Saturday, May 12, 2012

Day 38 - Minor Wedmore, Bath, Dinner at Menu Gordon Jones

Thursday 3rd May 2012
Raining again today. Steady grey and wet. Hubby up and showered ready for brekkie at 8:30. I was up and journaling from just after 6 am.  Feeling hungry. Hopefully also feeling better when I get to eat something.  We just cannot get over the width of the elm floorboards at Nut Tree Farm. Perhaps the best proof of the age of the building. 
A slow and friendly leave taking as Melvyn offers advice about our route to Bath.   Our first priority this morning is to stop in Wedmore and take some photographs.
Wedmore is a lovely village and I have to say I’m glad to be able to claim a connection to it. My 3rd great grandfather, George Popham (a thatcher) was born in Wedmore.  It’s no good focusing on the C of E church our lot were non-conformists.  Perhaps the Methodist church is more appropriate.
I laugh with delight as I notice that there is a field of black sheep and lambs adjacent to the churchyard.  I was regretting not taking a photo of baa baa black sheep when last we saw some and here is an even better opportunity.
To some extent we retrace steps of yesterday and head first of all for Cheddar.  The weather being less amenable to walking the crowds are less and the gorge more attractive.  Water is sheeting on the road and splashes extravagantly as we drive through.  A beautifully horned bronze age ewe leads her young lamb along the grass by the road. Brown wool showing a wet luster. Low dry stone walls are richly blanketed in moss as the canopy closes overhead in a tracery of bare branches. The fine veil of rain smooths rough edges.
Emerging from the gorge it is no hardship to drive through the Mendip Hills once more with it’s fields separated by stone walls and an occasional shepherd’s hut providing variation from time to time.
Hubby and I don’t agree on the interpretation of Melvyn’s instructions that will take us on some fun sounding back roads to some great views before heading into Bath.  Hubby has the wheel. Hubby has the final say obviously.  Hubby was wrong.  Consequently we take the route that tomtom favours.  There’s no hope when those two gang up on me.
Our route takes us through Chewton Mendip and a series of pretty little villages which we can now regard as just one of so many in this country. Despite the weather we pass a couple of cyclists flaunting their bulky thigh muscles.  There is a sudden shocking spinning in the passenger seat as I spot a bird that looks like a bird of prey sitting with its wings akimbo.
Arriving at Athole House we find that it is grand with stunningly beautiful gardens.  It is much bigger than I expected.  Big wide staircase with low comfortable risers.  A very friendly welcome and despite the early hour our room is ready.  Did I mention the gardens? We drove the car to park where indicated. I had been imagining that this would be a cramped little courtyard. Ha!  No sir.  This is a big comfortable parking bay at the edge of the garden. A big beautiful garden dominated by two principle spring features.  Bluebells. Beautiful well nourished bluebells. Carpets of them and don’t they make a stunning show.  “Oh they’re a weed and have to be culled or they take over” modestly explains Wolfgang. I’m finding it hard to feel sympathy for the problem. Over the way a bit is a pergola covered in a beautiful pink clematis.  These are popular round the place and at the peak of flowering.  I find the gardens enchanting.  It doesn’t hurt either that out in the street in front of Athole house is a mature copper beech just getting its leaves.  Oh I could settle down here and never move today.  What a joy this place is.
Our room is huge. Huge and has beautiful views over the gardens.  It is simply decorated, but not poorly.  A nice leather lounge suite. A reasonable sized TV. A huge bed. I think they call it super king size over here.  Pretty much equivalent to King Size in Australia. A beautiful ensuite bathroom.  We were given a tour of the facilities before we came upstairs. Downstairs we are welcome to use the conservatory where breakfast is held and where comfortable sofas and magazines are arrayed for our enjoyment.  The conservatory too is of generous proportions.  Bath is going to have to work hard to compete with this when we’ve been travelling for 6 weeks.
Wolfgang has asked about our dinner plans and I confess I have been slack and not rung Menu Gordon Jones to confirm our reservation for tonight.  Does Wolfgang have the number?  They can do better than that.  Our hostess gives the restaurant a ring for us and reports back that 7pm tonight is fine. We will love it. She is jealous. Menu Gordon Jones is great.  We feel so welcome.
It’s hard to keep on day after day, maintaining enthusiasm, maintaining energy.  Trying to top untoppable sights and experiences. The credit goes to the venues of course.  I am relying today on the enthusiasm of, well, of everyone I’ve ever spoken to about Bath.  To be honest I’ve never been that interested. I’m here because everyone, simply everyone, says I must, it is magnificent. It is world heritage.  On balance over the years I have learned that such ravings should not be ignored, so here we are.  The end of the marathon is nigh.. break through the pain.
