Taking a Bath in Bath

No. We did not pay the big bucks to experience the modern spa built next to the old Roman baths of Bath England. But it did rain on our visit. What the heck, we’re in England! Meg and I left the kids with Lara Morgan (Thank you Lara!) and did a whirlwind trip to Bath from Oxford. The kids meanwhile got to go to the University Museum of Natural History. It was the highlight of their visit to Oxford. Dodos and dinos are a big sell to kids.

England represented Rome’s furthest stretch of empire. One of my favorite emperors showed up here as well, Hadrian. In addition to all the structures and monuments to his glory that we saw in Greece and Italy, the bath here in the UK was most likely remodeled under his direction. He is more commonly known in these parts for Hadrian’s Wall in the north along the border of Scotland and England. I guess after building that 80ish mile long wall it was decided that he needed a decent bath. In addition to Hadrian’s interest in the construction of this spa he also instituted new rules as to how baths should be run throughout the empire. Hadrian banned naked and mixed bathing. As a result separate men’s and women’s dressing rooms and bathing rooms were built. Apparently he was calling the empire back to the more conservative ideals of Rome during the Republic.

The Roman bath at Bath has some similarities and differences to those that we visited in Rome and Pompeii. Similarities include the traditional caldarium, tepidarium, and firgidariums. The ruins here are in better shape than in other places. That’s probably because they weren’t destroyed by a volcano or barbarian hordes. When Rome fell (AD 476) this area just fell into disuse. Eventually the building fell in upon itself and buried much of what was left. For the next 1,000 years the baths were subsequently cleaned, used, dirtied, and buried several times. Locals literally built their homes on top of the old rubble not knowing that only a few feet under their homes there lay an incredible complex of pools, changing rooms, and heating equipment. It wasn’t until the late 1600s that the bath and temple was “rediscovered” and renovated into its present Georgian style.

The biggest difference in this bath was that it was built upon a natural hot spring. There are actually three of them in the area. The temple and bath built here were dedicated to Sulis Minerva (Athena) and so also functioned under the name of Aquae Sulis. The hot spring bubbles up about 300,000 gallons of hot sulphery-smelling water every day. This “sacred well” as it is now called, was channeled into a large pool surrounded by a Doric columned portico. Traditional Roman bath rooms were later added around this mineral water pool. On our tour there was much talk that this bath was special and that people came here for the healing qualities of the water. I need to research Roman writings to see if this is really true. Most roman baths were social, business, fitness, hygiene centers, and while religious sacrifices were often held at these places, they were not commonly known for their mojo. The waters were certainly known for their “magical” qualities in pre-Roman Celtic mythology and post-Roman Medieval practices.

After their rediscovery the bath was dug up and given a bath itself. At this time it most certainly became a haven for those seeking the healing values of mineral baths. It was actually vogue to visit hot spring baths. This was relatively short-lived as the fad swung over towards swimming in the ocean for health (early emergence of British surfing). Bath once again fell into disrepair until Mary Queen of Scots was able to conceive shortly after bathing here. The conception was attributed to the waters of the bath, and the city experienced a boom in popularity. The bath was reborn. The old Roman pool was repaired, and new columns, porches, and statues were constructed. Architecturally the city followed suit and new structures were built in a neo-classical or “Georgian” style haling back to Roman times. It’s a beautiful city, even in the rain.

Roman Bath


I feel smart just saying that I’m writing here in Oxford. It’s that kind of place. We are staying in a St. Hughes College dorm right in the heart of the city. Our friends Ronnie and Janine Morgan teach for Abilene Christian University in Texas and are in charge of the off-campus program here in Oxford. They have graciously given us a couple of empty rooms. The kids are thoroughly enjoying dorm life! I’m not sure if that’s good or bad.

We have walked the town and visited University Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Trinity College, Radcliffe Camera, Christ Church College (Yeah, Harry Potter was filmed here), and numerous other colleges. There are incredible museums here as well. The Ashmolean Museum boasts an impressive collection of antiquities. The Natural History Museum has a Dodo bird and the most complete T-rex skeleton in the world. The Bodleian Library has amazing collections. And all these are free! Talk about encouraging learning! We fed the ducks in University Park and sat on the bench there dedicated to Tolkien. Apparently he liked to sit in the park at this bench along the Cherwell River under the willow trees. We think we found “Old Man Willow.”

