Looking towards the Abbey and some of the road-works from upstairs at Nero’s

The new poster board which heralds ” a new canvas for public life” and details of the creation of ‘a more generous and enjoyable space for pedestrians’.

In 1552 the old Market Cross was replaced by a Market House which also accommodated the City’s Guild Hall.

The Department for Transport extra ‘add-on’

What the High Street should look like once the road-works are completed.


An update now on concerns over the road-works being carried out on the High Street between the north side of the Abbey and the Guildhall. If you have been following this story l was concerned that deep trenches might interfere with archaeological remains in this area. It is in the vicinity of the city’s first Guildhall which John Wood the Elder tells us was designed by Inigo Jones!

Richard Sermon, who is Senior Archaeological Officer with Bath and North East Somerset Council, tells me that, thankfully, the drainage trenches being constructed for a re-working of the pedestrianised area in the High Street are in an area of previous disturbance.

I had commented upon the fact that any private developer working in an archaeologically sensitive area – like the new Gainsborough Hotel for instance – is required by planning law to do an archaeological ‘sweep’ before trenches are permitted. The same rule does not seem to apply to the local authority – which is also the planning authority!

The good news for the High Street site is that, apparently, Wessex Archaeology Ltd have been brought in to supervise the remainder of the project. BANES is spending a government grant on improving and clarifying exactly where people and traffic go in this area. The aim to make things more friendly for people and that includes the all-important ‘visitors’ to Bath.

So proud is BANES of what it is doing and so keen to share the details and the history of this important site with the public, that a large three-sided board has been installed near Rebecca’s Fountain to explain everything.

One slight embarrassment is that whoever scripted the information now displayed overlooked where the money to pay for it had come from! Look out for the little Department for Transport logo that has had to be stuck on to the printed board on all three sides. We mustn’t forget to credit the taxpayer must we!

I repeat my own personal view about the long vanished Guildhall – the foundations of which must lie somewhere beneath all these 21st century ‘improvements’ – and that is why Wessex ¬†Archaeology Ltd couldn’t maybe use some ‘geo-phys’ to locate the footprint of the Guildhall and then mark it on the surface as an added attraction for locals and visitors alike?

A little light on a mystery.

One of the Scott-designed lanterns

More information to bring you about the two gothic-styled lanterns l saw in the chapel at the Bath Abbey Cemetery at Widcombe. They were labeled as designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott – a great fan of gothic architecture during the Victorian period and the man who did the last major ‘restoration’ at the Abbey from 1860 to 1870 which included the fan vaulting over the nave. Sir George – who was knighted for his design for the Albert Memorial – started to repair the West Front but ran out of money. However, in addition to re-placing the top two angel’s heads he expressed his love for things mediaeval by adding the lanterns to shine a little extra light on the world.

According to Dr Lucy Rutherford, Archivist to the Abbey, the lanterns were commissioned by Scott and made by Francis Skidmore of Coventry. The lanterns used to hang outside the north-west door – now the main entrance to the church.

Dr Rutherford says as part of ongoing work for the Abbey Development project, a conservation survey of all the collections will be commissioned so the lanterns will be top of the list for conservation and possible display. That – for me – is great news!

You can’t see the ‘Wood’ for the trees!

Looking into the Circus from Brock Street

The Circus as John Wood intended.

Tree ‘dwarfs’ architecture?

It’s my favourite punchline as l go around on my ‘training day’ with a party of curious tourists in my power! I am in the process of being coached to hopefully become a member of the Mayor of Bath’s Corps of Honorary Guides. A group of knowledgeable men and women who give their time freely and conduct two-hour tours of the tourist ‘hot-spots’ around Bath. There is no charge – and that’s one of the reasons these guides get such a good Trip Advisor rating – but they are also friendly, generous with their time and do know what they are talking about. It’s what l have done, l suppose, all my professional life and that’s provide information in an entertaining way. Which gets us back to not being able to see the ‘Wood” for the trees.

It’s a line you can use when you get to Queen Square or save it for even greater effect in the Circus. It refers of course to the fact that five rather large trees are now blocking out most of the Georgian architecture for two-thirds of the year. You have to wait for winter to glimpse more of the architectural work of John Wood – father and son – through the bare and tangled branches.

