Ups and Downs

Bath Abbey looking east (Unichrome)At last the city had a church of which it could be justly proud, but Bathonians have never been slow to combine God with Mammon. Along with the church, the Corporation had acquired the priory cemetery. Naturally Bath traders saw this as a swathe of prime shop sites. In 1647 the Corporation forbade Richard Abbott to go on building his house against the Abbey Church, but the very next year they conceded defeat. After all, the thing was up. That opened the floodgates. By the end of the century the church was so hemmed in that people took to using the aisles as a short- cut through from Abbey Churchyard to the Grove.

In the late 18th century the popular pastry-cook Charles Gill had a shop against the Abbey wall, built between two buttresses. His oven chimney actually ran up one buttress. It all made for wonderful views of the Abbey, as a local satirist pointed out in verse:

The Abbey church its splendour rears,
The sacred monument of former years;
Behold its sculpture - and mark while you view it,
The pretty little houses sticking to it;
The citizens of Bath, with vast delight,
To hide their noble church from vulgar sight,
Surround its venerable walls with shops
And decorate its walls with chimney-pots!
Surely from these designs so pure, so chaste,
Bath has been called the emporium of taste.

Maybe this shamed the city fathers into action. It was written in 1817. Five years later the Corporation began to demolish the houses on the north side of the Abbey. The houses on the south side came down in 1833 as part of an Abbey restoration under Bath Corporation Surveyor, George Manners. The second and more dramatic restoration came after the Abbey patronage had been transferred to the Simeon Trust. So it was not the Corporation, but the Rector, Revd Charles Kemble, who in 1860 appointed Sir George Gilbert Scott to work on the Abbey. Scott finally completed the scheme that the Vertues had no doubt intended, giving the Abbey magnificent fan- vaulting throughout.

This we can appreciate so much better after the recent restoration by Nimbus. The warm Bath stone has come back to life. The interior has recaptured the lightsomeness for which it was once praised. When the project is complete Bath Abbey will be as it should be - a glowing beacon in the heart of Bath.

Further reading

Jean Manco, The Buildings of Bath Priory, Somerset Archaeology and Natural History vol. 137 (1994 for 1993).