I took a Megabus from Manchester to Bristol after my week fumbling around “Cottonopolis” – as Manchester was called in the early 19th century – and then took a local bus from Bristol to Bath, still talking to myself, cooing and making involuntary sighs at all the sights I remembered from the time I lived there eight years before. Under my breath, I’d say, “Oh yes, there’s Sainsbury’s” and “Shouldn’t the river be on that side now?” before realising it was too dark to have any proper idea of where I was, so I sat back and conjured locations from memory.
The first different thing I noticed about Bath, getting off the bus, was that the bus station had been updated and moved, and the whole southern part of the high street had had a makeover. Where once stood a very ugly (and incoherent) 70s concrete jungle of discount shops, now stood a faux-Georgian Bath-stone network of high-end retail shops. It all looked quite Disneyland-esque in its newness, but was definitely an improvement aesthetically. And as was pointed out to me, it wouldn’t take long before car fumes would blacken the light-yellow stonework – Bath having some of the most polluted streets in all of the UK.
Bath lies in the bottom of a valley in the Mendip Hills. This makes most vantage points in the city extremely picturesque: green slopes filled with trees and mansions rolling away in every direction. But because of its popularity as a tourist stop, the buses, trains and cars all contribute to a diesel-smelling haze, which seems inescapable, especially on the London Road – the traffic rarely thinning out during the day. Transport around Bath belies the actual population of 84, 000, accounting for the 3.7 million visitors it gets each year. Adelaide, comparatively, only receives 450, 000 visitors a year.
Underneath the valley lies limestone which has filtered thousands of years of sunken rain water into hot springs which the city is famous for. I love this idea that the ground percolates water like coffee over time and then spits it out uncontrollably – at temperatures around 45 degrees – pure and ancient.
I met up with my dear friend Deborah at the bus stop and she took me to her cottage in Melksham (which I assure you is a town that would not see any of the 3.7 million tourists passing through the area) in which I’d stay during the weekend before moving to her new partner’s apartment in the centre of Bath. It was so nice to see an old (and older) friend and pick up conversation like it was yesterday, but to feel more on her level. The last time I’d visited was 2007. In the car I told her that I felt so different from the last visit, which was just after a testing time living in remote Spain: I felt more mature. I was ready to love Bath. It was, after all, a second home for a year, and a very formative year it was.
My first port of call when I was dropped off in Bath the next day was Widcombe Hill. I used to live on the street, and it was the scene of many sweaty, panting walks – it being arguably the steepest street in the whole world [very probably not true]. It took me up to Bath University and then I made my way to Sham Castle – a 200-year-old folly built specifically so that an aristocrat had something nice to look at from his house in the valley. It is the facade of a castle, but stands on a golf course, like a mini-golf obstruction writ large. On the day I got there, golfers had parked their cars around it, obscuring its deceptively ruinous appearance, making it look more like a polystyrene prop from a cheap Robin Hood film.
Over the following days I caught up with more people, chatting all the time with Debs, mostly about food and family. I went for a bike ride along the canal in the rain, which was nicer than it sounds, and started jogging again around nearby parks and fields. I explored the city with a big grin on my face: I really was in a home away from home – I felt comfortable there, the accents were familiar (and so heart-warming, like Debs’ dad who is as big as and sounds like Hagrid). The other reason for my inner content was the fact that I had been an awkward 18-year-old here, and now I was 26, a proper adult (more or less), with a fuller tool-belt of experiences and skills defining me the way I’d aspired to be back then.
For the first time on the trip I yearned to stop in a place, and stretch out my roots to the wells of water below the city. Am I not finished with the area? Or was it just because of a human need for the familiar?
My final day in the West Country I went to Bristol to revisit the “big smoke” and took note of the fact that now I’m older and more involved in the city I live in, I can find interesting parts of other cities quicker than before. So for this reason I found myself in the St. Nicholas Markets and the surrounding area where I found several artist collectives and a Format-like space called Start the Bus. I met a new friend there, Mike, who is the age I was when I first visited the city. Normally I baulk at youth, but we got on like a house on fire (we saved all the children, don’t worry), and we joked the short hours away before the Joanna Newsom concert I went to that night at Colston Hall. I suppose he wasn’t the only 18-year-old I made peace with on this journey back.
It takes years for our emotional landscape to filter what has happened to us and what we’ve done. Since leaving the Roman city I’ve felt drained; another chapter of my childhood reconciled. I need to bubble like a hot spring – if only it came to me as naturally.
I have been too hard on the state of sushi in the UK. Good sushi is there to be found (in chains like Yo! Sushi and Itsu) – but to retain my derogatory stance, it’s double the price of sushi in Japan and Australia, making me upset and craving the wellspring of food that’s on offer in the States. I realise, however, that comparing prices is dull and the conclusion I should draw is not to have Japanese food so often in the UK.