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Looking around, and atop, Bath Abbey

To Bath, originally founded by the Romans as Aquae Sulis and later rebuilt in the eighteenth century (like the Romans before them, the Georgians saw the city as a place to go and take to the waters which are said to have healing properties). Unlike many a Roman settlement, it was actually built as a spa town not as a garrison, and the idea of going to Bath for one’s health, or for pleasure, was one that was as enthusiastically embraced by well-off people in the eighteenth century as it had been by well-off Romans. Today, the city centre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and my general rule of thumb is that if a place has been given that status, it’s got to be worth a visit.

I was particularly interested in the abbey – or, to give it its full name, the Abbey Church of St Peter and St Paul. Old churches are always worth looking around, and this one is particularly impressive – and, indeed, bigger than some cathedrals (although like the cathedrals it does have plenty of enthusiastic volunteers who are always there to answer any questions you may have, however obvious). And yes, even though it does not have a cathedral Bath is still a city (the two do not necessarily go hand-in-hand; Guildford and Southwark, for example, have cathedrals but are merely a town and a London borough respectively). Despite the name, Bath Abbey is in fact the main parish church for Bath – the ‘abbey’ part doesn’t mean that it’s a monastery (it isn’t, although it used to be prior to the Reformation) but the church is allowed to call itself an abbey due to its historical significance.

Principally, this significance is because in the year 973 a coronation took place there. King Edgar, sometimes known as Edgar the Peaceful, was in that year crowned as King of England at Bath Abbey. Somewhat unusually, he’d already been the king for 14 years so one wonders how St Dunstan, his Archbishop of Canterbury and principal advisor, was able to persuade him to wait for so long. The great-grandson of Alfred the Great, Edgar is sometimes referred to as the first King of England, but I’m not so sure about that – although his reign was a period in which England was consolidated as a unified kingdom under the Wessex dynasty, the honour of being the first Anglo-Saxon king to rule over the whole of England must surely go to his uncle, Athelstan, who had conquered the Viking kingdom of York.

Edgar’s coronation is significant because it was the first time when records were taken of what had happened at an Anglo-Saxon coronation; thus did the service carried out by St Dunstan in 973 form the basis for all subsequent coronations of English, and later British, monarchs (for example, Handel’s Zadok the Priest, based on the bit in First Kings about said priest anointing King Solomon and the people rejoicing, was written for George II’s coronation in part because that particular Biblical text had been used at previous coronations because it was known to have been used at Edgar’s). The ‘peaceful’ tag, by the way, is not due to his personality – he is said to have killed one of his noblemen who had the temerity to marry a noblewoman who Edgar himself had wanted to marry (and after killing said nobleman, he did indeed marry said noblewoman) – but the nature of his sixteen-year reign, which was unusually peaceful with no foreign invasions or internal rebellions.

Before entering the abbey, there’s plenty to look at if you observe the building’s west front from the Abbey Churchyard (that being the name of the square where you can also find the Roman Baths). To the sides of the window are representations of Jacob’s Ladder, referring not only to Jacob’s dream in Genesis but also to a dream that was had by Oliver King, the Bishop of Bath & Wells (a title that always makes me think of Blackadder) who rebuilt Bath Abbey in or around 1500; the twin ladders show angels climbing Heaven-ward, although if you look closely it really does look as though some of them are actually making their way down. Peter and Paul, the abbey’s patron saints, flank the wooden door which, like many a west door of many an English church, is almost always closed (the entrance door is on the left).

Inside, there’s a great fan-vaulted ceiling made from the local Bath stone which also provided the building-material for much of the city; while the modern abbey building dates from the rebuild that was initiated by Bishop King in the sixteenth century (it wasn’t completed by the time of the Reformation, when the monks were kicked out, and it wasn’t until 1572 that it became the parish church of Bath), the ceiling we see at the abbey today is actually the result of a Victorian restoration job – the work of Sir George Gilbert Scott, no less.

More fun is to be had on the tower tours, which are £6 and take place every hour on the hour when the abbey is open (except when there’s a service or special event on) – these have to be paid for in advance on the same day, and can be booked out quite quickly at weekends, but they’re well worth going on if you can get a place.

You’re led up a narrow spiral staircase onto the roof, and thence to the bit above that fan-vaulted ceiling (you can see where they put the keystones, and there’s even a small hole in which you can peep down to the nave below) and the bell room. 

Then it’s up to the bell-ringing room for a lesson in this history of bell-ringing at the abbey (the quarter-hourly chimes are automated, nowadays) before ascending higher still to the belfry. Of particular skill is change-ringing, which is where the bell is manipulated via the rope until it’s hanging upside-down, which then makes it easier to ring in a pre-ordained sequence (this is where the expression ‘ringing the changes’ comes from). Bath Abbey has ten bells, the biggest of which is the 33 cwt (just over 1½-ton) tenor bell, which carries a rather nice inscription:

All you of Bathe that hear me sound
Thank Lady Hopton’s hundred pound

This refers to a seventeenth-century benefactor who paid for the bell, although it doesn’t tell the full story. The bell actually cost £160 (a small fortune in those days), and although it was agreed that Lady H. could pay for it in instalments she had in fact paid barely £20 by the time she died; she did, however, promise in her will that her family would pay the rest! More drama occurred in 1869 when the bell cracked during ringing-practice, resulting in it having to be (very carefully) taken down to ground level and transported to London via canal to be recast. Unfortunately, when it returned to Bath and was put back in place, it was found to be out of tune and so had to be removed and sent back to London for another recast. It wasn’t the foundry’s fault, though, for the abbey’s long-serving organist had gone to London with the bell to supervise the tuning process, but he was by that stage going deaf and hadn’t told anyone.

From there, it’s over to the clock face – the inside of the clock face to be precise. The clock looks out over to the north, and from ground level you would think that the face itself is all a single pane of glass. This is not the case – for the Roman numerals also act as the edges of several panes of glass, which is pretty clever if you ask me. Today the clock is lit from behind by electric lights but in the nineteenth century, the clock was lit by gas-lamp, and in order to prevent accidents a man was paid to sit in the small space behind the face and check on the lamp; monotonous, but at least it was indoors (there were worse jobs to be had in times past, as anyone who’s ever seen Tony Robinson’s superb doco The Worst Jobs in History will know).

So that, along with some fantastic views of the city from the roof, was the tower tour of Bath Abbey!

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