Battle of the Pews – not over yet.

Battle of the Pews – not over yet.

Seems the battle of the pews in Bath Abbey is not over yet after all.

The Victorian Society has applied for leave to appeal against the recent judgement in favour of removing the nave pews from the historic church.

Bath Abbey

Bath Abbey interior

Late last year the Chancellor of the Diocese of Bath and Wells granted permission for Bath Abbey to remove the Victorian pews from the abbey nave as part of their multi-million pound ‘Footprint’ project.

The pews were designed by renowned architect Sir George Gilbert Scott and are an almost complete set, unusual for churches of this size.

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How the news of the appeal appears on the Victorian Society’s website.

In a statement – released today, Thursday, December 11th, the Victorian Society say they believe:
“The permanent removal of the Gilbert Scott pews is unnecessary and would harm the significance of the Grade I-listed building. We objected to the plans when they were first issued and eventually became party opponents at the Consistory Court hearing which took place within the abbey in October 2017.”

Christopher Costelloe, Director of the Victorian Society

Christopher Costelloe, Director of the Victorian Society

Christopher Costelloe, Director of the Victorian Society, said: “We were disappointed with the Chancellor’s decision to allow the pews to be removed, but believe we have strong grounds to appeal against the judgement. We are continuing to fight against a decision which we believe would cause significant harm to an outstanding listed building.”

 

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Bath Abbey’s ‘Footprint’ project involves the removal of the Gilbert Scott pews from the nave and aisles in order to install contemporary underfloor heating. The Victorian Society is objecting to the abbey’s plans to make that removal permanent and to instead replace the pews with new seating.
The pews were designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott who was one of the Victorian era’s most celebrated architects and is best known for designing London’s St Pancras Station and the Albert Memorial. His major restoration of Bath Abbey in 1859-74 – says the Victorian Society – was intended to ‘complete’ the church as it would have been if the Reformation had not stopped its construction.

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The central aisle inside Bath Abbey

 

The Society says the nave pews, which would be lost if this scheme is permitted, are unique to the abbey and are excellent examples of Scott’s work, each one modelled on those in other 16th century Somerset churches.
James Hughes, Churches Conservation Adviser for the Victorian Society, said: “We received significant public support for our campaign to save the Gilbert Scott pews, including over 1500 signatures on our online petition and dozens of comments and letters from the public expressing outrage that they may be lost forever.

There is clearly strong feeling, from the general public and Bath residents alike, that the pews are irreplaceable and significant to the historic and architectural importance of the Abbey.”

A Bath Abbey spokesperson said the church would wait to see if an appeal IS allowed before making any official comment.

 

‘This programme is rolling’ – says Abbey Project Director.

‘This programme is rolling’ – says Abbey Project Director.

‘This programme is rolling’ – says Bath Abbey Footprint Project Director, Charles Curnock – after a Consistory Court gives judgement in favour of allowing the church to permanenty dispense with its nave pews as part of a multi-million pound scheme to stablilise the church floor and improve its facilities.

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The Director of Bath Abbey’s Footprint Project, Charles Curnock.

The future of these Victorian benches was part of a legal battle – played out in the Abbey – between the church authorites and the Victorian Society in which the Chancellor of the Dioces heard evidence from both sides and then – weeks later – delivered a written judgement.

The Victorian Society had argued that Bath Abbey’s plans to permanently remove the nave pews, a major element of Sir George Gilbert Scott’s reordering of the church in the mid nineteenth century, were unnecessary and would harm the significance of this listed building.

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The pews in the nave of Bath Abbey.

Judicial permission to remove them permanently comes with conditions – and this will involve the Abbey in making a display – using parts of the benches – and explaining the history of the Victorian pews.

I asked Footprint Project Director, Charles Curnock, for his reaction to the judgement.

 

 

In a statement the Director of the Victorian Society, Christopher Costeloe, has described the decision as ‘ a defeat for Bath’s heritage.’

The full statement from the Society is given below.

“The Chancellor of the Diocese of Bath and Wells has granted permission for Bath Abbey to permanently remove its fine nave pews, despite opposition from the Victorian Society.
This follows a two day court hearing which took place in October, where the Victorian Society and Bath Abbey put forward their opposing cases to the Chancellor.