We don our raingear. Hubby slings his manbag. We double check that we have the map Wolfgang gave us. Yes? No. Oh yes! I knew I must have it here somewhere.  It’s a 10 mins or so walk across the river and into heart of bath. Some of the route is not terribly inspiring, and we take a little longer than average seeing as we’re quite tired and not feeling entirely the full quid.  We pass the new Southgate Bath shopping centre. New, but indistinguishable in style from the old. Very impressive.
As we walk through Bath bells are playing tunes. I can’t put a name to the first but a short while later we are treated to a snippet of Amazing Grace and I find myself wondering whether there is a connection between John Newton and the city of Bath, somehow that rings a bell (oh honestly that really was no pun intended..haha).
Also impressive is the array of shops fronting the street. We check our map and move on. Lunch is in order.  Hubby hangs back as he buys a Big Issue.  Nice work there dear. I’ve been feeling bad because we passed these guys without buying while we were in London.  We pause again to consider our plan for the day.  At some point we will take the free walking tour and of course the roman baths are essential. We consider a bank of cafes indicated on our map but notice that we are right outside the Pump Room.
Vague flickering in the memory bank.  I am drawn magnet-like to the entrance.  Hubby questions "where are you going?"  “In here”. I’m not always verbose.  We peruse the posted menu. Options and prices both tempting. Not very busy. Live piano music is a classy touch.  The sign directs us to walk to the opposite corner of the room to be seated.  Yeah. Why not. This looks awesome. This looks like it might take longer than the 40 odd minutes we have before the walking tour.  Hubby is concerned. We’ll take a chance. If we don’t do the walking tour today we’ll do it tomorrow.  The girl who seats us seems unhappy, but she goes through the motions.  Perhaps she’s had some bad news or something. We’ll give her the benefit of the doubt.
We peruse the menu.  There is a special of baked fillet of cod with tomato butter, green beans, samphire and a hollandaise sauce for £14.95. Tempting. I’ve wanted to try samphire.. but I really don’t like fish. I need to be in top form to order fish. Up for a challenge.  Not today. I order the smoked salmon tart with dressed rocket salad.   Haha… smoked salmon isn’t fish. You knew that right? Hubby goes for the Devonshire chicken wrapped in bacon with leek and barley broth.  In a minute or two we are delivered a basket of fresh bread and butter.  Almost immediately the bread is on the table, we haven’t even had a chance to have any, our meals arrive.  What the?  They had that ready out the back obviously.  Both meals look great.  My salmon tart and salad comes with a bowl of fresh tomato soup.  Sweet tomato soup. I enjoy it a lot, but it’s too sweet for Hubby. The soup is really hitting the spot. The tart is tasty but not too rich and my delicate tummy is happy to have the meal thank goodness.  Both our meals are delicious, Hubby’s chicken is ever so slightly over cooked, but nothing drastic. It is still delicious. We’ve eaten and paid and are back on the pavement in half an hour.  Fantastic.  Oh and what a happy coincidence. The walking tours leave from right alongside the Pump Room door.
Angels climb and fall from heaven on Bath Abbey
It’s raining lightly. A small crowd has gathered around two men.  We have about five minutes to wait and this is no hardship.  I walk across to drop my remaining coins in the receptacle of a busking guitar player. He’s good. What a perfectly pitched performance for the location.  Thankyou he says. What a pleasure the music is to listen to in such a beautiful street.
The clock strikes 2pm. Literally. The Abbey is just across the cobbles.  The crowd is split between the two guides leaving two nicely small groups.  Introductions first up: Welcome to you all.  This walking tour is a free gift from the Mayor and citizens of Bath to express their appreciation for your having chosen to visit us.  We are very much aware that without the patronage of visitors like you, our beautiful city and home would not exist". What a nice start :o)
Parish demarcation. Each parish was responsible for burying their own dead. It cost  3 pounds. .. that's a lot.. not unusual then that bodies had a tendency to find their way across the border....
The rain is a bit of a dampener (groan) but it is only light and there are some lengthy dry periods as we learn a wealth of information, both the trivial and the profound, about what must surely be the world’s most famous spa town. If I didn’t feel interested and fascinated by Bath before, I do now.  The history of Bath, especially from the more modern periods,  say from the Elizabethan era, is quite fascinating.  We are delighted to hear of the role the Pumphouse played over time and this has retrospectively enhanced our lunching pleasure.  We walk and listen for about 2 and a half hours. There’s a number of hills involved so participants need to be up for some exercise and some brisk walking on an incline. We don’t hang around in one place long.
