Tea for Two

A 6-mile nature walk around the city, into the hills and across fields beckoned me the second day of our four day stay, and geared with the Bath Skyline Walking Trail map, boots and rain gear I estimated a two-hour walk and a confirmed return time for L., who chose to catch up on jet deprived sleep and reset a biorhythm that went out of whack. 

The trail started over the North Parade Bridge, moving upward onto steps that lead to a canal, once providing transport to and from London and Bristol with barges pulled by horses on either side. Now it serves for houseboat living and rental accommodations, bars and restaurants. Over the canal, still further up, I turned left along C street, lined with sandstone manors, private gates and lush gardens. Each house has its own name carved into a pillar or wall, like the townhomes down below, which Is part of what makes England so identifiably adorable. Usually it’s the family name, followed by the word House, but it can really be any name or word. I wonder what happens to the carved names when houses are sold or transferred ownership, or if they are passed down into the family for as long as possible. At the end of this street, I turned right, and now the real ascent began, into one of the woods surrounding Bath. The trail proved more difficult than the trail suggested, and a lot of the first half was spent ascending the surrounding hills on slippery mud paths and emerging tree roots. For each quarter mile, a view of Bath opened up between the trees, a sandstone oasis amidst the scalloped green hills of fields and woods that surround it. Despite hearing the peace granted to these outlying areas, marked by song birds, and humming insects and stillness, the soft, muted sounds of city life pushed its din up and outward, until I got high enough to hear nothing but see everything of its presence. After the woods, came the fields, and I passed cows and sheep grazing gracefully. Luckily no encounters with raging bulls up here. 

The trail took me farther than I thought, yet still around the northern area of of Bath I wasn’t back before 2:30; and with the ascent and the frequent view stops, the actual distance was 8.5 miles.

In typical English fashion, we arrived at the Pump Room with wet umbrellas and a want for hot tea. A tuxedoed trio was on stage: a pianist, a violinist and a cellist, and together they created symphony-quality sounds of abridged pieces of period music. The crystal chandeliers hung low with soft, incandescent, yellow lighting; the draped, white tablecloths fell to cover the table’s legs; the large, yet narrow, floor to ceiling windows ensconced with woven fabric curtains emitted just enough light, and the gentle, echoing sounds of silverware and stoneware in a distant room enhanced the experience. We ordered a three-tiered high tea service, which arrived soon after the tea itself, served in individual pots from a chosen, familiar variety: Oolong, Black, Earl Grey, Darjeeling. Once the tray arrived, we knew we would have to “make it last” to not only get the total, sensual experience out of it, but to make it through the tray itself without leaving uncomfortably full. On the bottom plate rested the finger sandwiches and shot glasses of salmon and caviar mousse. The finger sandwiches, delicate slivers of white bread with the crusts removed, were comprised of cheese and tomatoes, cucumbers and cream cheese, chicken salad and egg salad. We each received one of the those. On the middle plate waiting in line were two scones for each of us, with serving side dishes of clotted cream and strawberry jam. Finally, topping the delectable temptress of culinary wizardry, challenged the dessert: a petit fours of coffee flavored mouse cake slice, a raspberry cream filled puff pastry, a shell of graham crust with lemon mouse and a raspberry on top, and a French macaron.

And then with typical English manners, we launched into a proper conversation, bringing each other up to date with events, family, circumstances, and gossip, all the while pausing to listen to the concert, sip on tea, pour some more, and decide on the next bite. In spite of our pacing ourselves, eating slower and slower, and delaying a bit while the trio took a break, by 5 pm we felt the hushed sounds of closing time, and when the musicians packed up and the waitress asked if we needed any more tea, were both silently contemplating to ourselves how to politely take the rest of the goods home. Having no extra baggie in my small day pack, I was left with a rather large heavy duty disposable napkin, which I thought would fit nicely around a few of the sandwiches and maybe the petite desserts, but what about the scone? And the clotted cream and strawberry jam? About this time, L. voiced her own thoughts about how we were going to get this lot home, and searched her bag for a baggie she remembered having packed. Alas, it was only a small wrapper of something or another, and we were left with the napkin trick.