I am new to the city, and maybe should not express an opinion, but l have lived and worked in the region for nearly forty years and l did front an architectural series on Bath called Set in Stone. It was directed and produced by my good friend Howard Perks – now living down Plymouth way. I have decided to re-kindle an old fire that certainly raised emotional temperatures back in the 1960’s. It was the last time the City Fathers seriously considered taking an axe to the gigantic plane trees that express their vigorous natures freely in the midst of the Circus.

I sat down to compose a ‘flyer’ – a general letter l could post through every one of the 33 front doors in this Grade One listed and iconic circle of ornately carved Bath stone.
I explained l was exploring the idea of producing a Virtual Museum of Bath on-line and examining some heritage issues for possible inclusion in this new website.
In my letter – and l repeat it now for those of you who might not know – l explained how John Wood the Elder did not live to see the Circus completed. He died in 1754 just months after the foundation stone was laid. Obviously, however, his son would have had very detailed plans to follow. I quoted from ‘Obsession:John Wood and the Creation of Georgian Bath’ – a book published by the Building of Bath Museum as part of an exhibition back in 2005 – ‘the Circus was envisaged as a structure where the only element of nature to be found was the sky above. It was a dramatic and theatrical space where the architecture took centre stage’.

I wanted to know if residents would agree with me that the ‘architecture’ is now rather dwarfed by the five large plane trees planted – at the expense of the residents – who decided to create a railed central garden at the turn of the 19th century. According to ‘The Hub of the Circus: A history of the streetscape of the Circus, Bath’ by Jean Manco, their age is estimated to be nearly 190 years – calculated on trunk diameter. She tells us that the residents were fed up with the clouds of dust thrown up by horses and carriages trundling across the limestone pitching laid within the bare centre. Their solution was to lay down a central garden with railings and shrubs. Many thought the garden would greatly improve their view! But while guidebooks in the 1830’s were referring to the Circus’s ‘charming shrubbery’, by 1847, one guide was describing the trees there as already interfering with the light. By 1856 a letter in the local newspaper was complaining about the ‘overpowering mass of dark foliage’. Nothing, it seems, is new.

I was now testing the water once more. Asking, in my leaflet, if people thought the towering trees were robbing the surrounding architecture of its grandeur and also suffocating it with foliage. This was, l said, a hypothetical question but, given the choice, would the reader of my leaflet like to see the trees removed and the Circus restored to how its designer wanted it to look, or would he or she rather maintain the status quo and let the trees remain. John Wood had planned an equestrian statute of George 11 to go in the middle of his otherwise bare centre. The only other raised feature in this circular, cobbled sea was the raised water reservoir to serve the houses.

I had not quite realised just how many people now live in the Circus and the fact that most individual terraced properties are subdivided many times over. However from 33 letters delivered l have received seven replies – by letter, telephone and email. Residents like Danielle Stevenson and Sheila Lamble agreed with me absolutely. Sheila would be ‘happy to see the trees go’ and Danielle wanted them replaced with a bronze statue of the man who designed the Circus but, ‘you would be lucky if the Council agrees to that’, she says.

Meanwhile Tony Pease had more practical reasons for seeing the trees felled. ‘As well as spoiling the visual impact of the architecture, (they) also cause considerable problems with leaves blocking the internal valley gutters (necessary as there are no downpipes on the facades) in the autumn’.

Also amongst those wanting the planes removed was Mrs Margaret Brown who has lived at the Circus, off and on, for many years. I asked her if felling the trees would rob residents of their privacy but she disagreed. ‘A friend rode around the Circus in one of those red tourist buses and reassured me that you could not see into windows’. Mrs Brown thinks the trees should go but warns such a decision might not be popular.’It would be fantastic to restore things to how they were but maybe only a really bad storm and tree damage would persuade the authorities to take the trees down’, she explained.

Amazingly enough, during the three days and two nights of bombing Bath experienced in 1942, the one 500 lb device to explode within the Georgian arena only damaged railings around the central green.

