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Beneath the surface of Bath Abbey

by
21 January 2022

A unique renovation project reaches completion this year. Rebecca Paveley talks to some of those involved

FCB Studios

Cut away showing the new space under Bath Abbey. Click on the gallery to see more images

Cut away showing the new space under Bath Abbey. Click on the gallery to see more images

IN THE heart of the UNESCO World Heritage City of Bath, space to build new facilities for existing buildings is all but impossible to find. So, when Bath Abbey, which dates from 1499, needed both renovation and new facilities, there was only one serious option — to expand downwards.

Its ground-breaking “Footprint” project, which has cost about £21 million and taken a decade to realise, is now in the very last stages of completion.

Through the expansion of underground vaults and the creation of new underground spaces, the abbey is now linked to its offices in a row of Georgian buildings near by via a new Song School, discovery centre, education centre, volunteer facilities, and more.

Even more radical than this underground expansion is its new heating system: the abbey has tapped into the Great Drain of hot water which leaves the Roman baths next door, diverting its heat to keep the abbey and its buildings warm. It is a unique and sustainable solution.

Much of the work has gone on underground and out of sight, so that new visitors can be puzzled, at first, to see what the money has been spent on.

The scope of the vision — which began with a statement of need which expressed a wish for the abbey to “become fully alive” — was enormous; and tenacity was needed to see it through to completion, despite Brexit, Covid, a consistory-court challenge to the removal of pews, and expanding the remit of some of the work to incorporate a response to the Black Lives Matter movement.

 

GEOFF RICH, a partner at the architects Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, and the architect Alex Morris are two of the few people to have seen the project all the way through, as many of the original instigators, including the initiating rector, have moved away or retired.

The studios are used to working on enormous projects on some of the nation’s best-known buildings, including Windsor Castle and Alexandra Palace, and this was their first significant project in a church building. Both Mr Rich and Mr Morris live in Bath; so it was very personal for them.

Mr Morris said: “It is really important to us, as it’s not just about business relationships: we meet these people from day to day in the city. I have been going into the abbey twice a week for years now.”

Mr Rich said: “What large urban churches can deliver for their communities is exciting; so to have an opportunity to do it in our home city was really exciting. The abbey was extremely brave to take this on, and they really should emerge from it feeling like champions, guardians for future generations.”

It is just over ten years since the previous Rector, Prebendary Edward Mason, and the first project manager, Charles Curnock, put together a statement of need which talked of the abbey becoming “fully alive”. Although they had a growing congregation and were busy with events, there were some big issues to deal with: there were no lavatories for visitors or those attending concerts and other events, and the abbey floor was in a state of progressive collapse. The PCC wanted a church that could function for the next 100 years and tell its story “with compassion and integrity”.

FCB StudiosDiagram showing the location of the ledger stones in the Bath Abbey flooring

The architects won the tender to work on the project, which began with the floor, whose stones, including its unique collection of 18th- and 19th-century ledger (memorial) stones, were sinking as the coffins beneath decayed.

A test area was excavated first, to uncover the extent of the work. “From the trial excavation in the north aisle, we found that 15 per cent of the subfloor was void; it was described by the Rector as like a Swiss cheese,” Mr Morris said.

“It was in a worse condition than had been realised, due to the decay of bodies and timber coffins. In some areas of group burials, there was over 100mm of deformation of the floor.”

 

TO REPAIR the floor, each stone would have to be lifted. For this to happen, and to open up the space, the abbey’s PCC applied to remove the nave pews, which covered the ledger stones. The Victorian Society argued for the pews’ retention: they had been installed as part of Sir George Gilbert Scott’s restoration of the abbey in the mid-19th century, and the matter ended up in the consistory court.

The abbey won the case, and permission was granted for permanent removal of the nave pews, which would reveal the floor to visitors for the first time in 150 years. Pews in other parts of the building remain, as do most of Scott’s other fixtures and fittings.

The architects are adamant that the pews’ removal was necessary. “The pews were a block to the changes the abbey wanted to deliver,” Mr Rich said. “The space that has emerged fully justifies it. Because the pews are not there, you can see the architecture of the whole building. It is built of Bath stone, and it radiates light without the dark brown pews.”