We went to dinner one evening at the Eagle and Child pub, better known to locals as the Bird and Baby. It’s just a regular neighborhood pub but was made famous by a group of Oxford scholars who used to meet in the Rabbit Room for a bite and a pint each week. This group used to discuss their current writing projects (primarily narrative fiction) as well as politics and theology. Members of this group included J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and others. Fish and chips never tasted so smart.

One afternoon we took a leisurely walk around the grounds of Blenheim Palace just outside Oxford. The grounds were given to General John Churchill in thanks for the victories he won over the French back in 1704. The British government even gave him the funds to build the palace. That is some kind of thanks! It is an immense park. Sir Winston Churchill was born here, and we decided that he must have played in the tree where we rested. It is a beautiful setting.

Today we walked out to Port Meadow and strolled along the Thames River; they call it the Isis River here in Oxford. I’m not sure why. But the walk was very peaceful. We passed through meadows with cattle, lots of Mallard Ducks, and several canal boats. The canal boats are now “mobile” homes, but once they were functional cargo ships cruising the canal from London to Birmingham (135 miles). They are often colorfully painted and home to colorful people. Afterwards we passed the Oxford Castle and prison and later climbed the Saxon Tower, Oxford’s oldest building (AD 1040). Oxford is celebrating its 1,000th year. It’s not quite ancient, but 1,000 years is nothing to sneeze at.

Stonehenge and Avebury: Stone Circles

This morning found us borrowing our friends, Ronnie and Janine Morgan’s, car and making the drive from Oxford to Wiltshire to see the Stonehenge and Avebury stone circles. The kids were excited about seeing the ancient sites; I was excited about testing my driving skills in a country that drives on the wrong side of the road ;^) Why else would they call the right side of the road the “right” side? I think that my expectations for the drive were higher than my expectations of the prehistoric sites we were to visit; we had received underwhelming reports from several previous visitors.

These two stone circles in the UK are not a regular part of my curriculum so I won’t even pretend to know much about them. All the same, they are pretty spectacular settings. Both sites date back to about 3000 BC and were built in spurts that sometimes had gaps of use or construction lasting as much as 500 years. For Stonehenge the first bit of construction was little more than a ditch with a circular mound of soil. Around 2600 BC a wooden structure of some sort was built in the center of this circle. And then finally from about 2500 to 1500 BC the all too familiar stone circle was constructed and rearranged several times. After that time it was apparently abandoned. That oldest stones used at Stonehenge are called Bluestones (from their original color) and come from the Preseli Mountains some 240 miles away. These were originally arranged in an outer circle around the center wooden structure area. Closer to 1500 BC the larger Sarsen stones from Marlborough Downs (19 miles away) were arranged into the familiar posts and lintel formations known as trilithons. It is estimated that dragging these 50-ton stones over the hills to Stonehenge would have required about 600 people per stone! About that same time the Bluestones were rearranged into the pattern that is seen today. Interestingly, the current arrangement of stones works as a sort of solar calendar casting shadows to the center of the ring at both summer and winter solstices. And while the construction at these sites lack the craftsmanship and artistry of temples built in Egypt and Mesopotamia from the same era, they still demonstrates some pretty impressive celestial calculations!

Around the countryside of Stonehenge and Avebury are several Barrows. I first encountered this term while reading Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. In the Fellowship of the Rings Tom Bombadil warns Frodo and company to stay away from the barrows and their stones because there lived the Barrow Wights. I’m still not exactly sure what a Barrow Wight is, but I have a much better understanding for the barrows and cold stones. A barrow is simply a burial mound! Could Tolkien have been referring to the stones of Stonehenge or another of the numerous stone circles throughout southern England? Sure, why not? We picnicked at the outer circular mound and contemplated the scene with Frodo, Sam, Pippin, and Meriodoc in the middle of the stone circle.

Avebury (c. 2600 BC) is equally impressive if not more so for two reasons. The first is obvious when you first arrive - you can walk right up to and touch the stones. It’s really cool. Of course you have to dodge mountains of sheep dip strewn every square inch of the fields, but you really get a chance to walk among the stones. Second is the size and arrangement of the stones at Avebury. The stone circle is huge -almost four football fields in diameter. The stones here were selected for their unique shapes and were uncut like the stones at Stonehenge. The largest stone on site weighs over 65 tons! An early archaeologist in the area named William Stukeley (c. 1720) observed that the arrangement of the circular ditches, mounds, stones, and surrounding barrows created a design reminiscent of serpent passing through a circle, an ancient symbol of alchemy. That’s cool! The most impressive barrow in this area is the Silbury Hill about a mile from the stone circle of Avebury. This huge volcano shaped mound is also surrounded by seemingly random stones and underground chambers. Turns out that these too line up with certain celestial events. And all this digging and hauling of soil was done by hand with antlers and bones. That had to have required a lot of cooperative work hours from the local people.

