A Guided Tour of St Mary’s, Bathwick
Upon entering the building through the south-west porch, the first object to strike the visitor is the Early English font, one of the few remaining vestiges of the old parish church. Although in a very poor state of repair now, a scheme for the re-ordering of St. Mary’s drawn up during the early 1980s envisaged its returning to regular us, in a new position towards the east end of the nave. The scheme was not carried out, and the old font, from which many generations of Bathwick Christianfolk were baptised, remains in place.
Proceeding into the church, and turning left brings the visitor to the new Baptistry, occupying the lowest stage of the tower and originally set out as a (very small) Choir Vestry. Re-furnished as a memorial to a former assistant priest, the Reverend Edward Handley who died in 1904, and largely paid for by his widow, the marble floor and stained glass were installed by August 1906, with the wall-paintings following soon after. The Baptistry gates were dedicated on February 1st 1907 (the third anniversary of Mr Handley’s death), and the pink alabaster font, incorporating a most attractive figure of the Virgin and Child on September 22nd of the same year. The old font was sent to Woolley, returning some seventy years later.
Immediately outside the Baptistry, on the wall surrounding the arch, is a fresco depicting “The bringing by the Angels of all children of all nations to Holy Baptism”, by Alfred Hemmings, designed in 1906 and executed for the sum of £70. Here too is the Paschal Candle, on its monumental candlestick. This is one of a pair, presented by the Bath Knot of Friendly Brothers in 1882 as one of a number of memorials in St. Mary’s to Randle Falconer MD, a local worthy of the time. Originally they each supported a seven-light Sanctuary standard, one of which has now been restored: the other for the time being remains in an obscure cupboard in the gallery.
Upon turning from the Chancel, an impression is gained of the generous size of St. Mary’s.
Continuing into the north aisle, notice should be taken of the Stations of the Cross, a striking modern sequence painted on slate.
Further along again lies the Shrine of Our Lady. This rather convenient structure housing the statue began life as a porch, added to ease Edwardian congestion in the days when vast congregations were the norm in Bathwick. In 1957 the doorway was finally blocked, the interior panelled and the statue removed from its previous home at the entrance to the Lady Chapel. Here also lies the Book of Remembrance wherein are inscribed the names of past worshippers at St. Mary’s; like the Books recalling the Citizens of Bath who died during the Second World War which is in Bath Abbey, it is the work of Benjamin Maslen, Organist of St. Mary’s for nearly 40 years.
A little further east again is the War Memorial, dedicated in 1929. Originally, the then rector Father Napier, had intended that this memorial should take the form of a large rood, suspended from the chancel arch; one of the churchwardens of the day however refused to countenance any such intrusion into St. Mary’s!
And so to the Organ. Originally built in 1878 by “Father” Henry Willis, and the only example of his work in the city of Bath, it contains 40 speaking stops and over 2,500 pipes. It is considered one of the most notable instruments in the Diocese of Bath and Wells. At the time of writing it is in need of major restoration, with an appeal to raise £250,000 in progress. The church enjoys an unbroken musical tradition, founded largely upon the work of Prebendary George Tugwell, Rector of St. Mary’s from 1871 until his retirement in 1904. The choir still offers an ambitious programme of music both liturgically and in concert.
Passing to the chancel, note should be taken of the Pulpit, described in an earlier guide book as “…sufficiently emphasizing the focal point of the ministry of the Word, but at the same time properly subordinated to the ministry of the Sacrament at the High Altar”. The inscription around its base reads as follows: PREACH : THE : WORD : BE : INSTANT : IN : SEASON : OUT : OF : SEASON
The Chancel, as we see it, was an addition of the 1870s, built to the design of G E Street. John Pinch is said to have designed one, the preceding apse having been a temporary measure, but no details have so far come to light. In order to gain a small amount in length, the orientation of the chancel varies from that of the nave by a few degrees south. It must be said that the design bears little regard for that of the rest of the building, but whereas the nave holds a clear debt to neighbouring Bath Abbey, the chancel can be seen as being influenced a little by the architecture of the Chapter House of Wells Cathedral.
When originally built, the chancel was decorated in accordance with Street’s own interpretation of what a medieval church interior would have looked like. This included a splendid frieze depicting the first two verses of the Magnificat. All was sadly obliterated in 1963 in accordance with the trends of the time, although something of what has been lost can be seen in the decoration of the organ case and façade pipework.
The most notable feature of the chancel is, quite rightly, the High Altar. The altarpiece itself is of alabaster, and includes a sculptured representation of the Entombment of Christ. Installed in 1886, it took almost forty years for a comment to appear in the Church Times describing it as a revolting arrangement of a large and ghastly figure of the dead Christ under the altar! Even today it excites contrasting opinion, and only emerges from beneath its frontals on Good Friday. The reredos consists of a gilt triptych depicting Christ reigning from the Cross, attended by Our Lady and St. John, and is flanked by wings containing some excellent 15th-century Flemish panels, believed to have come from an ancient organ-case. There are four panels, each painted on both sides, with those depicting the Last Supper, The Agony in the Garden, The Ascension and Pentecost being on view for most of the year, and the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem and The Cleansing of the Temple only being seen during Advent and Lent.
Passing the Lectern, another design of Street, and standing an impressive 6ft 8 inches high, the Lady Chapel is reached. Originally the vestry and sacristy, it was in 1896 converted into a chapel in memory of Prebendary Tugwell’s wife who had died two years previously. The alabaster-work in the sanctuary was designed by Sidney Gambier Parry, with the very detailed copper and brass screen being the work of Singer, of Frome. The Blessed Sacrament is reserved in this chapel, and visitors are encouraged to spend a moment in prayer here, and perhaps to light a candle.
Above the entrance to the chapel is an interesting memorial to Father John Rowe, Rector of St. Mary’s from 1963 until his untimely death in 1970. Originally outside the west window of the Baptistry, vandals removed it, and it was eventually recovered from the nearby canal, and re-housed in this rather safer location.
It is worth noting that the very busy Church Centre attached to St. Mary’s, was originally conceived as vestry accommodation and nothing more. The older part of the present Church Hall was built as a Choir Vestry, and was only extended into its existing dimensions in 1967, with additional kitchen, lavatory and office accommodation being provided at the same time. More recently, in 1998, the present reception office was fashioned out of what was originally the choir robing room, and disabled facilities were provided at the same time.
No guide to St. Mary’s would be complete without reference to Bathwick St. Mary Primary School, whose life and work is intimately connected with its parent church.
Text by the late Ben Maslen.