress like the best you could play with the best.

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Shamelessly and innovatively Bath’s shopkeepers encouraged and supplied the purchases you didn’t really need—a new set of gloves, lace ribbon, peach-colored dancing slippers. No longer were clothes worn until they wore out, but only until they were out of fashion. The aristocracy and those who could afford to live and look like them streamed to Bath to “take the waters” but also flounce and flit and twirl in dresses and breeches of the newest fashion.

It is this version of Bath that Jane Austen visited in the late 1700s, and this version that she treated to such subtle ridicule in her novels. Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey exclaims, “Oh! Who can ever be tired of Bath?” but one suspects cynicism in Austen’s tone. In a letter describing Bath she complains of “another stupid party last night…just enough [people] to talk nonsense to each other.”

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Finally Big Bear has an idea. He scoops Little Bear up and carries him into the dark night outside of bear cave.

Big Bear points to the moon, hanging low and full of honey in the black sky. “I can’t make the darkness go away,” Big Bear said. “But this is the biggest lantern I can give you. It will always be in the sky to scare away the dark.”

It’s undeniable Bath did and still does hold its charm. Its abbey is affectionately deemed the “lantern of the West,” with high windows seeping color and arches splayed like the open folds of a fan. The morning of our visit was muted by clouds and rain but the afternoon was doused in sunlight. We walked along the river, riddled with wooden tour boats and garlanded by the effusive flower boxes that brighten this town like stained glass. Sipping tea in the Pump Room to trill of fine silverware and tippling aria of the pianist, I understood the desire to find an excuse to come back, whether it be to exact vengeance on my enemies, cure my aching bones or flaunt the latest fashion.

“Is that better, Little Bear?” Big Bear asked. But Little Bear was fast asleep, curled in Big Bear’s arms in the light of the moon.

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Italics adapted from the children’s book Can’t you sleep, Little Bear? Many thanks to Kathleen Lemmon for the brilliant and adorable connection.

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