So what do these stone circles mean? Since there is no written record from the era of their construction nobody knows for sure. We do know that they are old. Neolithic people lived here as evidenced by the artifacts found at the sites and in the burial barrows. They do seem to line up with celestial events that we readily recognize. But the why question really remains a mystery. This has sparked numerous legends about their genesis and purpose dealing with everything from the Devil to King Arthur. Throw in some Druids with a little new age mysticism and you can have a lot of fun with these sites. So far none of these has any historical credibility. The circles predate all of them, except maybe of course the Devil!

A Jolly Good Time in London

In addition to spending time in Southall at the A Rocha UK center we did make it in to London for some fun. In spite of the rain everyday we took several long walks through the city. We followed the lead of Londoners and dashed into museums, cathedrals, pubs, and phone booths during the heaviest downpours or resorted to busses and Underground in order to keep dry. Public transportation is incredible; you can get anywhere in the city really easily.

Our first trip out took us to Buckingham Palace to see the changing of the guards. We enjoyed the bands, uniforms and silly walks, but all agreed that the changing of the guard in Greece takes the prize for the best silly walk of all. We walked along St. James Park to Westminster Abbey, parliament and Big Ben. Then we hoofed it up to Trafalgar Square and then found a bus that would eventually take us back across town to the Natural History Museum. We all really enjoyed the dinosaur exhibits.

Another trip into London took us to the British Museum to be overwhelmed by the amazing collections from all over the world. We promised ourselves we would return (which we did) and hopped on a bus to catch a free organ recital at Westminster Abbey -very cool (not only was it really neat to hear the organ music, but we didn’t have to pay the usual 14 pound admission!).

Another trip took us on a Sunday to St. Paul’s Cathedral where we caught the sung Eucharist service. It was really beautiful. The London Symphonia was there to accompany the boys’ choir. We had a nice walk along the Thames and onto the Tower Bridge. Saw a Beefeater at the Tower of London and made our second pilgrimage to the British Museum.

Our last adventure in London began at Knotting Hill where it seems cool book and music stores abound. Walked to Kensington Park where the kids had a ball at the Princess Diana Memorial Playground. We passed along by Kensington Palace and the Royal Albert Memorial on our way to the science museum. This was the museum for Emma! They have an area just for 3 to 6 year olds where you can touch and play with everything. She couldn’t get enough of the water-play area. The rest of us enjoyed the science museum too and agreed that, just like all the others, we could spend a week in there -if it weren’t for the imminent sensory overload

The Search For Homer’s Ithaca in the British Museum

I returned to the museum one evening on my own for a special event lecture given by Robert Bittlestone, James Diggle, and John Underhill (great name for a geologist don’t you think?). About three years ago Bittlestone came up with a “what if” idea concerning the real location of Homer’s Ithaca and has since written a book titled Odysseus Unbound: The Search for Homer’s Ithaca. I have this book in my class! Bittlestone is a businessman, not an archaeologist, based here in the UK and was planning a family vacation to the Ionian Islands off Greece’s west coast. He thought it would be appropriate to read The Odyssey in preparation for the trip. After visiting the currently named island of Ithaca he noticed how poorly it lined up with Homer’s description in The Odyssey. So he applied some problem solving skills, a little bit of basic sixth grade plate tectonics, and a plane flight over the island to form a new theory explaining how the island of Cephalonia was once two islands, one of which being the real Ithaca. He then teamed up with the other two presenters and the real science of archaeology/geology/classical literature began. And so far all the research is heavily in his favor. I love it! It is a great example of utilizing geology to help make sense of the “myths” of the ancient world, something I am quite interested in. I briefly spoke with Bittlestone after the lecture and he is very interested in visiting Santa Barbara (If you’re from England, who wouldn’t be?). What do you think the chances are that I will be able to take both Donald Johanson and Robert Bittlestone out for coffee back home in Santa Barbara?

The British Museum

London arguably has the best museums we have visited anywhere along our trip, and it’s not just that they have acquired (plundered?) an unbelievable number amazing artifacts. It’s the accessibility of everything. The museums are free, you can take pictures, and you can walk right up to original pieces. While I have to admit that it would be nice, even the right thing to do, for native countries to actually house their own cultural artifacts, Britain has done a tremendous job of allowing the public to be educated by these cultures. I’m not convinced that they are protecting the artifacts any better than other museums we have visited, but they certainly have them organized and presented in a manner that makes the public want to learn.