The Victorian Society argued that Bath Abbey’s plans to permanently remove the nave pews, a major element of Sir George Gilbert Scott’s reordering of the church in the mid nineteenth century, were unnecessary and would harm the significance of this listed building.
Christopher Costelloe, Director of the Victorian Society, said: “Obviously we are disappointed with the Chancellor’s decision. The loss of the Victorian nave furnishings would permanently diminish the interest of the Abbey. We will now give careful consideration to appealing against the judgment.”
Subject to any appeal, it is thought that Bath Abbey will now press ahead with the plans for this element of their multi-million pound ‘Footprint’ project, which would involve removing the pews.

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The aisle end of one of the nave pews – or benches as the Victorians would call them. Unlike the higher grade choir and Corporation stalls – these seats were produced on a steam-driven cutting machine. However, the end carvings were finished by hand. No two are the same. Either end of each bench is different. The carvings drew inspiration from existing carvings in medieval churches in Croscombe and North Wootton. They form part of Scott’s ensemble and – according to The Victorian Society – form an important part of the high-quality oak furnishings of the church which survive intact to a ‘very unusual degree.’

James Hughes, Churches Conservation Adviser for the Victorian Society, who was also present at the court hearing, said: “We fought our case well but sadly in the end the Chancellor judged in the Abbey’s favour. We are grateful for the high level of support we had from members of the public via our online petition; it’s always wonderful to see people eager to protect their heritage. We are only sorry the outcome was not what we hoped for in this case.”
Bath Abbey is a Grade I-listed building, an acknowledgement of its exceptional historic and architectural significance. Unlike listed secular buildings, Church of England places of worship are exempt from the requirement to obtain listed building consent from local councils to undertake internal or external changes which would normally warrant such consent. The ecclesiastical court hearing, which took place in the Abbey itself, was as a result of our objections to the Abbey’s plans.
The architect of the pews, Sir George Gilbert Scott, was a renowned 19th century architect, best known for designing St Pancras Station and the Albert Memorial. Bath Abbey retains an almost complete set of Scott furnishings; in most other medieval churches or cathedrals of a similar size Scott worked on only the chancel furniture is left.
The nave pews are unique to the Abbey and are excellent examples of Scott’s work, with the carved pew ends modelled on surviving medieval examples in other 16th century Somerset churches. The Victorian Society believes that their loss will significantly diminish the Abbey’s architectural and historical significance.”

Holding court in front of the choir stalls

Holding court in front of the choir stalls

Who would have thought that l would be sitting in a pew in Bath Abbey watching court proceedings unfold in front of the choir stalls!

However, dispell any image you might have of Rumpole of the Bailey at work –  though this was a bit of local church history in the making.

What l have been calling the ‘battle of the pews’ and a legal ‘confrontation’ between the Churchwardens of Bath Abbey and The Victorian Society in what the Church of England calls a Consistory Court hearing.

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The pews in the nave of Bath Abbey.

To bring you up to speed. The church has received a extremely generous grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund to help meet the costs of emergency treatment to the Abbey floor.

It’s money being spent on other improvements too, as part of the Abbey’s Footprint Project – the church’s ‘vision for the future.’

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The Abbey floor is covered with memorial – or ledger – stones

All those departed souls buried beneath today’s worshippers  – and visitors –  may have risen to heaven but they have left giant cavities in the ground which will need filling to stabilise things and stop the floor collapsing into the voids.

This will involve moving the pews – either side of the central aisle – and lifting all those amazing ledger stones that lie beneath them.

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Easier to stack than pews maybe? Are these the seats of the future for Bath Abbey.

The church authorities see this as a golden opportunity NOT to put all those Victorian benches back – once the memorial stones have been re-laid.

This, they say, would not only reinstate the empty space this medieval building originally had at its west end but make it more flexible to the needs of modern-day worship.

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Cain Ormondroyd – the lawyer representing the Parochial Church Council of the Abbey Church of St Peter and St Paul.

