A religious site has existed in the centre of Bath for around 1400 years, the earliest establishment being a Saxon monastery in the eighth century. This was eventually replaced by a large Norman cathedral, but this had become ruined at the end of the 15th century, partly as a consequence of the transfer of the parish centre to Wells, 20 miles southwest. A smaller replacement church was constructed but this too soon declined following the 1539 Dissolution of the Monasteries, however renewed interest led to its restoration, and the building survives today, albeit after several other significant alterations. This is Bath Abbey, officially known as the Abbey Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, Bath.
The abbey is cathedral-like in architecture and design, though not in size or importance, and it is a very popular city centre attraction, lying as it does close to other renowned places including the Roman Baths, Pultney Bridge and Parade Gardens. The church is a noted example of perpendicular Gothic, a late mediaeval architectural style that is characterised by large traceried windows, intricate fan vaulting and strong emphasis on vertical lines.
The 161 foot-tall tower of the abbey is visible from many places across the city centre, even though the church itself is somewhat hidden due to the closeness of the neighbouring buildings; the widest overall view is from the northeast, along High Street. Parking is usually difficult in Bath owing to the narrow roads; the nearest places are at Kingsmead and Avon Street, both about a quarter of a mile away. The main entrance to the abbey is on the west side, though not, as is generally the case, through the elaborate main doorway but instead via a smaller door on the left side, past a desk where donations are requested. Suggested amounts are £4 per adult and £2 per child. An alternative way in is on the opposite side, through the abbey gift shop adjoining Kingston Parade, as this has an entrance at the back into to the south aisle of the church, and here the pressure for donations is less.
Like most buildings in the city, the abbey is constructed out of the local Bath stone, a pale yellow limestone, much of which originates from a quarry in Combe Down. The outer walls are supported by flying buttresses topped by decorative pinnacles, added in the 1830s, though the majority of the exterior is from the 1500s. The most striking part is the west front, which is centred on a fine arched window divided into seven vertical sections. The window is surrounded by sculptures, most famously two ladders at either side, being climbed by angels Ð a representation of a passage in the Bible describing a dream of the prophet Jacob. The central tower is rectangular rather than square in cross-section and topped by four octagonal turrets. Visitors may climb the 212 steps to a viewing area on the roof of the tower, on tours offered hourly on weekdays and every half hour on Saturdays (not on Sundays).
The abbey has a cruciform layout, with the nave to the west, the choir to the east, north and south transepts at either side, and the tower above the centre; similar to the great medieval cathedrals though generally smaller, measuring 225 feet from west to east. Among the most impressive features is the ceiling above the nave, which is supported by decorative fan vaulting, medieval in style though installed as recently as the 1860s, replacing an earlier lathe and plaster structure. The similar vaulting further along the church, above the chancel, is much older. The whole building is lined by aisles on both sides, these relatively low, compared with the upper section of the walls Ð more usual was for tall aisles, occupying somewhat more than fifty percent of the total height. The aisles are illuminated by stained glass windows of recent construction, while the lower walls are adorned with hundreds of memorials to local people, mostly from the 19th century.
A Benedictine monastery was established in Bath in 757, however very little is known about its practices, design or even precise location. Soon after the 1066 Norman invasion, management of the city was granted to John of Tours, the Bishop of Wells, who decided to transfer the bishopric to Bath, and embarked on an ambitious building program, culminating in the completion of a grand cathedral towards the end of the 12th century. The nave of this church occupied the same area as the modern abbey; the rest of the building extended around 150 feet further east. The church declined once the bishopric reverted to Wells in the 13th century, and this led eventually to the large and expensive-to-maintain building becoming derelict, and although it was largely replaced by a smaller, more manageable structure in the 1500s, there are some Norman features remaining including an arch above the window of the Gethsemane Chapel, at the east end of the north aisle. Further substantial work occurred towards the end of the 16th century, after another period of relative abandonment following the Dissolution of the Monasteries, when the old abbey was refurbished as a parish church, a process complete around 1615. Amongst several subsequent renovations, the most extensive were in the mid 19th century, firstly under the guardianship of architect George Manners, who added the buttresses, pinnacles and parapets that adorn the exterior, and then by Sir George Gilbert Scott in the 1860s, who made many changes to the interior.