"Each day at the Abbey there is a service before noon. There are some tablets on the walls to speak well of people who have died there, and Papa saw one to the memory of General Fitzjohn and said he was damned if he would pray in a place crammed with so much hypocrisy.."
Diary of Sophie Carey, 1726
There is a touch of high society about Bath Abbey. This magnificent Cathedral was the worshipping point for the ''beau monde'' when they came to do ''the season'' in Bath. It dominates the entire city. It can be seen from the train window as you arrive, it''s great steeple can be observed from boats floating down the river. And when the great bells toll the sound can be heard miles away from the city in the hamlets of Iford and Dutch Barton.
After the Roman Bath''s this is probably the sight you will head for first. It stands at the centre of things - on the same square as the Roman Baths and only a stones throw from the river. The rear of the Abbey does overlook the flowerbeds of Parade Gardens and you can walk around it''s gothic walls to the entrance on Cathedral Square. The Georgians added pillars and a portico to Cathedral Square where it heads into Stall Street and the paving stones laid down are the same honey colour as the surrounding buildings. The Square itself is a very pleasant place with benches, shops, cafes etc and always a couple of buskers to entertain the crowds. When I was there one violinist was playing the theme tune from ''Fawlty Towers''.
The facade of the cathedral towers over this square and on the two towers you can make out carved ladders leading up being climbed by cherubic angels. This was based on a dream by Bishop King who oversaw the construction of the new Abbey. In fact the whole facade is impressive wth gothic flutes, gargoyles, ornate carvings and fronted by colossal stained glass windows. It is open daily from 10.00am to 16.00pm and a donation of £2.00 is required to enter. My advice is to walk around the entire perimeter of the Abbey before you enter. Then you can admire those huge gothic vaults and flying buttresses and the beautiful carved detail that all great cathedrals have.
Surprisingly, it is not as old as other English cathedrals being completed in 1499. But the actual site is probably about 1500 years old. The very first king of England - Eadgar - was crowned in the Abbey by St Dunstan in 973 AD. But for most of it''s life it was an Abbey/monastery with land for the monks to till stretching down to the river Avon. But the big change came at the end of the 15th Century. The old saxon cathedral was worn out but the diochese of Bath and Wells was rich and a new one was constructed on the site. This is the last example of English Perpendicular Gothic built in this country and is one of the best. But they only had about thirty years to enjoy it as Bath suffered under the ''dissoloution of the monasteries'' in 1539. Most of it''s idols were destroyed and it''s gold plate made off with to finance Henry VIII''s wars or palaces. His daughter, Queen Elizabeth I was stunned at how low it had fallen in 1571 and started an appeal for it''s restoration and it is this version that you see today.
Inside is alot lighter and airy then you would have expected. They have used a white stone and the whole vast interior looks spacious and delicate. As with most cathedrals it will be the scale and size of the nave which will catch your attention. The transept vaulting soars to a great height then spreads over the ceiling in fan vaulting. Hundreds of pews face towards the choir stalls and the walls are decorated with statues and tombs. Stained glass windows cover the west and east walls and show scenes from the old testament and as you approach the choir stalls the lectern (wooden balcony) stands overlooking the nave and is where the bible is read to the congregation. But the overall feeling is one of lightness and spaciousness - not for little reason was Bath Abbey called ''The Lantern on the West.''
But I can almost guarantee that you will dawdle in Bath Abbey. The reason being is the thousands of plaques and memorials that adorn it''s walls. You cannot help but stop and read some of them and wonder what life was like for the people mentioned - John Betty 1704-1770. How come he ended up here? More famously are Governor Phillip, the first governor of Australia and Riccardi Nash - Beau Nash - the famous master of ceremonials in Georgian Bath. There was a beautiful marble tomb to ''Lady Waller'' who fought for her husband in the 1642-45 civil war and a tablet to Isaac Pitman - the inventor of Pitmans shorthand. Near the altar the ''Gethsemane Chapel'' contains a lighted candle to ''Amnesty International'' the worldwide organistation for peace which the Abbey has strong links.
Wanting more? Then head for the Bath Abbey Heritage Vaults held underground in the Abbey''s cellars. Costing all of £1.00 this is a collection of relics collected over the centuries. First of all is a stone coffin containing the skeleton of a woman which may have been the old prioress. A map shows Bath in 1942 when the Luftwaffe came over for bombing in Hitler''s spiteful ''Baedeker'' raids. The bombs ripped the guts out of the rear of the cathedral and tore the nearby houses apart.
The amiable old duffer who collects your money says he remembers that night. He is very useful and has lots of interesting bits of information but did tend to like the sound of his own voice. Still it gets him out of the house, he must be the best preserved relic in the Abbey.