Monday, 18 August 2014

The Roman Baths of Bath Tour: one cup is enough

There is a hierarchy of attractions in Bath and at the top sits the Roman Baths. The heritage tours had already primed me with some information on the baths as they are central to the city's history and even name; it was now time to see how they are presented.

I joined the queue that snaked around the side of the building and listened to this busker who is something of a mainstay of Bath city centre right now. He's not bad at all and he kicked off a retro set with Norwegian Wood. The skeleton on the pushbike is Bizarre Bath advertising and to the left and out of the picture was a Falun Gong lady doing her stuff protesting at the Chinese government. We crept forwards to The Who, past the anti-Trident Missile protest beside the Abbey and finally into the Roman Baths' reception hall. 

The ticket is not cheap but it did come with a free audio guide available in several languages. The way it works is at points around the building there are signs which indicate which audio track to listen to. Here, for example, when I entered 85 into the handset it gave me the standard description of what was in front of me. If I had a German, French or Japanese handset it would have done the same in those languages. Additionally, I could then press 12 and listen to a Bill Bryson commentary, available in English only, and if that was not enough there was a further additional description for the English and French handsets that could be summoned up by tapping in 113. That meant that I could listen to three different tracks about the same location and being conscientious I started off doing just that. 

Because there was A) no live guide to lead us around and B) the audio tracks were specific to each spot and not inscribed within a tour that placed them in a clear narrative, they were isolated nodes of information. There were these great big arrows that went some way to directing us but we were more or less left to it.

This brought me round to the top level, which seemed to be the best place to get a selfie in front of the water. It's a pretty location and is far enough set back from the main bath that you can get it all in the frame. I'd be interested to know what percentage of photos taken in different locations around the world are selfies, that would make for a quite unusual map of narcissism. These Roman Baths would not be anywhere near top: it is not iconic enough and it is also relatively sober in tone. The most popular selfie site worldwide by volume is, according to CNN, the Eiffel Tower with Disney World and Disney Land also in the top ten. This answer was based on Instagram research but I bet if they used a Chinese or Indian photo sharing platform they'd come up with a different answer.

Over on the other side of the wall there was an excellent view back into square where I noticed that the Falun Gong lady had by now been joined by a man in a shiny yellow suit. The music had moved onto Imagine by John Lennon which was a stark soundtrack to the posters on organ harvesting and a tangential one to Bill Bryson rabbiting on about the layers of history in the baths. I am probably extra sensitive to this issue of sound but in an open air space it really does make a difference what is playing in the background: while listening to Bryson I was taken away to The Dakota for a moment and reimagine Lennon being gunned down outside the building in 1980. I felt that the Bryson recording was rather disappointing in general as I had thought there would be more of the gentle irony that characterises his travel writing. It sounded to me as if he had been invited to record his commentary in order to add a celebrity name to the audio guides but he wasn't given enough time to develop anything of substance, he was more or less busking it and giving on the spot feedback. Speaking for myself, the levels of ironies and webs of ideas that I can get from visiting a place only become separated and more distinct with a bit of time to reflect upon what it is that I have seen.

The next stage of the trip around the baths took us down into the modern museum. This was a big contrast to the top level as it was very new and ever so precisely lit. They had good quality models like this one which showed what the Roman baths would have looked like. I would have also liked to have had a model of the contemporary site to see how the two compare. That way I could admire little model tourists queuing to get in, model buskers and model protesters, model groups taking selfies in front of the baths and then crowding around a model of the contemporary site looking down onto their tiny model selves. 

This looks like a cinema but the tourists are actually looking at a number of stone carvings that have been hung on the wall in front of them and which are being described in detail on their audio guides. It was a rather neat way to borrow the architecture of the cinema so as to encourage people to sit and take their time to listen to the commentary. If this were simply a standing exhibit, there might only be five or six people here.

There were also a number of videos dotted around the museum and the audio guide provided the dialogue for them. The problem here of course is how to make it OK that the audio guide's dialogue does not synchronise with the image, because you drop into the film sequence randomly. You wouldn't do this with a Tarkovsky movie but here they kept the videos short and focussed around a single issue so it more or less worked.  

The remains of the Roman baths are in much better condition here than is typical for Roman sites in the UK and the fact that they has been overlaid with other layers of English history only adds to them. What is also true is that the museum has been very good at making the most of the fragments that they've found. This altar is a case in point. They have very little of it but have given the impression of a large significant altar by adding the missing sections without trying to trick you with fake antiques. The overall effect is to make the fragments appear much more valuable by conveying the scale of the original object, which is usually lost. It's a smart piece of display and is quite typical for this museum which has a uniformly high level of museology.

Just as I was getting tired of juggling between the assorted audio descriptions and was about to give up on them, I saw a live guide showing people around the baths. My interest picked up again and I followed him as he showed the bathing rooms and explained how they were constructed and used. While the general content of what he was saying was no different from the audio guide, the effect was world's apart. When, for example, he saw you looking at the green coloured water, he told you why it is that colour and advised you not to touch it, though around the sides of the bath many people were doing precisely that, dipping their fingers in to see just how warm this natural spring was. When he talked about the hills that the water comes from, a gesture accompanied his words and it all made fell into place. He showed us an oil scraper, passed it around, sand for a moment I wondered if he would take his clothes off, rub himself in olive oil and demonstrate it, but alas that would be going too far. This did get me imagining tours where the demonstrations went way too far: baths where the guides undress, a medieval torture chamber where the visitors are stretched on the rack and prison where you are locked up for a week.

I love these sort of pictures so much more than selfies. This one reminds me of the pictures taken of the African students in China on The Pingyao Tour. This one records not only a cross-cultural meeting but it is also a pleasingly ahistorical shot. I've so far resisted the dressing up in a historical costume and standing in front of a historical site type of shot but it might be time to jump in. I did get a nice one of me standing beside the Jane Austin waxwork the other day, my equivalent to this gentleman's Roman shot. I think these photos are extremely important as they shape the way people look at, encounter and remember these sites.

Towards the end of the tour there is a fountain where you can help yourself to the supposedly curative water. It is not exactly a pleasant brew but I was preparing myself for something truly vile so was ever so slightly relieved that it didn't make me naueous. And lo and behold, as I write this now, I can  vouch for it: my leprosy has cleared up completely! That at least was the story that created such a buzz around Bath in the 18th Century and shot the city into the limelight. Apparently, you can also sample this water in the pump room upstairs, a smart Georgian cafe popular with tourists.  

If the busker upstairs were to have sung Across The Universe while I was looking at this pool that glitters like the Milky Way it would have been a fitting end to the tour but we were buried inside the complex and he was out of earshot. The water is supposedly rich in minerals, particularly  iron, and this bath is rich in metal all right, the glittering is the from coins visitors toss into the pool. And it is no surprise they do so as the baths are rather special and I can understand why they pull in over a million punters a years. There is not so much to say from a tour point of view, the audio and live tour simply do an efficient job at introducing and leading you round the site. With such a bulk of visitors it is hard to imagine it being done in any other way and. The visitors themselves are not infrequently on tours of their own, such as an English language school's day trip. They will experience the baths as a tour within a tour and that's probably where the more far out tour stories are to be found.

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