I visited the British Museum on three occasions, and it was packed each time. On two of the visits the whole family cruised the facilities together. There are free activity booklets and kits for kids. On our first visit there was a hands-on table where we all got to handle biface hand axes from the Magdalenian Period. Incredible! As usual I was most drawn to the Egyptian, Greek and Roman displays. We saw the Ramses head whose statuesque body we visited back in Luxor at the Ramesseum. The highlight from these areas for me was the room displaying the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon in Athens. The number of pieces the museum has that Elgin removed from the Parthenon back in 1806 blew me away. They are beautifully arranged in a manner that sort of reconstructs the layout of the Parthenon. But if I had never been to the Parthenon this would not have been very evident. Wikipedia has a good article about the marbles and their controversial stay in the British Museum (Elgin Marbles). I for one would love to see them all displayed together in the new Acropolis Museum under construction in Athens. Not only does it seem to be the right thing to do, but also it makes good archaeological sense to have them all together for study and interpretation.

Other highlights for me included the Assyrian collections from Nineveh and Nimrud as well as the Babylonian and Sumerian collections from Mesopotamia. Essentially what you find in the Assyrian collection are several hallways containing all the engraved wall sections from the palaces unearthed at Nineveh and Nimrud. Both of these cities were Assyrian powerhouses during the 9th through 5th centuries BC. The relief carvings on these walls are incredibly detailed, and in just looking at them you learn a lot about the daily life and beliefs of these people. My favorite pieces in the museum, aside from the Elgin Marbles, were in the Babylonian room. The color, detail, and antiquity (2600 BC) of the Standard of Ur, the Ram in the Thicket sculpture, and the Ur Game board are breathtaking.

British Museum Highlights

A Rocha UK and Southall

We drove from the French Alps to Milano Italy and once again spent the night with our friends Juan and Talissa Gil (Thanks again you guys!). From there we braved the city streets of Milano (a nightmare for Megan) and flew from Bergamo to London England. After a half dozen bus, train and tube changes we arrived at our new home in Southall in the north -west sector of London. Southall is a very diverse community that hales as one of the largest Indian Sikh populations outside of India/Pakistan. We thoroughly enjoyed the colors, sounds and smells of life in this community. We even ate lunch at the Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabba, the largest Sikh temple outside of India. They serve free meals to anyone who enters, no questions asked. Our kids may have them rethinking that policy; Emma and Sarah Jane both went back for seconds on the lentils and rice pudding while Sam made a full three trips through the food line.

Over the past three years we have been working with a conservation organization called A Rocha (Portuguese for The Rock), and here in Southall they have their UK offices. The focus of A Rocha can best be described as “a Christian nature conservation organization… with projects working in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, North and South America, Asia and Australasia. The projects are frequently cross-cultural in character, and share a community emphasis, with a focus on science and research, practical conservation and environmental education.” (quoted from their international website at arocha.org) We enjoyed the ARUK community while we: worked in the garden, helped out with some mailings, installed attic insulation, led a group of students on a field trip at Minet Park (their local project), and assisted with an environmental club at a local elementary school. Sam even rescued the pond at Minet Park from a trolley (that’s a shopping cart for all of you back in the US). We spent many long hours discussing the urgent need to make radical changes in our consumer lifestyles in order to effectively begin the task of reversing decades of environmental and socio-economic degradation around the world. While the word urgent was never actually uttered, it is the overall sense that has been growing in me throughout our trip. Our world is a wonderful place, but without immediate care there is much that will go wrong in the not-so-distant future. People seem to react to the message of environmental crisis in different ways. Some choose to ignore it completely. I tend to believe this is because recognizing there is a problem demands a response. Which then gives rise to the next type of response, to recognize the problem but be so overwhelmed by the immensity of it that nothing is done. It can be a pretty hopeless outlook. Which brings me back to A Rocha. Here we find hope in what can be done. I have attached a video of theirs that introduces the need and their approach to solutions. Check it out.

It has been the perfect way to end our journey: a time for reflection, challenge and plans for action. After leaving the A Rocha UK center we discovered this wonderful quote from Mark Twain, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” Our world feels less scary, more inviting, and much bigger than we ever imagined. It’s really quite wonderful!

A Rocha International