Taking Tea and the Waters at the Pump Room, Bath, England

Entrance to the Pump Room

Entrance to the Pump Room

You’d think after a lifetime of drinking tea I’d be undeterred by thorny problems of etiquette. But here in the elegant, eighteenth-century Pump Room in Bath I’m suddenly overcome by nerves. Because, as anyone who’s ever picked up a Regency romance — let alone gone within touching distance of a Jane Austen novel — will know, in this, of all places, it’s all about Doing Things Right.

Visiting the Pump Room

I start well. I order Lady Grey tea with confidence and, when it comes, I’m sure-footed enough to ignore the milk served with it. (Ha! Did they think they could catch me out that easily?) But it’s downhill from here: I allow myself to be distracted.

And there are many distractions. The people around me for a start – the loved-up couple with champagne; the matching pair of German tourists in check shirts with identical cameras; the group of girls, one of them in a turban, tight leopard-print skirt and cropped top which doesn’t hide the flamboyant snake crawling up her spine, having their pictures taken with afternoon tea three-tier cake stand. That’s just a selection.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • Georgette Heyer, Jane Austen…they’ve written about it, you’ve read about it. Now go and see for yourself.
  • You over-ate at lunch and maybe it’ll help your digestion.
  • Great for Austen fans and an absolute must for anyone who thinks that water doesn’t have a taste.

And if people-watching isn’t enough, building-watching proves an equal delight: the room boasts high ceilings and glistening chandeliers, swagged drapes and huge picture windows. And, of course, I have to pay attention to the reason this whole building is here at all. On the far side of the huge room, set rather modestly in the window behind a polished wooden bar, a fountain shaped like an urn surrounded by leaping fish. Water gushes from their mouths.

The fountain where the water flows

The fountain where the water flows

Not just any water, either. These are the waters of Bath and this room is where elegant Regency beaux and belles and their chaperones came to take them, ostensibly for their health but often just to show them off on the marriage market. The ladies fluttered their fans and spoke coolly to their suitors while passions raged deep within them, in this very room. It’s no wonder I’m so distracted that I omit to use my tea strainer and fill my cup with flakes of tea, compounding the error by forgetting to freshen the pot with hot water and ending with a black stew of over-brewed tea.

After that my confidence goes completely. Though I’ve finished my tea I’m still in agony. How do I pay? Do ask for the bill or do they bring it? Should I go to the cash desk? Do I tip? And, most importantly, what do I do about taking the waters?

Taking the Waters

I needn’t have worried. The waitress, charm itself, drifts elegantly across and delivers the bill, removes herself discreetly while I fish about in my handbag and floats back in time to receive my money – and my tip – with a smile so encouraging that I finally pluck up my courage. “Excuse me – but could I have a glass of the water?”

Of course. She leads me across the room to the fountain and whisks behind the bar. A party of visitors who’ve clearly been going through the same agony attach themselves to us. She produces glasses, fills them at the fountain and hands them over.

Entrance to the Pump Room

Entrance to the Pump Room

We look at each other, wondering if there are rules about how to drink a glass of water. One of my new-found companions goes first, sniffing and sipping. “I’m getting calcium and magnesium,” she announces, swilling the water in her glass. “And sulphate.” I eye her with suspicion. Surely she’s joking? But I don’t think so.

The rest of us follow her lead and sip. The water is warm. It isn’t pleasant but nor is it unpleasant. It’s certainly distinctive. We non-connoisseurs eye one another, feeling foolish. But one is braver than the rest of us, or else he cares nothing for procedure. “I don’t like it,” he announces, slamming his glass down on the bar. “Red wine is nicer,” and he turns away. He might be right. But at least, I think, draining my glass out of politeness, the water’s good for you….

Practicalities

  • It’s free to drink the water in the Pump Room but you have to ask someone to pour it for you.
  • The Pump Room, in the centre of the city, is part of the Roman baths complex (but you have to pay to tour the baths).
  • It’s a fabulous place to eat (light meals throughout the day) and there are special programmes of music to add to the atmosphere.
  • Bath is horrendous to drive in but there are park and ride services and the Pump Room is within easy walking distance of the centre.

Taking the waters

 

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