For my birthday this year (aptly, my solar return!) I really wasn’t sure where to spend the day until, at the eleventh hour, Bath seemed to be the answer; it felt so right in my gut when the idea first came to me. So we booked our favourite veggie restaurant (the Acorn) and made a day-trip of it; a perfectly formed four hours in one of my favourite places on earth.
The relatively short time focus necessitated concentration of intention…consideration of how to spend that extra couple of hours once lunch was out of the way…and the very first place (as often is for me) was the source of the thermal spring, like I can’t even orient myself in the town until I’ve been there for just a few moments. By this I don’t mean the big, commercial, ever queue-ridden spa destination of thousands of tourists…no…but the unassuming Cross Bath opposite those gleaming glass walls; site of the original hot dipping pool, cure-all and pilgrimage destination even before the Romans made a feature of it. Just to stand there for a moment and pay my respects at the door seems to initiate my best experiences of the place on every visit.
Then it was just a little bit magical to find butterflies “fluttering” inside the vast spaces of the abbey, like a potent metaphor made manifest. Their colour and variety seemed to flutter new life into torpidity, as though the leaden religious narrative of so many quite massive stained glass windows had been exploded into shards then grown wings before hitting the ground; so, not the end of the world, just a fresh new beginning that had required the courage to break with old ways. Their unexpected presence there above my head seemed like a breath of fresh air sweeping through those unreachable spaces from one arched window to the other, stirring up the dust motes of heavy tradition. The reaching and arching endlessly higher and higher of all those immense gothic ceilings that speak of always striving, never quite getting there, seemed to be brought down to attainable height, their pristine stone made mortal yet in no way trivialised by fragments of coloured paper that could have been cut-out with scissors by a child. It felt like a sacred marriage to witness the two side-by side; both aspects made “better”, somehow more whole and perfect, by the collaboration of art installation and its most ideal space. This is what the masculine does so well; it holds space for the feminine to express herself in ways that are fluid, playful, relatable, earthy and without pretention or the kind of loftiness that alienates. The two work perfectly together; in fact, I realised I had never seen the space look better than it did on this day.
Outside the abbey, as ever, I paid my respects to Sulis and angled the shot by crouching down; a framing that gained the response I half-expected from one of my American friends this morning who, without knowing what she was looking at, told me how much it moved her to see this composition as she asked what the building was in the background. That vast building made suddenly church-like, I pointed out, is Bath Abbey – huge, influential, steeped in tradition (then and now). What I love about this image is that Sulis (who, in a sense, has been there the longest…) is holding her own, scale wise, relative to the oh so beautiful yet undoubtably male-expressing cathedral…calmly pouring water from a simple jug, knowing that being this flow is all that it takes to be our best god-expressing-as-human selves; no grand gestures of stone, investment or scale required. This is the goddess of the thermal springs, “Sun Goddess” (which I love also for the reason the sun is so often claimed for the masculine); often associated with Brigid, known for her fiery qualities. There’s an “I may be a woman but don’t mess with me” energy about her and such a sense of quiet, unassuming power. The Roman’s knew this when they came and found her as the established deity in these parts. They even kept her local sun-derived name in front of Minerva, as they also came to know her; “Sulis Minerva”, to whom they wrote requests for assistance when revenge or some-such major task or intervention came up. She was formidable femininity, personified – both fire and water together – and her healing powers were exceptional; which is what made Bath into the healing spa that she is still known as today. Its one of the reasons, I know, I am periodically drawn there like to the end of a rainbow along a road I must follow; not least at some of the times that have turned out to waymarkers and turning points.
In the end, it seems, my spontaneous day turned out to be a lot to do with reconciling the water quality of the feminine with fire; even the (rare for me) dessert I indulged in for lunch firing me up more than I am used to these days. Then, as though to seal the deal, the evening produced a ceaseless dance of sunshine and showers, small rainbows and cloud bursts, darkest black rain clouds juxtaposed with sun-radiant fields and striped with radiant bands of platinum-gold all the way home. Sometimes (we need reminding…) the feminine is called to be active, feisty, controversial and strong; to be assertive in ways that are uniquely hers and know herself for these qualities, stirring up dust motes, bringing fresh air and new modalities into stagnant corners, bright colour into drably conservative space, patches of unexpected iridescence into darkness. I’ll take this as the theme of my coming year!
The current art installation at Bath Abbey is by Anthony Head (click on image to enlarge the description).
Related photography collections: