Image

Bath

Great admiration for Jane Austen took me to Bath in the first place. After London, it was the first city I visited in England and my favourite until I went to Cambridge. The city keeps much of its original Roman architecture that  half shows like a partly unveiled coliseum surrounded by modern buildings, all enclosed in a Georgian aura, as if the city was the last vestige of a preindustrial England, before the coal mines, the vapour ships,  before the cinder-covered North and the foggy South that appeared in Dickens novels. Bath was founded there by the romans because of the thermal waters, and these gave origin to its actual name. Later on, during the Elizabethan epoch, Bath became once again a holiday centre and by the times in which Jane Austen lived, the last part of the 18th century and the beginnings of the 19th, people from all across the country fled to Bath because of the supposedly beneficial properties of the thermal baths.

The city was also a famous social centre and, even when it wasn’t London, it had numerous ballrooms and tea rooms, all kinds of shops and a warmer weather than the capital. For me, Bath is mercilessly humid, hot during the summer, windy and rainy the rest of the year, but undoubtedly charming. Despite what one might think and in spite of the many events in Bath related to Jane Austen (see the bottom), the portrait of the Southern city portrayed by the author in her novels seems to point out that she didn’t fancy it very much.

Austen lived in Bath from 1801 to 1806 and the city is the main setting for two of her novels, Persuasion and Northanger Abbey, although it is also mentioned constantly throughout all her work. Being from Hertfordshire, the Austen family moved to Bath for health issues, giving the young writer the chance to depict the chic sceneries and the eclectic way of life of the city in her work.

In the Austenian imaginary, Bath was a beacon to well-off young ladies that wanted to socialize (and to young men in possession of fortunes of course, who were in want of a wife), some kind of small-scale London in which life went by between thermal baths, tea rooms, dinners and balls. It is in Bath were Anne, form Persuasion, and Catherine, from Northanger Abbey, meet their future husbands, but it is also living in Bath that leads the young heroines to make poor choices: Anne, persuaded to try and find a better match, rejects Captain Wentworth’s affection even when she loves him, and Catherine gets carried away by her new socialité friend, Isabella, which almost costs her her happiness.

Bath is portrayed in both novels, with the subtlest irony, as the embodiment of the superficiality that surrounded the well-off families of regency England, the superficiality that Austen criticizes in all her novels. The ballrooms with their music, canapes and drinks; huge chandeliers and candle-lit, hazy atmospheres; crowded streets filled with people rushing to buy ribbons and dresses; the frequent arrival of single soldiers— all of this seemed to plunge Austen’s heroines into a moral stupor from which they recovered just in time. In Northanger Abbey, Catherine arrives in Bath to stay with some better-off friends of her family and immediately becomes friends with Isabella Thorpe, a young lady who shows her the ways of the city and who also happens to incarnate all social vices.

Northanger Abbey is a critique of many things —including mansplaining— and  a fervent defense of the novel as a worthy literary genre, and as such it couldn’t have a better setting than Bath. The superficiality and mannerism considered fashionable by urban societies are a complete mystery to Catherine, who is more of a tomboy and a country girl, and her inicial enchantment transforms into disappointment. Catherine is also a somewhat quixotic figure, suffering from latent bovarism, who is obsessed with gothic novels— deemed as low literature and read mainly by women— and who begins believing she lives in a novel by Anne Radcliffe.

Austen’s intertextual game is clever, being her work a parody of the popular gothic novel in which, as in all of her novels, it is easier to detect irony by the psychology of the character than by looking for the author’s own voice. There are no negative words about Bath (that is, in the novels, but we could find some in Austen’s personal correspondence), but all the praise for the city is spoken by the most naive and superficial characters. What made Bath such an unattractive place for a woman who dedicated her work to the criticism of imperialism and the political position of women? Perhaps Bath was the equivalent of the actual touristic complexes that pollute natural reserves and whose luxuries are really paid off via exploitation. And nevertheless, it seems like Bath never experienced the decadence of such places. It would seem that the industrial age never set foot in the city and, if it were not for the expensive cars parked on every driveway, Bath could seem stuck in the regency, an almost aristocratic town still filled with tea rooms, galleries and expensive restaurants; a brick fortress traversed by the Avon river, where one feels it would be perfectly likely to see Austen herself round the corner, coming out of a ribbon shop, or peering out of a window, behind a pile of paper and ink. Bath is, I think, the perfect city to write a novel.