It would also expose – for the first time in nearly 180 years – the hundreds of inscriptions to the ‘dearly departed’ that have lain hidden beneath the pews.

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Mark Blackett-Ord – the lawyer representing the Victorian Society. He is also Chancellor of the Leicester Diocese.

Bringing in chairs – when needed – would allow more flexibility for worship and with the added bonus of different configurations to accommodate everything from concerts and lectures to theatre in the round! It would – says the church – also make the nave truly accessible to all – whatever their level of mobility.

But those machine-tooled pews were designed by renowned Victorian architect George Gilbert Scott – the man responsible for St Pancras Station and the Albert Memorial. Removing them – the Society argues – would harm this Grade l-listed church’s historical significance and status.

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The one man l could not photograph was the man who sat behind the desk in the middle of the crossing. He is Mr Timothy Briden, the Chancellor of the Bath and Wells Diocese and the lawyer who has to make the final decision. His appearance meant this court was in session and no photography is then allowed.

There is also concern that, without the protection of the pews, the ledger stones would be exposed and subject to the footfall of about 450,000 visitors a year and possible damage from chairs being moved and replaced on them.

 

The Abbey argue fabric strips on chairs would ensure they did not do any damage and that the finer and more socially and historically-significant memorial slabs would not be relaid in areas of high footfall.

Bath Abbey is a medieval jewel but one that wasn’t ‘complete’ until Scott was called in to restore or re-order it. It’s a good example of a major church interior as reimagined by the Victorians in medieval style.

He installed the stone fan vaulting in the nave to match the existing medieval ceiling over the choir and chancel.

Bath Abbey

Bath Abbey interior

He organised a restoration of the West Front.

Inside, the screens that separated the chancel from its aisles were removed.  Windows were reglazed, memorial tablets attached to the pillars transferred to the walls of the aisles,  gas chandeliers erected and the present oak seating placed in the nave.

It was the first time this space had offered permanent seating and – with the chancel screen gone – opened the interior from end to end to enable it to be used for very large congregations.

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Though general tourism was not allowed during the two-day hearing, Bathonians were allowed to come in and watch the proceedings. Here are some of them during a court break.

Bath Abbey is probably unique in retaining so much of its Scott interior. An argument that hinges partly on the ‘ensemble value’ created by this famous church architect.

So here we sit – in a church bereft of its usual crowd of milling tourists – witnessing a little bit of ecclesiastical local history in the making.

The Church of England is exempt from the usual planning regulations. Changes proposed for its layout do not need to go before a B&NES planning committee.

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The only time that l – or anyone else l would hope – would be allowed to take coffee into the Abbey pews. I did take the cup out with me!

However there is a built-in check on things – which can trigger a church court hearing. In this case it is The Victorian Society that has become ‘the party opponent’ to the Abbey’s plans to not put the pews back in the nave – once the repairs to the floor have been done.

So l – and around fifty Bathonians – are witnessing counsel for each party, in turn examining and cross-examining witnesses who have produced reports for and against the proposal.

For the Abbey it’s Mr Cain Ormondroyd and, for The Victorian Society ,Mr Mark Blackett-Ord who are appearing in front of the Chancellor of the Diocese of Bath and Wells, Mr Timothy Briden – who is himself a trained lawyer.

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The Abbey’s legal team with Mr Cain Ormondroyd sitting on the right.

It is he who – in six weeks or so – will deliver his verdict and either allow or not allow the permanent removal of the pews to go ahead.

Proceedings are slow and methodical with the Chancellor stepping in now and again to help oil any legal difficulties or points that witnesses do not understand. Those watching events were also grateful to him for ordering breaks in the unfolding legal arguments for us to stretch our legs.

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The Victorian Society’s legal team with Mr Mark Blackett-Ord on the left.

The irony wasn’t lost on me that the legal teams were seated on the sort of chairs that may replace the benches in question that – on this day –  bore the weight of us spectators.

The event was also a history lesson in the Abbey’s history. I hadn’t known the Victorians called the congregation’s seating arrangement benches and that to them pews were Georgian ‘boxes.’

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The aisle end of one of the nave pews – or benches as the Victorians would call them. Unlike the higher grade choir and Corporation stalls – these seats were produced on a steam-driven cutting machine. However, the end carvings were finished by hand. No two are the same. Either end of each bench is different. The carvings drew inspiration from existing carvings in medieval churches in Croscombe and North Wootton. They make up part of Scott’s ensemble and – according to The Victorian Society – form an important part of the high-quality oak furnishings of the church which survive intact to a ‘very unusual degree.’

How many knew that Gilbert Scott found the church pillars covered in memorial stones and removed them to the walls to get rid of the central clutter. Bath, apparently, is only surpassed by Westminster Abbey in the number of ledger stones it contains.

Memorials for men would display a shield above the wording and a diamond shape for women – l was told during a break in proceedings – but Scott’s workmen mixed some of those up when they were re-hung.

In the end – it seems – the Chancellor has to base his judgement on a point of law established in a previous church court case regarding a church in Derbyshire called St Alkmund’s.

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What the nave would look like with the pews taken away.

It’s all a question of whether the ‘resulting public benefit’ outweighs ‘the harm to the significance of the church as a building of special architectural or historic interest?’

Do the benches ‘link the nave liturgically on a grand scale’ or should these wooden seats be seen as ‘an army of pews’ to be eradicated.

I am glad l am not the man who has to decide – after this two-day hearing.

in the meantime the Abbey moves on with its Footprint Project plans and a building contractor to do the work will be appointed – from a shortlist – by Christmas.

‘Courtroom’ drama begins at Bath Abbey.

‘Courtroom’ drama begins at Bath Abbey.

Bath Abbey is going to be the unusual setting today – Wednesday, October 4th – for a ‘courtroom’ drama as the ‘battle of the pews’ gets underway.

bath abbey

The church is having to remove its Victorian pews next year as the floor of the building has to be stabilised. Once the work has been done – it will be undertaken section by section – the authorities do not want to put the pews back.

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What the nave would look like with the pews taken away.

The Abbey argues that  the church was built as a big empty space and – being able to return to that format but with removable chairs replacing fixed pews – the building will be made more flexible and improve access for all.

However, The Victorian Society believes their removal would have ‘an extremely detrimental effect on the historical significance of this important religious building.’

They will now be a ‘party opponent’ at a Consistory Court hearing being held over two days next week. The hearing will be held today and tomorrow – October 4th and 5th  – and each session will  last from 10.20 to 4.30 pm.bath abbey

Though the Abbey will be closed to tourists for those two days, Bathonians are allowed to watch proceedings – ironically from the pews in question. The hearing will be held on the crossing – under the tower.

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The ‘crossing’ where the two-day hearing will be held.

Each side will have a barrister present to argue their case before the Diocese Chancellor who will make a decision based on the proceedings.

Church of England places of worship are exempt from the requirement to obtain listed building consent from local councils. Decisions are instead made by the Chancellor of each diocese – a lawyer appointed by the church to adjudicate on these matters.

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George Gilbert Scott’s nave pews.

The pews were designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott – the architect of St Pancras Station and the Albert Memorial. He was one of the most successful and highly respected church architects of the period and his major restoration of Bath Abbey in 1859-74 was intended to ‘complete’ the church as it would have been if the Reformation had not stopped its construction.

Scott completed the stone fan vaulting above the nave and designed a chandelier lighting system for the church – as well as designing the pews, which were modelled on those in other 16th-century Somerset churches.

Christopher Costelloe, Victorian Society Director, said: ‘Bath Abbey is one of the best examples of Victorian church restoration by perhaps the era’s most prominent architect – Sir George Gilbert Scott.bath abbey

There is no doubt that removing these pews would harm this Grade 1 listed church’s significance, and there is no need for such drastic changes in a thriving church when other options are available. The last decade or so has seen Victorian church schemes ripped out all over the country and once they’re gone they’re gone for good.

Bath Abbey has a different point of view and is at the start of a massive multi-million-pound project – boosted by the Heritage Lottery Fund – to deal with the threat of the church floor collapsing because of massive holes discovered beneath it. They have been created as a result of the six thousand odd people who have been buried below the stone flooring.

