Thursday, August 2, 2012

Our Trip to Europe: English Museums (and a Circus!)

Sweden, of course, is not the only place in Europe with museums.  It turns out that England is also full of them, and in between visiting historical sites (and occasionally while visiting historical sites) we took in a few of them.

The first one was the Corinium Museum in what is now Cirencester, though once upon a time the city was called … wait for it … Corinium.  It was one of the bigger Roman towns in England, and while the museum does deal with all of the history of Cirencester (generally shortened to “Ciren,” which rhymes with Siren), it does focus pretty hard on the Roman stuff.  As you would expect.

This is the building, or at least part of it.

Already you know one thing about the place: it’s in the Cotswolds.  Everything in that part of England is built out of that same brown stone, which gives a certain uniformity to the region.

We went in through the main entrance, which you can just see to the right of the building in the center of the above photo (the museum continues on to the right, out of frame, and well to the rear), paid our fees, and embarked on our tour of history.

There’s a lot of it.

All of that is Roman.  The mosaics are all over the place, and there are so many inscribed stones that they’re hard to keep track of, really.  What’s neat about it all, as you can see with Tabitha above, is that a lot of the things are just out there on the floor where you can touch them.  There’s something to be said about actually being able to touch history.

Of course, eventually you reach your fill.

We also stopped at the gift shop, because that’s what we do.  We like gift shops.

We also went to visit the Roman bath, in the city of, well, Bath.  Go figure.

The Roman bath is an astounding thing to see for both its ancient and modern elements.  For one thing, you go into the museum through what I regard as the greatest entrance of any entrance in the history of entrances.

This takes you to a balcony where you can look out over the bath itself.

The bath is built on a natural hot spring, so the water is always warm.  It is also full of minerals – that’s its natural color and not some cheap St. Patrick’s Day stunt.  It also tastes really, really bad – there is a fountain in the museum where they divert some of the spring’s flow and invite you to drink some.  As Magnus said when Lauren and I tried it, “It’s something you do mostly to say you’ve done it.”

Up on the balcony there are all sorts of nineteenth-century statues.  It was chilly that day, and one of the two days we had in England where the rain never really did let up.

The museum funnels you through all sorts of exhibits, some of them showing you how the plumbing system worked (which was fascinating) and some of them showing you a wide assortment of artifacts that were recovered on the site or around Ciren.

My favorite artifact was this one.

According to the sign next to it, the inscription says, “This holy spot, wrecked by insolent hands and cleansed afresh, Gaius Severius Emeritus, Centurion in charge of the region, has restored to the Virtue and Deity of the Emperor.”  How annoyed do you have to be to carve that kind of invective into stone?

Eventually the museum funnels you back to the bath, this time at ground level. 

There is a tiny little sign tucked well back in a corner that says you shouldn’t touch the water, but we figured if they really meant it they would have made more of an effort.  You know what?  It was warm.

We had to rush through the museum a bit, because we were on something of a schedule.  We had to get to Giffords Circus, which isn’t a museum but I’m going to put it here because it really doesn’t fit anywhere else.  And that, really, is part of its charm.

If you are ever in the Cotswolds, you really should seek out and attend a performance of the Giffords Circus. You will thank me for this advice.  The Giffords Circus is an old-fashioned, one-ring tent circus, with acrobats, horses, jugglers, a live band composed almost entirely of women in vast 19th-century undergarments, and a vaudevillian clown – the kind that is actually funny, rather than the creepy Bozo variety.  It’s a deliberate throwback to the circuses of the 1920s and earlier, and it is just the most fun you will ever have in a tent with your clothes on.

We had to find it first, which meant zipping our way from Bath to the Trout Inn, just outside the tiny little town of Lechlade, all in a driving rainstorm that made the grounds a quagmire when we got there.  But it was so worth it.

It was the sort of show where when the acrobats weren’t happy with the way they did a trick, they motioned to the band for a repeat and did it again.  Nothing was photoshopped, and it was refreshing to be able to tell from looking just how difficult and how much training each routine was.  In this digital age, that’s priceless.

At intermission you could go out into the pouring rain to the carts they had set up to sell souvenirs and hot food (including pizza, cooked in ovens for which Richard had processed the patent application).  Or you could stay in the tent and buy snacks directly from the Feather Ladies, who doubled as ushers and what passed for security during the show itself.

After the show they invited all of the children down to the ring for dancing.

Go see them.  You will not be disappointed.

Our final museum in England was at Avebury.  It was only a small part of the experience, but it was interesting.  After we had looked at the standing stones to our fill we found that they had a museum in two parts, the most interesting one being inside a 17th-century threshing barn.

They had a very well laid out timeline of the history of the region from the Bronze Age to the 20th century, all with appropriate artifacts.  There was also a section on the guy who found and preserved the standing stones, who was an interesting figure in his own right.  And there were the two old beams that were holding up one end of the barn.

We were told that those beams dated back to 1066 or so, and we have no reason to doubt it.


Julia Lawrence said...

"Processed"?! Richard WROTE the patent for that pizza maker. But hey, I'm sure he'll forgive you.

Great pictures of the circus! I particularly like the ones of Tweedy (for those who weren't there, he's the clown, trying to use two ladders as stilts), and the bird lady.

I realise now there was one more place we really should have taken to you (except you can't take kids - maybe another time then), and that's the new spa in Bath, built just around the corner from the Roman baths. I realise you probably had all the spa experience you could ever want in Sweden, but still, taking the waters in Bath is a millenium-old tradition....

John the Scientist said...

Did the museum explain how the Roman hard "C" becamce a soft "C" in English?

David said...

Julia - well, that's processing, isn't it? ;) Oh well. And there's never a bad time for more spa experience. We'll just have to come back!

John - not that I saw. I do have about half a dozen textbooks on the history of the English language here at home (it's an interest of mine) so I suppose I could look it up.

Jennifer said...

Now THAT'S a circus!