We learn a great deal about the movers and shakers of Bath over the years and the influential Richard Beau Nash who if memory serves was the self appointed master of ceremonies and arbiter of social conventions during Bath’s most fashionable period.  There was no position. He had no rank, and yet he successfully set out to provide a level of leadership that continues to reverberate in English society today.  Even Royalty deferred to Beau Nash in Bath. What an extraordinary man. 
There's a great deal to explain in this view across the River Avon..nah... go on the tour..
"I say, make that river go away will you".... I think the architect succeeded. 
Then there's the bridge. The brief was to make the river disappear so that property on the other side of the river would seem attractive rather than just on the wrong side of the river.
So this is the famous promenading Ave. Have a look at the rear facade on the surrounding houses... 
The Bath Assembly Rooms. People were conveyed hither and non in  chairs.  On leaving the ball, people would call their transport... this is the origin of today's common leave taking "Cheerio"
This is a very important fence, and it's been very well maintained.  It is a memorial to the Battle of Trafalgar. in 1805.  Notice the shape.. it's modelled on a weapon used at the time with the fringe to prevent blood running down the handle.
You name it, we cover it. Architecture. Town Planning. Coal deliveries. Smog. The symbolism on the Abbey. The saint with a beard stump for a face; how the extraordinary streetscape coherence was achieved.  The sins of the Victorians who planted trees. The promenading place used by Ann Elliott in Jane Austen’s Persuasion.  Motives for dragging dead bodies across the line.  A fashion for watching the hospital stats by all the well to do.  How many are healed, how many are improving, not improving or dead.  Bath was a colourful and interesting place. There is no shortage of stories. I am sure that you could take the free tour time and time again and the various guides will be able to keep you entertained. The two hours or so goes by in a trice. The Mayor’s tour is without question a must do activity.
Coal shute. Coal was delivered into these coal cellars. The household staff would then come through a door out to get the fuel. How very sensible. The houses on either side of the road also extend under the road.
Our walk concluded time is now getting short for the Roman Baths.  Hubby is dilly dallying for some trivial reason… sheesh.. come on…. Oh toilet… sigh. OK.  I pace. I look at my watch. We buy our tickets to the bath house and are cautioned that the recommended time is an hour and a half. We have an hour and twenty minutes. Are we sure we want to enter?  Ah… yes please.  The website of the Roman Baths promises you an audio guide. Newsflash. Audio guides are just so passé.  At the style setting capital of the country one is issued with an “acousti-guide”.  Our acousti-guide encourages us to only listen to what we want to. We don’t HAVE to listen to every item if we don’t want to.  Oh, then that’s OK. I’ll skip most of mine then.
Honestly I find these things tolerable at the best of times. I find ancient cultures to be right up there among the very best treatments for insomnia.  As we progress through the Roman Baths before we get to paydirt in terms of ancient stone and archeological marvels we are led through a number of spaces where we are invited to learn about ancient roman culture. No doubt this will help us to appreciate what we are seeing.  I try. I promise you I tried, but it’s not long before I’m becoming increasing desperate to get away from this stuff. I walk through feeling increasingly impatient.  I saw a board about tours starting on the hour. Don’t ask me what complete shorting out of brain synapses occurred but I fail to twig that we haven’t missed the last one.  The hand of grace reaches out for me as I drown in the tedium of the culture of Aquae Sulis… I have come across an animated human guide who is conducting the free tour. She is talking about how the ancient baths were discovered in the 19th Century and loads of stuff about the more modern uses of the premises. Now THIS is really interesting.  I slide discretely into the group and listen in wrapt attention.  I like this old Bath house now. This is really cool.  I even find some things that I’d like to know more about on the acousti-guide.
The remains of the roman bath house are extensive. They are the most intact roman bath house remains in the world.  Others that had survived were destroyed in a some sort of cataclysm: a volcano or something like that.  Once I’ve listened to the real person I’m quite enjoying exploring the different rooms and getting the hang of how they were used.  The museum has done an excellent job in presenting what remains in a way to help you imagine how it was a couple of thousand years ago.  I did enjoy the screens where they show you what is in front of you then overlay the full structure and actors running around in plausible roles among the ruins.  There is also an interesting display of relics that they have retrieved from the sacred spring.  Offerings to the goddess were tossed into the waters in abundance. Thousands upon thousands of coins have been retrieved.  The tradition is continued only people today are not so selective. Any water anywhere has coins people have tossed.
