A Very Hasty Literary Tour of Bath

Archived from London trip: April, 2009

Jane Austen, resident of Bath

Jane Austen, resident of Bath

On the Wednesday of our vacation in London, my wife and I embarked on a day trip to Salisbury, Stonehenge, and Bath. Bath proved to be worth the trip – a truly unique and beautiful city. Our tour guide’s goal was to show us the Pump Room and the Roman baths, and allow us to quickly peruse Bath Abbey – we had about an hour. Personally, there were a few other Bath sites I was hoping to see.

For weeks prior to our London trip, I had been reading as many books as possible while trying to create an itinerary that both my wife and I would enjoy. Once I learned that we would be stopping in Bath, I pulled my copies of Jane Austen’s Persuasion and Northanger Abbey off the shelf. (This is in fact a lie – I did not own a copy of Persuasion.) I did a bit of research and found there was a Jane Austen Visitor Center in Bath, and I was certain that once there, I’d be able to negotiate the terrain.

No such luck. We were in too much of a rush to see anything of the Jane Austen Center. I hadn’t planned the excursion all that well. Besides, the copy of Persuasion that I had brought to read on the plane remained unfinished in my backpack. I figured it was a wash. My wife and I both agreed that Bath deserved a second trip – someday.

Pickwick (standing) with Sam Weller

Sam Weller composing a Valentine

As luck would have it, I did find something in Bath that I hadn’t expected. As we were rushing back to our bus, we happened upon a pub called Sam Weller’s, named after the character from Dickens’ Pickwick Papers.  Sam is one of my favorites of all of Dickens’ characters. Sam was also one of Dickens’ most popular characters, and is credited with making the author famous. Pickwick Papers, published in serial form, had not been doing all that well until Sam’s entrance in the novel. He was immediately loved by the readership for his humor, but became cherished for his kindness, humanity, and loyalty to the often-obtuse Pickwick. (And don’t we all cheer when he returns to the kitchen to kiss Mary, his walentine?)

I was delighted if only by the name of the place, for we were too pressed to enter and sample the ales. I allowed myself only a moment to pause and smile while my wife rolled her eyes and tugged at my sleeve. A flood of humorous memories from Dickens’ novel came to me as we rode back to London, and I had to hide a few smirks and chuckles in my collar.

A Pint at the Cheese

Archived from trip to London: April 2009

My wife must love me an awful lot, because she was willing to indulge my wish to have a pint at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese pub after an overnight flight, several hours of trooping ’round London, and absolutely no sleep. This pub, the site of a tavern since the 12th century according to our bartender, was a frequent haunt of Dr. Johnson and Charles Dickens. It is also the likely site of Charles Darnay’s fictional dinner with Sydney Carton after his acquittal in A Tale of Two Cities.

Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese

Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese

We approached the pub from the alleys leading from Gough Square, home of Dr. Johnson. It was late afternoon and we would soon be heading back to our hotel. The pub faces Fleet Street but is entered through an alley. The obvious description of small, dark, and old is apt, but what I’ll try to impart is the acrid smell of a coal fire burning in the front room. It’s a smell that I’d not encountered before – and I suppose it’s a smell that I subconsciously assumed was what the 19th century smelled like. The walls were dark, the ceiling dark, and cobwebs clung to every bit of flat surface. I loved it.

My wife and I sat in the front room, near what was rumored to be Dickens’ favorite table, and took in the atmosphere. This mostly entailed sitting quietly. I had a pint and tried to memorize every inch of space before me as my wife fought off an urge to doze.

We didn’t stay long – just long enough to say we were there. We caught a cab on Fleet Street rather than risking falling asleep on the Tube and riding the Circle Line forever. As I left, I tried to understand just exactly what my fascination with the place meant – it’s a fascination that I have for all places of literary interest, both real and fictional. I could imagine Dr. Johnson reading Oliver Goldsmith’s first draft of Vicar in that pub just as easily as I could imagine Charles and Sydney’s “good plain dinner.” One of those events certainly did not happen in this plane of existence; the other may have – I suppose that the point of my writing this entry is that I could care less what the difference is between these events; I cherish them both.