Those who favour the trees retention were passionate for longer in their vocal or written protest. Mrs Anna Harper rang to tell me she was sure the majority of people would want the trees to stay. She accepts they are a little big but argued they provided an additional and more natural attraction. ‘It is beautiful to see the sunlight filtered through the leaves. It adds an atmosphere. I would certainly miss the greenery’.

Author Vivienne Rae-Ellis lives at Thomas Gainsborough’s old house in the Circus and wrote to tell me that the trees ‘provide living lungs for those of us who live here and for those who visit the Circus green’.

Vivienne asked me to imagine the pollution from car exhausts without the trees to help absorb the fumes. ‘In any case the changing seasons give us plenty of opportunity to see John Wood’s architecture without the intrusion of leaves. For six months of the year the trunks form an artistic skeletal structure of their own, permitting inhabitants and visitors alike to enjoy the buildings unobscured. Nature does the job for you’!

Declaring herself someone who is very interested in architecture and no fanatic tree protector, Susan Haberer still rallied to their defence in her email. ‘They make the Circus friendlier, less exposed and therefore a more protected place to live in than the originally intended layout which was mainly for show’. Susan says the trees bring in Nature and the ability, in the middle of a city, to observe the changing seasons and, with that, to observe the change of the view of the Circus buildings.

‘I think the green, especially, makes it feel welcoming, despite the grandeur of the architecture’, says Susanne, but she does agree ‘the trees in the Circus could be cut back a little if that’s possible’.

Thank you to all those residents who contacted me. I have not canvassed opinion outside of the Circus but hope this article might lead to others having their say. Maybe a more radical pruning is the answer. Or cutting them down and replanting something that would not grown quite so big. According to author Jean Manco in her book ‘The Hub of the Circus’, in 1961 the Council’s Planning Committee considered sending for the axe man and was greeted with an explosion of protest – including a petition signed by 500 students from Bath technical College. In a compromise agreement some lower branches were lopped off to improve the view.

More tree ‘surgery’ was necessary in 1990 through a fungal disease infecting the central tree of the three opposite Brock Street. However, despite a quite drastic thinning, the trees still dominate the Circus. But who is going to be brave enough to stand up and say something should be done? Maybe, like Mrs Harper suggested when she rang me, cobbling the existing circular carriageway would be a better and rather more useful drastic intervention. It would certainly slow the traffic though l think the rumbling noise it would create might be a bit tiresome. No pun intended!

There is no such thing as one history nor one period of history. The Circus has continued to lay down layers of the stuff as an area where succeeding generations live and interact with each other and the surrounding city. Maybe the trees should be seen as the same sort of historical intervention as plate-glass in Georgian window panes?

Over to you?

One of two gothic-styled lanterns from Bath Abbey designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott

One of two gothic-styled lanterns from Bath Abbey designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott

George Gilbert Scott’s design for the Albert Memorial was the epitome of High Victorian Gothic Revival. It earned him a knighthood. This champion of all-things-mediaeval worked on over 300 churches and cathedrals – including Westminster and Bath Abbeys.He was directing operations in Bath between 1860 and 1873. I discovered this – one of two such gothic-styled metal and glass lanterns – amidst the dust within the Abbey Cemetery Chapel at Widcombe last Sunday. The last of three Open Heritage days. The lantern bears a label attributing its design to George Gilbert Scott. They would be prize exhibits in any Museum of Bath. They will be displayed on my Virtual Museum of Bath very soon.

A little bit of Bath Abbey to decorate my hall!

Bath Abbey Altarpiece as it was.

Altar-piece in hallway.Detail of altar-piecePaving stones from Abbey?

I have, in a previous blog, already described the travels forced upon William Hogarth’s massive triptych altar-piece commissioned by the vestry of St Mary Redcliffe Church in Bristol in 1755. After this rather grand parish church decided it no longer wanted its east-end blocked up by 800 square feet of canvas the three separate but linked monster-sized paintings set off to wander around Bristol for 115 years.

This rare example of Hogarth’s venture into history painting, in the European grand manner, now languishes at one end of what was St Nicholas Church Museum. Although it is believed there are plans to eventually re-display them (they were first here in the 1950’s) in the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery.

