Road Trip Through History: Bath

Having spent many hours enthralled by the novels of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer, I was excited to arrive in Bath, our last stop in England. It was thrilling to have lunch in the Pump Room, to stroll through the Assembly Rooms where some of my favorite heroines danced the quadrille, and to see the neoclassical splendor of the Royal Crescent. My Own True Love and I spent a happy afternoon at the Building of Bath Museum, learning about Georgian architecture and John Wood the Elder's development of the city into a popular Georgian resort town.*

Georgian Bath delighted me. Roman Bath blew me away.

I knew the Romans had built baths at Bath--the Romans built baths everywhere. I didn't know that the baths at Bath were more than just baths.

When the Georgians came to drink the waters they were taking part in a centuries old tradition. Bath is home to the only thermal springs in Great Britain. Ancient Britons worshipped a goddess of the springs, Sulis, long before the Romans arrived in 43 CE. The Romans identified Sulis with their own goddess of wisdom, Minerva. The two religions merged together in a temple-bath complex at the new town of Aquae Sulis that was in use for roughly 300 years. Pilgrims came from all over the Roman empire to bathe in the springs and consult the goddess.

Today the ruins of the Roman baths and temple lie under the streets of Bath. Partially excavated, they form the heart of an excellent museum that ties together Roman history, religion, social history, urban planning, and plumbing to tell a fascinating story of the birth, death, and eventual rebirth of the city. You can even have a glass of the famous waters if you feel the need.

* We like buildings almost as much as we like history. History and buildings together? Heaven!

A few travel notes for anyone inclined to worship at the goddess's spring, take the waters, or otherwise visit Bath:

  • The city of Bath sponsors free two-hour tours led by The Mayor's Corps of Honorary Guides, a volunteer group of carefully trained local enthusiasts. My guess is that the tours differ from guide to guide. Our guide was engaging, opinionated, and passionate about his city's history. Overheard bits of another tour suggest that the guides are uniformly excellent.
  • If you're a vegetarian--or just feeling like you'll get scurvy if you don't have a few vegetables soon--try Demuth's Vegetarian Restaurant. Our meals were as inventive and elegant as anything cooked by Charlie Trotter.  Honest.

Home Front Girl

A couple of weekends ago--in between baking ham, slicing sweet potatoes, chopping cranberries and rolling out biscuit dough-- I gave myself the treat of reading Home Front Girl: A Diary of Love, Literature and Growing Up in Wartime America. And a treat it was.

Born in 1922, Joan Wehlen, later Joan Wehlen Morrison, grew up in Chicago as the only child of Swedish immigrants. She had a slightly socialist streak, a healthy interest in boys and clothes, a quick pen, and a sharp mind. Her diaries from 1937 to 1943 are smart, lively, funny, and philosophical by turn. She quotes, paraphrases, and parodies Cicero, Shakespeare, Kipling and others to make her points.

Her picture of adolescent life would be interesting enough in itself: she talks about crushes, clothes, class work, and working on the Chicago Maroon* with a fine eye for detail and a self-deprecating wit. But her description of day-to-day life is deepened by a keen historical awareness.** Thoughtful commentary on the larger events of the day, from the Lindbergh kidnapping to the fall of Pearl Harbor, runs side-by-side with accounts of bridge, boys, and biology class . Perhaps most interesting to me are her repeated discussions of herself and her contemporaries as a generation who always knew their war would come. She describes then as fundamentally shaped by the lean years of the Depression, having "a kind of brittle strength they didn’t have before. A kind of body of muscle and bone and not much else. Strong in a fragile way almost and enduring more than the weightier people in days past."

Comparisons with The Diary of Anne Frank are inevitable--and should be made cautiously. The experiences of the two girls are not parallel. Nonetheless, there is a striking similarity between them in terms of intelligence, curiosity, and sheer vividness .

Edited and annotated with a light hand by Morrison's daughter, Susan Signe Morrison, Home Front Girl, is a delightful read. It's marketed as young adult non-fiction, but will interest a wider audience.  If you grew up loving Anne of Green Gables and Daddy-Long-Legs, or weeping over Anne Frank, give Home Front Girl a try.***

*The University of Chicago's student paper

**She would later work as an adjunct professor of history at the New School for Social Research.

***Any male readers out there who know and loved these books?

Holiday Rerun: The Christmas Truce of 1914

My Own True Love and I are on the road for the holidays: home for Xmas with a little side trip to look at vintage airplanes. (History geeks don't stop being history geeks just because it's Christmas.) Instead of letting the blog go blank, I thought I'd re-run last year's Xmas post, with an addendum:


German and British soldiers photographed together in No Man's Land on the Western Front.

For most of us, the most vivid images of World War I are the trenches on the Western front. Men dug into positions on either side of a no-man's land of craters and burned out buildings. Barbed wire and sandbags provided little protection from enemy shelling or snipers; they provided no protection from rats, lice, flooding, or the dreaded "trench foot". The battlefields were noxious with the smell of rotting corpses, overflowing latrines and poison gas fumes.

Trench warfare was hell. It also made possible one of the most extraordinary events of the war: the unofficial Christmas armistice of 1914. The truce began when some German troops decorated their trenches with candles and Christmas trees and sang carols. British troops responded with carols of their own. On Christmas Day, some groups ventured into "no-man's land" to share food, sing carols, hold joint services for their dead and play soccer matches.

One German soldier, Josef Wenzel, described the scene in a letter to his parents:

One Englishman was playing on the harmonica of a German lad, some were dancing, while others were proud as peacocks to wear German helmets on their heads. The British burst into a song with a carol, to which we replied with "Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht. It was a very moving moment--hated and embittered enemies were singing carols around the Christmas tree. All my life I will never forget that sight.

It is estimated that 100,000 men took part in the Christmas truce. In some places, the truce lasted only through Christmas day. In others, it lasted until New Year's Day. In some sectors, the war continued unabated.

The Christmas truce did not recur in 1915. Both the British and the German high commands were appalled at the blatant fraternization with the enemy and gave strict orders against future incidents. After all, how do you fight a war if the men at the front decide not to fight?

Peace on earth, good will to men.



My friend Nancy Friesen brought this lovely version of the story to my attention:

Thanks, Nancy.


Photograph courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.