Bath abbey

Bath Newseum was there in 2013 when a trial section of the flooring was treated. A liquid concrete-styled solution was injected into the voids. Afterwards the memorial tablets were replaced. A lifting frame is being used to hoist and lower the slabs into place. This was taken through the plastic-covered observation window.

It means all the fixed furniture – including the pews – will have to be lifted as the repair is carried out – section by section – so the Abbey can stay in business throughout.

According to Charles Curnock – Director of the Footprint Project – once the floor has been stabilised and underfloor heating, powered by energy from the hot spring nearby, installed – they intend reinstating the hand-carved Corporation Pews and most of the machine-tooled pews behind them.

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The pews behind the hand-carved Corporation Pews.

However, they want to leave the nave clear – the way it was when the church was built. It would mean people would get a clear view of the hundreds of ledger stones that have been hidden beneath the pews for nearly 180 years.

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The whole Abbey floor is covered in ledger stones. They are all being recorded and photographed before being taken up.

It would also give the Abbey more flexibility in how the space was used – with chairs replacing pews for seated events – allowing different layouts for gatherings big and small. It would improve access for those with disability issues and allow visitors more freedom in exploring the church.

Bath Abbey

Will it be chairs or pews? These are temporary seats and not a style that the Abbey would buy for permanent use!

The Victorian Society argue that the pews have protected the ancient ledger stones from heavy foot traffic and that just removing the pews from the aisles would ease the flow of visitors.

Floor trial and ledger stone recording - L-R-Volunteers Mark Hudson Sandra Brown and Priscilla Olver SMALL

Floor trial and ledger stone recording – L-R-Volunteers Mark Hudson Sandra Brown and Priscilla Oliver Small

They have launched an online petition – which has attracted over a thousand signatures – and say the complete removal of the nave pews would ‘ strip the Abbey of a major layer of its interest and richness, permanently harming the interior.’

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The memorial stones on the Abbey floor.Many of them are hidden under the pews.

Bath Abbey feels this is an opportunity to change how the floor space can be used to better serve the city, its visitors and future generations.  That an open nave will release the Abbey’s potential as a place for worship, celebration and community events in a way it previously hasn’t been able to offer.

It is going to be an interesting hearing. History in the making.

Prayers for Bath Abbey court hearing.

Prayers for Bath Abbey court hearing.

Special prayers – it seems – were offered up in Bath Abbey last night (Thursday, September 14th) ‘ for the mission and ministry of the Abbey.’

Bath Abbey

Bath Abbey – the lantern of the west!

They came as the church faces a special Consistory Court hearing in response to the nationally based Victorian Society’s objection to the removal of most of the pews following work to stabilise the floor.

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The Rector Bath Abbey, the Rev Preb Edward Mason.

In a letter to the congregation, the Rector, the Rev Prebendary Edward Mason, explained that the Society were objecting to an element of the Footprint Project.

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The poster explaining why the floor has to come up.

 

‘Footprint will stabilise the Abbey floor to quite a deep level, install under-floor central heating with energy from the hot springs, and repair and re-lay the wonderful set of ledger stones.

To do this, all the furniture in the Abbey will be removed. Equally, our application proposes that all the furniture will be replaced – except for the nave pews.

We believe that freeing the nave of pews will enhance the mission and ministry of the Abbey in the present and leave it much better placed to respond to the changing needs of church and community in the future.

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A cross section of how the Footprint Project will evolve.

The Victorian Society does not agree and insists on the nave pews being replaced. The Consistory Court is a normal (but rare) means by which church planning issues like this are clarified.

The Court will be held in the Abbey early in October and there is full representation of both sides by legal teams. The judgement is made by the Chancellor of the Diocese, himself a practising lawyer.

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An artist’s impression of what the nave will look like with the floor repaired and the pews removed.

In the light of this process, we feel it particularly important that we gather in prayer.’

The Rector said prayers were for the Abbey’s mission and ministry.

‘In particular, we pray that our core values expressed in worship, hospitality and justice will continue to be fully expressed through the development and future use of the Abbey.’