But l want to turn to another rather illustrious parish church nearer my present home. The parish church of St Peter and St Paul – more widely known as Bath Abbey – and explain how it is linked with my bumping into an old friend from many years ago. He is a former Bristol businessman who decided to try a fresh career in Cornwall running a hotel. After some years, he and his partner moved back up-country to Bath where sadly my friend’s ‘soul mate’ recently died. They had moved into a villa – built early in the 19th century in the Georgian style and, although small in comparison with its earlier neighbours, a property that has two interesting features. One, apparently rare in Bath, is a central stone staircase rising from the hall, and the other – which is certainly unique – is what has been used to decorate the hall!

Let me just explain that this house has been added to one end of a massive Georgian terrace designed by John Eveleigh – a well-known man in Bath both as an architect and designer – and started in 1791 along the London Road. Grosvenor Place was to be a long terrace of forty-one houses and a hotel with a gently convex centre allowing access to Grosvenor Gardens, one of the Vauxhalls or pleasure gardens of Bath. Eveleigh had intended building 143 houses but became bankrupt and had to sell his share in the project. The hotel was never completed as such and the 20 acre pleasure gardens were abandoned soon after 1810.

Thirteen years later there was some building work underway and it was probably being supervised by the man who was planning to live in the new house under construction at one the end of Eveleigh’s grand terrace. This man was Thomas Shew – painter collector and art dealer – and, according to Susan Legouix Sloman of Bath’s Victoria Art Gallery, Shew was planning to build a home and art gallery where he could show paintings, sculptures and all manner of decorative objects. The centre-piece to all of this was what took my breath away as my newly re-discovered friend opened his front door to me and ushered me into his hall.

While Shew was building his house – less than a mile away – the Vestry of Bath Abbey were supervising the dismantling of an ornately carved marble altarpiece – originally installed in the church in 1726. The year 1833 marked the start of the first of two major restorations. This one by G.P.Manners. The ornate railings in front of the reredos were sold to William Beckford who used it to make a balcony in front of his house in Lansdown PLace West. The altar painting which had hung between the marble pillars was the first of a considerable number of works painted for Bath by Jan van Diest. It was called The Wise Men’s Offerings and was reported removed to Wells Cathedral but has not been traced. We do know what happened to the marble arch and pillars that made up the altarpiece. Our Mr Shew bought it all and built his new house around it. This was the amazing sight that greeted me as l stepped into an entrance hall apparently also paved with stones from the Abbey Church. The arch, which reaches a height of 170 inches, just fits beneath the ceiling!

In England altar-pieces of this date with a painting at the centre are rather uncommon. This one was paid for by General Wade, Member of Parliament for Bath and was built in 1725-26. Reports suggest it cost its benefactor up to ¬£1500 – twice the price St Mary Redcliffe Vestry in Bristol had to pay Hogarth thirty years later. Though, of course, oil and canvas not costing as much as elaborately carved stone. Both altar-pieces – in Bath and Bristol – fell victim to changing tastes. But l found it pretty amazing to find the remains of Bath’s venture into the Romanesque on the other side of a friend’s front door!

It was credited to sculptor and mason Samuel Tufnell and made in London. That ornate ironwork is back in the Abbey. Lady Celia Noble – grand-daughter of Isambard Kingdom Brunel – paid for it to be rearranged as a screen across the north transept.

A lot of information on the story of Mr Shew’s house and the fate of the Abbey altarpiece come from ‘The Story of a House’ put together by William Henry Gallop – a former Mayor Bath – who lived in the house with his family for many years.

One rule for All

One rule for All

I witnessed this deep trench being dug today (Wednesday, September 5th) in Bath’s High Street between the Guildhall and Abbey. It is part of the work being done by BANES to improve and extend the pedestrianised part of this busy road.

It is also an archaeologically sensitive area with the foundations of the original Guildhall, which was supported on pillars at this point, somewhere under the road.

Why, when commercial developers are required to do archaeological digs on sensitive sites before sinking their foundations, do not the same rules apply to the local authority. At the very least someone should be watching and sifting through the pile of rubble extracted from the trenches. Was it tram rails l saw when l looked down?

The footprint of the old Guildhall should be marked on the road surface anyway. It is a piece of history that could be visually marked to add interest to what is now a dull and traffic congested street.