This is a weekend that will be remembered among other things as the perfect autumnal weekend. Autumn, a season of ripeness of fruit and richness of colour, was at its best display. It is the last lively breath of life before the bleakness of winter. It paints the best of art in nature, a culmination of birth, growth, flowering and fruitfulness. The efforts of spring and summer are not ends in themselves but find their full rewards in the splendours of autumn.
Autumn colours at Westonbirt Arboretum
English autumn lasts from September to November. The best display of colours is provided at the Westonbirt Arboretum, some 20 miles from the beautiful city of Bath. Ironically, the best displays here are from Japanese maples (acer palmatum), since maple itself is not native to England. Among the most interesting of these is the ‘Katsura’, leaves that turn yellow with the shortening of days. As the chemicals start to break down they produce an unmistakably sweet aroma that becomes the powerful fragrance of surrounding groves. With over 18,000 trees planted over the decades, meticulously classified and named, the arboretum is an ideal place for any naturalist. I particularly took note of a large Indian Horse Chestnut tree. I am told that much of its timber is found in imported English furniture but I yet to ascertain this claim by my many visits to English country houses.
A slightly wet day at Westonbirt Arboretum
I continued the enjoyment of autumn at Dyrham Park, easily reached by a special bus service from Bath. I have visited a few old English houses but the entry here and the approach to the house have been the best. As the bus makes its way down the winding driveway, weaving around the hills, fallow deer look up with alert curiosity. The house suddenly emerges down the sloping valley and the colours of red, yellow, green and orange make a picturesque backdrop. A couple of cows start to cross the driveway and we wait patiently before we finally arrive at the house.
The interiors of the house are just as impressive. By now it is clear that most houses of this stature have a library of their own. English or Flemish tapestries keep out the cold drafts and at the same time decorate the room. Paintings record lineage, history and patronage. With each painting the artist’s fame is consolidated and enhanced. Wealth is displayed by imported porcelain, Delftware (tulip vases in particular) and custom-made wooden cabinets decorated meticulously with marquetry. The vast grounds are carefully landscaped to suit the fashion of the day. Important rooms are designed to have splendid views of the grounds. Rooms are linked by a straight line of doors, one leading to another, what is called an enfilade, a French architectural gimmick that seeks to create an illusion of greater space. At Dyrham Park there is a particularly interesting collection of wall tiles in the dairy. They say no two tiles are the same but this is to be doubted without a rigorous self-study.
Having not had enough of autumn, my ambulations continued at Bath, a city that somewhat reminded me of the capital of Luxembourg but falls short of it in both beauty and style. Still, Bath is a beautiful city. The Botanic Gardens is a pleasant place. The red squirrels here are too comfortable with humans and will not hesitate to nibble at your feet. Prior Park Landscape Gardens affords excellent views of the city. Gardening is an essential part of English landscapes. A stream running down the slope or a lake placidly formed in a valley, each has its place. A Palladian Bridge over the lake is symmetrical in structure but adds asymmetry and interest within the bigger landscape. Trees are planted in view of the changing seasons. Every walk through these gardens brings me closer to this unique art. Flourishing of English culture was not just in art, architecture, music, engineering or literature but also in landscape gardening.
Bath is a city of order, proportions and well-designed spaces. The buildings do not have an old haggard look but look sufficiently mature in age to be romantically worthy of preservation and admiration. They are placed together in close proximity but this does make the city looked congested. There is a certain elegance in its look of clean classical lines and facades. This is best seen in The Royal Crescent and The Circus. The Roman Bath is no doubt an important city item. It takes only a single visit to realise the extent of the Roman Empire, not just in military terms but in engineering, art, society, politics and governance. When the Empire withdrew from Britain in the 4th Century no one here had the technology to maintain the baths which quickly fell into disrepair. The baths here are dedicated to the goddess Sulis Minerva, a fusion of a Celtic goddess and a Roman goddess. Indeed the Romans were prudent enough to abide by their own golden rule – “When in Rome, do as the Romans”.
The ancient Roman Baths
I learnt with great interest the function of the Roman Bath. It serves to clean the body as one would expect. Its social function was perhaps more important. It was a place to socialise in an idle way, converse with serious intent, make contacts, network with peers and officials, strike business deals and settle transactions. As such, the process of cleaning oneself had to be slow process that gave enough opportunities to socialise. Cleaning the body is by use of dry heat (hypocaust) circulating under the floor that is supported by stacked tiles. The dirt is scrapped off with a stirgil. A cold plunge concludes the ritual. Once clean, one may relax in the main bath, chat with friends, indulge in a game of dice with music and dance for background entertainment or simply have one’s armpit hair plucked for a fee!