It is my understanding that the court hearing will be held in Bath Abbey on October 4th and 5th during which time the church will not be open to tourists.

Stand by Bath – for the ‘battle’ of the pews.

Stand by Bath – for the ‘battle’ of the pews.

Bath Abbey’s plans to permanently remove the 19th-century pews in the church nave – after the floor has been repaired – have not gone down well with The Victorian Society.

It’s a London-based organisation that campaigns for the preservation of Victorian and Edwardian architecture.

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Looking up the centre aisle of the nave towards the East end of Bath Abbey.

This autumn – probably October – it will be sending a barrister to ‘square up’ against the Abbey’s own legal team in an ecclesiastical court hearing which will decide whether the pews stay or go.

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Should they stay or should they go? The ‘battle’ for the nave pews in Bath Abbey.

Church of England churches are exempt from the requirement to obtain listed building consent from local councils. Decisions are instead made by the Chancellor of each diocese – a lawyer appointed by the church to adjudicate on these matters.

The pews were designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott – the architect of St Pancras Station and the Albert Memorial. He was one of the most successful and highly respected church architects of the period and his major restoration of Bath Abbey in 1859-74 was intended to ‘complete’ the church as it would have been if the Reformation had not stopped its construction.

Scott completed the stone fan vaulting above the nave and designed a chandelier lighting system for the church – as well as designing the pews, which were modelled on those in other 16th-century Somerset churches.

Christopher Costelloe, Victorian Society Director, said: ‘Bath Abbey is one of the best examples of Victorian church restoration by perhaps the era’s most prominent architect – Sir George Gilbert Scott.

There is no doubt that removing these pews would harm this Grade 1 listed church’s significance, and there is no need for such drastic changes in a thriving church when other options are available. The last decade or so has seen Victorian church schemes ripped out all over the country and once they’re gone they’re gone for good.

Bath Abbey

Bath Abbey interior

Bath Abbey has a different point of view and is at the start of a massive multi-million-pound project – boosted by the Heritage Lottery Fund – to deal with the threat of the church floor collapsing because of massive holes discovered beneath it. They have been created as a result of the six thousand odd people who have been buried below the stone flooring.

It means all the fixed furniture – including the pews – will have to be lifted as the repair is carried out – section by section – so the Abbey can stay in business throughout.

According to Charles Curnock – Director of the Footprint Project – once the floor has been stabilised and underfloor heating, powered by energy from the hot spring nearby, installed – they intend reinstating the hand-carved Corporation Pews and most of the machine-tooled pews behind them.

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An illustration showing how the nave might look without its pews.

However, they want to leave the nave clear – the way it was when the church was built. It would mean people would get a clear view of the hundreds of ledger stones that have been hidden beneath the pews for nearly 180 years.

It would also give the Abbey more flexibility in how the space was used – with chairs replacing pews for seated events – allowing different layouts for gatherings big and small. It would improve access for those with disability issues and allow visitors more freedom in exploring the church.

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Chairs would replace the nave pews – making for more flexible use of the space. These chairs were just spotted in the Abbey. I am not saying they would be the type that would be used.

The Victorian Society argue that the pews have protected the ancient ledger stones from heavy foot traffic and that just removing the pews from the aisles would ease the flow of visitors.

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The removal of the pews would allow people to see more of the ancient ledger stones, says the Abbey. The Victorian Society says the pews have helped protect them.

They have launched an online petition – which has attracted over a thousand signatures – and say the complete removal of the nave pews would ‘ strip the Abbey of a major layer of its interest and richness, permanently harming the interior.’

Bath Abbey feels this is an opportunity to change how the floor space can be used to better serve the city, its visitors and future generations.  That an open nave will release the Abbey’s potential as a place for worship, celebration and community events in a way it previously hasn’t been able to offer.

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Bath Abbey

The Victorian Society will now be a ‘party opponent’ at a Consistory Court hearing later this year, regarding the permanent removal of pews from Bath Abbey.

They will have a barrister present to argue their case before the Chancellor makes his decision.  Bath Abbey will also be legally represented.

Both sides seem confident they will win the day. A date for that has yet to be announced.