“Maybe we could ask for more napkins,” L. suggested, looking around hopefully at other tables and side tables that may have self service. 

“Can you take stuff home, here?” I wondered more aloud than expected her to be familiar with. Looking around, most of the tables had been cleared of their settings and the one table left, a group of business men, were deeply involved in their folders and files and legal pads than wondering how to take a macaron home. 

“I don’t know. Is it proper? It seems like a waste though, if we leave it.”

“Plus, it’s too good. Well, this is what I’m going to do.” I decided I would eliminate the problem of how to transport the cream and jam by spreading the scone with it then and there. I sliced it in half length wise, and dolloped the gorgeous portion onto the scone, and neatly folded it back up. Leah did the same.

“I usually always have a baggie with me, I don’t know why I don’t this time,” I said. 

“We’ll ask for more napkins, and do it as discretely as possible.”

At that time the waitress came up, and ever so politely in proper English form asked, “Would you like me to put that in a box for you?”

“Oh yes, please,” we gushed, full of gratitude, and once the waitress had left with the tray, found our paranoia about protocol fully exaggerated. Why we refrained from just asking had us both stumped. We replayed our naive and silly pretense of keeping up appearances, and couldn’t help but laugh, and because we were still in polite company, stifled the laughter even further until tears were streaming down our faces. 

Now with eye makeup needing clearing and cleansing, we left with smeared faces and our two small boxes to the hall to find the restrooms. L. found the sign, I found a poster on the wall.

“Hey!” I exclaimed. Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein right here on this spot!” Indeed, having refreshed our faces and found composure, we returned to the outside and the sharp contrast to a modern world, where it took several head rotations and orientations, and locating numbers on shop doors. Finally, not being able to find 5 Abbey Square (Shelley’s documented residence), a shop attendant ringing a school bell caught my attention which then diverted the same to a sign that another attendant was just putting up advertising half price on pasties and pastries. “Ooh!” I cooed, “half price! I’m getting one!” Fully aware of how fully satiated we just emerged from the Pump Room, we nevertheless bought two original pasties ( beef, potatoes and onions) and two chocolate croissants for tomorrow. I decided it would be a good idea to ask these girls if they could help us with finding 5 Abbey Square, seeing their shop was 7 Abbey Square. They could not! I found this extraordinary. “But isn’t this number 7?” I asked. They seemed to agree that it was, and then asked what exactly I was looking for. “Mary Shelley’s old place,” as if she was a local in the neighborhood who just moved away recently.  Neither of them seemed to recognize her name nor the title of her classic, and so we left the bakery somewhat bewildered by people who had no idea of where they even worked. But looking ahead across the cobblestoned pedway, and indeed, right next to the Pump Room from where we earlier emerged, was an unpretentious plaque that announced the place where Shelley wrote her novel, and because the building had since been torn down to make room for expanding the Pump Room, number 5 Abbey Square no longer existed as a postal address. Satisfied, we went on our way to promenade along the canal. 

Four miles later due to a mistaken direction on my part, we returned to the city in a much slower cadence, but with a rounded perspective, not only geographically but culturally as well, seeing a more seedier side of Bath and less attended to garden spaces. Still light out, we felt it would be a perfect occasion to find a bar for a drink. We decided on the oldest pub in Bath, and centrally located (that is, close to our apartment), Sarencens Head, where absolutely nothing at all was happening save for a few at a table and a singleton at the bar. Nice old decor, but to cap off the evening with some lively village chatter or an old English Bard or fiddler was not in the works that night. We finished our wimpy half pints, talked of places in the world still needing traveling to, and then left for the flat, pleased with the performing lock.

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