bathhh
What I mean when I say the time seems not to have passed here.
IMG_0829
Roman buildings.
IMG_0860
Living my best life: drinking matcha and writing in Bath.
IMG_0822
The city centre. Bath Abbey.
IMG_0843
February. Freezing and rainy yet pretty.

Jane Austen’s family live in 4 Sydney Place, although the Jane Austen Centre is now in Gay Street. There is also the Regency Tea Room, where you can have lunch or a cuppa in true Austenian style. You can check opening times and the address here.

In Bath you can also visit the Assembly Rooms, the beautiful ballrooms where Austen probably danced (Catherine and Isabella certainly did) See that here, and feel like a true Georgian heroine. Also, the Pump Rooms, where the Northanger Abbey ladies reunited for tea during the day and which belong to the Roman Baths, are a fancy place for lunch, check that out here.

Bath is also where the Jane Austen Festivaltakes place every September, when there’s also a Regency Ball and Supper in the Assembly Rooms.

Have you been to Bath?

Did you like it? Which places do you recommend? Let me know in the comments!

Image

Cambridge

“They say the sky is the same everywhere […] But above Cambridge—anyhow above the roof of King’s College Chapel—there is a difference. Out at sea a great city will cast brightness into the night. Is it fanciful to suppose the sky, washed into the crevices of King’s College Chapel, li-ghter, thinner, more sparkling than the sky elsewhere? Does Cambridge burn not only into the night, but into the day?”
—Virginia Woolf

Of all the cities I’ve visited, Cambridge is still one of my favourites, and a place very close to my heart. Its colleges, its trees, going punting in river Cam, the orchards, the sheep, the libraries, the bikes, the markets— Cambridge is just as soothing as it is inspiring for any fellow lover of literature or art. Its streets and alleyways are poetic in themselves; bricks and chimneys on one side, monumental gothic structures on the other.

Cambridge is one of the oldest cities in Europe and the University of Cambridge was founded in 1209. The University includes 31 colleges with different buildings all over the city: King’s College, Queen’s College, St. John’s College, Trinity College and Clare College among them.

DSC07311
Morning coffee at Bennetts

The city is both vibrant and mysterious, full of life and yet strangely whimsical. It seems to go back in time a century every morning, with its traditional cafés and shops, its stone streets, old willows and wooden bridges—and then to come back to the present at night, its main streets filled with music and laughter, kebab places, international students everywhere. Some people say Cambridge is very similar to Oxford, both very old university towns, both undoubtedly pretty — but I think there are some things you can only see and feel in Cambridge.

My Cambridge

Having been before in many cities that became books, I was amazed to see in Cambridge a book made into a city. Although perhaps it was just a city that made me feel I was in a book. Thomas Hardy said about Cambridge, “What institution is more majestic than Trinity College? […] There are towers and battlements and statues, and beside these things there are cloisters and gardens and bridges”. And certainly, towers, turrets, battlements and  green extensions of grass compose the landscape surrounding river Cam. The cobbled streets almost always shine under the rain, and the yellow reflections of the street lamps and the chapels baths almost every building in its glow, even in the mist.

The heart of the city seems to be King’s College Chapel, gathering all the light around itself. A few blocks away, buried in bikes tied to every surface, there is The Eagle, the famous pub where Crick and Watson discovered the DNA structure in 1953. The whole city guardes important memories for knowledge and science; it was here where Stephen Hawking studied, worked and wrote his most important theories on relativity and the cosmos. And it is not hard to imagine it, with the amount of unkempt students that wander about the pubs, or that spend hours in Costa with no more company than a laptop and a pile of papers.

