The ancient English city of Bath, where my wife and I spent a day last month during a 25th anniversary visit to the U.K., draws visitors from around the world, charmed by the sense that time moves more slowly there.
We worshiped at Bath Abbey, considered an architectural newcomer because it’s only 500 years old. The locals talk of the Romans who colonized Bath in the first century as if they’ve just left town. A volunteer guide who took us on a walking tour still seemed sore about the intrusion of the Holiday Inn just beyond the city center, although it had opened a generation or two ago. This is a place, or so it seems, that proudly resists running at a modern place.
Yet even in Bath, where Jane Austen, a former resident, endures as a standard-bearer of the city’s antiquarian appeal, the realities of 21st century business can’t be fully avoided. In Bath, as in much of the planet, Christmas was announcing itself before Halloween had even arrived.
Or so we discovered when our guide, a retired accountant, took us around Queen Square, a public green that includes an obelisk honoring Prince Frederick, the heir apparent to the British throne who died suddenly at age 44 in 1751.
Frederick’s untimely demise brought thoughts about the fleetingness of life, an idea underscored by the square’s somber autumn landscape. A plane tree blazed russet and gold, its final grand gesture of the year before baring itself for winter.
“It’s rather nice when the leaves turn, isn’t it?” our guide asked with typical English understatement. His vivid white hair spoke of many other autumns, but he was greeting the arrival of another one as a novel gift. Maybe, I thought to myself, the capacity to be surprised by small wonders, even the recurring ones, is the measure of a happy life.
Then, leaving the square, our eyes caught something else — a strand of tinsel glinting in the dim afternoon sun, a signal flare of yuletide before October had even ended.
“It seems to come earlier every year, I suppose,” our guide sighed, more from resignation than anger. He didn’t have to say anything more on the subject, which spoke for itself. Here was an Englishman momentarily savoring the start of another autumn, only to be pulled past fall and into Christmas by a culture compelled to fast-forward us, with deadening impatience, onto the Next Big Thing.
That kind of hurry, long lamented as a uniquely American phenomenon, is apparently a fixture of English life, too — a challenge, maybe, for any place where the conveyor belt of commerce carries humanity through the year with ever-increasing speed.
As we left Heathrow Airport for the flight home, a huge, brilliantly lit Christmas tree in the terminal winked its good-byes. I’ll try to grasp what autumn has to offer, even as the holidays tug at my sleeve before I’m ready.