The floor is one of the abbey’s most remarkable features. Laid with 891 ledger stones, it is made up of three thousand stones in all. Underneath was a mass of bones and other material. Burials had been allowed under the floor from the 1620s to the 1830s, just 30 years before Scott dug up the whole floor and “rotavated” the earth underneath during his restoration of the abbey, throwing in other remnants, such as parts of the Tudor ceiling.

Renovating the floor was described as a “giant 3000-piece jigsaw puzzle” by the architects. Archaeologists were involved at every step.

Nathan Ward took over as project manager two years ago. He said: “Every single stone had to be lifted. All have been repaired and conserved and put back as close as possible to their original location.

“The entire floor was excavated to a metre depth, and we collected 56,000 artefacts of plaster and marble and bone from under the floor; 1700 full skeletons were found out of the 8000 people believed to be buried in the abbey and around it.” The bodies have been reinterred.

 

INSTALLING the abbey’s new geothermal heating system under the floor presented another challenge (News, 12 March 2021). The 2000-year-old Great Drain of the Roman baths runs past the abbey, metres under the ground, carrying water to the River Avon. More than one million litres of hot water flow through the Baths each day from the only naturally occurring hot spring in England.

FCB StudiosPipes drawing off heat for the abbey from the spa water in the Great Drain

Running past the abbey doors, it offered an opportunity to create an eco-friendly heating solution — but getting at it was challenging work, not least because the heat in the Great Drain meant that construction workers could not spend long hours working down there at a time.

Mr Morris said: “The Great Drain is seven metres underground, and you could only stay there for 20 minutes at a time because of the heat. People had to be lowered in and out down a manhole to carry out the work.”

This work included installing a closed loop system using heat exchangers to capture energy from the hot water in the Drain and send it back to the abbey. Now complete, it means that the abbey can be kept at a stable temperature of about 19ºC.

 

ONE unexpected challenge encountered by the project was the need to research more of the abbey’s links to slavery, prompted by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement.

The present Rector, Prebendary Guy Bridgewater, spoke of the scale of the task of researching the past of those buried there. “Westminster Abbey has more memorials, but we have more memorials, if you count all the ledger stones. They are a huge feature of the place, enabling people to encounter the heritage of the past, including that which is glorious and that which is shameful, and use that heritage to proclaim the gospel.”

The abbey put together an exhibition exploring the history of the people behind/beneath the memorials, which became a centrepiece of the city’s response to the movement.

“BLM helped to focus Bath’s response to our heritage. The slavery ships may have sailed from Bristol, but a lot of the money was spent here in Bath. Research we carried out on the memorials will be in the discovery centre and guide book.

“It’s important that we don’t sweep any of the periods of our history under the carpet,” Prebendary Bridgewater said.

 

THE last remaining elements of the huge project are due to open in autumn this year, including the new discovery centre and education centre. It is hoped that, by then, some of the overseas visitors so crucial to Bath and the abbey’s income will have begun to return.

The abbey normally attracts about half-a-million visitors a year — more than many cathedrals. Covid restrictions have hit Bath very hard, but the abbey has received money from the Cultural Recovery Fund, in addition to its original £10.6-million Lottery grant.

Many of the match-funded donations have come from people in Bath and the surrounding area. The congregation have been supportive and generous — and “amazingly patient”, Prebendary Bridgewater said.

People were thrilled to see the renovated building, he said. “They have followed very closely the challenges, and there were a number of people who were not entirely sure we’d be able to pull it off — they have been quite blown away. It is thanks to their vision and the generosity of supporters that have made it possible. There is real excitement with what it is going to make possible.”

Early plans include throwing open the doors for music makers in the city to use the abbey’s new facilities, in addition to its own five choirs.

“There is a lovely sense of the wider community valuing the abbey. And it’s not just the congregation that see it as essential to Bath: the city of Bath really values great churches, and recognises what they offer in terms of presence: that we provide a heritage of faith.”

Mr Rich, who has overseen the project from the start, agrees. The work, he says, has “relaxed the abbey’s relationship with the outside” and given it more scope for different functions. It has given real capacity for the faith community to become more active in the city centre into the future.

“Like Gilbert Scott, it has been reinterpreted for the next 100 years.”

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