BATH, ENGLAND — The crowd milling about Abbey Square is larger than usual. A bright, cloudless spring day has lured hundreds to the compact palazzo that sits in the shadow of this former Roman spa town’s cathedral-sized church.
There’s little room to move in the square. The café tables that ring it occupy much of the space. And the best vantage points are being dominated by undisciplined tour groups and their aggressive guides.
I look for an escape route from the chaos and noise. That’s when I spot a yawning wooden door off the abbey’s main entrance. I vigorously push it all the way open and suddenly, there’s silence.
Cool, dank air brushes against my face as I venture deeper inside the small arched entrance. My footsteps echo off the cold stone floor, creating an eerie sound. As I approach another wooden door, I hear muffled voices on the other side. I push that one open and startle the clergyman standing on the other side who is busy talking to a small group of partitioners.
“Welcome,” says the man of the cloth. “I see you found our secret entrance.”
Above: The Roman ruins and baths are what attracts tourists to Bath but it's the city's abbey that truly fascinates them.
“Please feel free to roam at will,” he says, before quickly adding with a sly grin, “and you can pay the entrance fee on your way out.” Actually, there is no entrance fee to Bath Abbey, but visitors are asked to make a small donation — I drop £5 (about $8.50 Cdn) in the box.
A musty odour hangs in the air as I begin to take in all that surrounds me. Is it the smell of stale air or history, I wonder? After all, Bath Abbey dates back to 1499 and is the last great Medieval “cathedral” to have been built in England — a status it lost during Henry XIII’s Dissolution era in the mid-1500s.
At first impressions, this Christian citadel cloaked in honey-coloured Bath stone looks every bit as impressive as the great cathedrals of Europe — just smaller.
My eyes are quickly drawn to the massive stained glass windows that bookend the great church. Each tells a colourful story — the East Window’s 56 panels reflect the life of Jesus, while the West Window’s stained glass tell a biblical tale.
The west wing also boasts another beautiful stained glass window, which honours Bishop Oliver King, the man who led the 1499 effort to build Bath Abbey.
Above: Behind the old wooden doors of the abbey you'll find lovely fan vaulted ceilings and lots of history.
Equally impressive is the Abbey’s fan vaulted ceiling, which was created in the 1500s and is considered one of the finest in Europe. The design is suppose to draw us closer to God.
Beneath my feet lies saints and sinners — over 890 flat grave markers, known as ledger stones, adorn the abbey’s cold, grey floor. They bear the names of martyrs, holy men, nobles and some infamous characters of history. In all, the tombs contain over 8,000 bodies — the last one was laid to rest in 1845; the first abbey burial was in 1569.
More than 630 memorials adorn the walls of Bath Abbey — only Westminster Abbey has more — and were placed there to honour people from the 1700 and 1800s.
One of the most impressive tombs in the great Abbey is the one built by Sir William Waller to honour his deceased wife. Sir William gained famed as a Parliamentarian who fought alongside Oliver Cromwell against English royalty in the 1600s.
How steeped is this church in English history? Well, I discover on a plaque near the back of the church, that the first king of England, King Edgar, was crowned on this site in 973. His coronation service, which is remembered in one of the Abbey’s stained glass windows, set the precedent for all such ceremonies to follow.
The Grade 1 listed Abbey also features several lovely chapels. The Gethsemane Chapel, where an Amnesty candle continuously burns on the alter and a Book of Remembrance displays the names of those from Bath killed in World War II, is the most solemn. The charming Birde’s Chantry Chapel, added in 1525, offers a place of quiet reflection and prayer.
The Abbey’s bells, the heaviest of which weighs in at 1,688kg, still ring, but usually only at Easter. The giant clock located on the north side of the Abbey is actually owned by the people of Bath, and not the church.
To get to the top of the Abbey’s Great Tower, I’m forced to make my way up 212 narrow steps. Out of breath when I get there, I’m instantly exhilarated by the fabulous views of the Roman sites below and the rolling farmland that stretches out in all directions.
Most people come to this Somerset county city to soak up its Roman history, but it’s Bath Abbey that’s the real star of this World Heritage Site.