By the time we have seen enough the baths are about to close anyhow so the timing worked out nicely.  We just have time for a quick look in the gift shop.  We could use a souvenir gift that has something to do with antiquities but nothing catches our eye. 
The Roman Baths
With our return home approaching the voice in the back of my mind about souvenirs for the kids is becoming fairly insistent.  I have been tasked with acquiring tea.  I have been briefed about the Australian quarantine restrictions.  Another happy coincidence as we find ourselves right outside a tea merchant.  Excellent. What’s this white tea? Where does that fit in the quarantine scheme of things.  I resolve to get one white, one green and one black tea.  If the white is not allowed through it’s not such a big deal.  Turns out on further enquiry white is fine, we can bring it into Australia and really, I should have bought more as daughter has only seen it in very expensive restaurants billed as a delicacy. .. and she likes it.. of course.
We’re dead tired after such a busy afternoon. With our dinner reservation coming up I figure I’m going to need my remaining energy for dinner. I’m not walking back up the hill to Athole House.  Hubby thinks it is fine but I know my limit and I’ve reached it today. Fortunately our map indicates where the taxi rank is and it’s not far away. Lots of cabs lined up and we’re home in a jiffy with time up our sleeve for a pre-dinner rest. Nice one on the cab Snodge.  What a pleasure it is alighting at Athole house from a taxi. When you’ve been flogging shanks’ pony for weeks it is certainly a pleasure to be dropped right at the door. I could easily fantasize about living in this property with this lifestyle.
Menu Gordon Jones is not far away from Athole House.  Easily walkable. Even tired and all uphill its not a problem.  We’re pretty much bang on time and the first of the patrons to turn up.  We are usually the first of the patrons to turn up. We like to eat early.
As we chat at our table the chef sings out from the kitchen and joins in the conversation.  This is an aspect of this restaurant that I particularly enjoy.  It’s kind of a cross between a restaurant and a dinner party.
First delivery is a thick brown paper bag sealed with a colourful fold back clip.  Inside is some warm bread slices.  We can take our choice of potato, tomato and sage or red cabbage bread.  On the little wooden board accompanying the bread is a scientific vial of rich green herb oil and a test tube of balsamic along with a little instrument for extracting the balsamic and applying it in precise quantities to the bread.  In our fatigued state the whole exercise seems like an intelligence test, but we have fun with it.
Soon we take delivery of an amuse bouche served in a beautifully elegant Guy Degrenne cup and saucer. The cup is really fine. Our daughters would love them.  They are filled with “cauliflower cappuccino (espuma) with smoked milk foam”.  We sip and savour.  It is certainly worth the savouring.
The adventure continues with Scrambled seagull egg, Stonnaway black pudding, English asparagus and squab pigeon. The scrambled egg comes served in the olive green seagull eggshell which though very delicate and thin has been perfectly cut across the top to form a little dish.  In one of our chefs little conversational forays we are informed that the seagull eggs have a two week season only and are the most expensive egg you can buy. £4 each and they are collected from the wild.
We are beginning to wonder what extraordinary delicacies we will see in the next course and it is not a long wait until we excitedly tuck in to Roast Sea Bream, crushed jersey royal potatoes and eades baby cauliflower.  Delicious.
As we dine we enjoy the show that is provided by the relationship between the building and the road outside.  Menu Gordon Jones is located on a very busy corner.  The road curves around the shop front and is mirrored by the broad curve of glass picture windows.  It’s not the first place you might think to put a small and intimate restaurant but it works.  Rather than the traffic feeling intrusive it feels like a wall of performance art as vehicles large and small, private and public sweep across our window screens.  The flashing lights of a police vehicle add an additional level of colour and movement.
The meat course is roast rack of spring lamb, curried swede, eryngi mushroom, baby carrot and confit shallot. Lovely, but I generally like my meat cooked a little more than is fashionable.
Blackberry sorbet, marinated cucumber and kale water made for a surprisingly delightful mix of flavours and textures for the pre-dessert.  We can’t wait to see what comes next.
Balsamic Panna Cotta poached red fruit and pink lady apple, vanilla sable. A fine dessert for those that like a bit of tang to their berries. It’s hard to go wrong with panna cotta.
What a great dining experience for our last night.  We have been indulged and entertained by our meal tonight.  Our imaginations have been stretched too by the creative presentation and unorthodox approach to commercial dining.  We wish our hosts the best of continued success for the future and steel ourselves for our foray out into the cold and dark. We are thankful that the return home is all down hill.  What we have missed in Bath in terms of time spent has certainly been made up for in quality.  It’s so good to retire in comfort and sleep. Our last night in England.  We’re heading out on another high note.

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