 

Cambridge is a good place to look around. People watching here turns almost always into a contemplative experience. The people, the tea rooms with fogged windows that cast an eerie glow on the street, the yellowish grey of the buildings, brick by brick, only interrupted by the sudden green of the trees and the grass. Every few streets there is a park, wide extensions of grass maintained in a perfect balance between neglect and artifice, or some shrubbery with eternally damp little flowers, trees that seem older than the colleges.

The University of Cambridge was founded in 1209, being the fourth oldest university in the world. In its many colleges studied some of the most brilliant minds, like Newton, Darwin, Hausman, Keynes, Stern, Thackeray, E.M. Forster, Nabokob, Malcolm Lowrt, Sylvia Plath and Terry Eagleton. Many times, specially when punting, I wondered about what it must feel like to study in a university like this— are there any vestiges, any aura or atmosphere, around places where art has happened, where so much poetry has been written? There must be. However, the whole city seemed submerged in this kind of atmosphere for me, a timeless bubble where people were safe to contemplate and write and learn.

Not far from the centre, 20 or 30 minutes by bike, there is a place called The Orchard. It is a little cabin with outside seating where they bake the best scones in England. There, it is said, between apple trees and tall grass, Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster sat to write. And it is hard to think of a better place to write, although Cambridge is full of them: riverside cafés, underground coffee shops, little tea rooms in every corner, giant trees perfect for reclining, comfortable benches in front of beautiful buildings, semi deserted pubs with thick wooden tables and huge chimneys.

 

Much of the time I spent in Cambridge, I spent in places like that. The rest of the time I was probably around Market Square. Old Market Square, where dozens of stands appeared every morning; fish, fruits, baked potatoes, kebabs and, above all, second-hand books. Two big stands had my attention, offering treasures buried beneath hundreds of best-sellers and paperbacks of all kinds. This is where my Agatha Christie collection started. Before, I had read Sparkling Cyanide and so the first book I bought in Cambridge was The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, where I met Hercule Poirot. Later I bought At Bertrams Hotel, where I found the best detective of all times, Miss Marple. Almost every week I would buy a paperback for one pound, which resulted in tremendous difficulties when going back to Mexico.

Apart from my Christies, in Market Square I found a beautiful edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass from 1971. A beautiful brown book with golden letters on its back and yellow pages. Later I also found a sixties edition of The Italian, a gothic novel by Ann Radcliffe, basically unknown now but very famous in its time, a red book with its title almost unintelligible. Radcliffe is one of the authors mention in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, one of the books I read before arriving in Cambridge. Some weeks after finding The Italian among piles of old Grisham’s novels, I decided to look for The Mysteries of Udolpho, the novel which Austen’s heroine reads. I spent many months hunting for it among second-hands books, and I finally found it in Waterstones, a new Penguin edition, around a thousand pages long in tiny letters. This literary founding only increased my love for both the city and literature, so much I decided to get my degree on literature. Some other loves were also found, among them afternoon tea with lemon and milk, Chelsea buns and cycling.

Because Cambridge is a city to cycle. The place where I lived was about two miles away from King’s Parade, where I went almost every day, so a bike seemed to me the best transport. The city centre is completely covered in parked bikes and the number of cyclist is by far bigger than that of the car drivers, two facts that make me think of Cambridge with nostalgia now that I live in Mexico City. And having a bike there was a good idea… until November, where I started reconsidering after falling a couple of times due to the frozen streets. But my budget would not allow other types of transport, so reconsideration didn’t last long. I have always thought one can get used to anything, from two pairs of socks (the second over my jeans to avoid trapping in the wheels), to carrying a chain and lock and remembering where among that vast sea of bikes I had parked mine.

Still now I remember what it felt like to ride a bike from Parkers Piece to Hills Road, then through Cherry Hinton Road and Coleridge Road… even when much time passed until I knew who Coleridge was and how important his poetry would be for me. Much time passed, too, until I had to say goodbye to that grey bike that kept me company and whose little front basket carried my books so many times.

 

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

Have you been to Cambridge?

What do you think of it?