Bath Abbey will be removing its Victorian pews as part of its restoration project, which has sparked debate among those who think they are too integral to the abbey’s history to remove.

We spoke to two people on opposite sides of the argument about whether some of the pews should be
taken away…

Christopher Costelloe

Director of the Victorian Society on why Bath Abbey should not remove its pews

Bath Abbey is a jewel, even by Bathonian standards. It is unusual in terms of great English churches in its consistency of style. Many people in Bath won’t realise that much of this appearance dates to the mid-19th century, when the great Victorian architect Sir George Gilbert Scott restored it.

He installed the stone vault in the nave, matching those in the rest of the church. He designed beautiful lighting for the church, which survives today, and also a complete set of furnishings, as well as a magnificent font. All this survives virtually intact. For the nave seating Scott thought about how the 16th century builders of the church would have gone about the task, so he went out to Somerset churches and used the designs of surviving medieval pew ends as the basis for his pews. This was typical of his attention to detail. The nave pews, made of oak and lavishly carved, are of a quality that would be unimaginably expensive today. All this work survives; one of the best examples of a major church interior as reimagined by the Victorians in medieval style.

This magnificent interior still works well; Bath Abbey is thriving and heavily used. Much of the abbey’s development plans for improved facilities are uncontroversial and welcome, but they want to remove the nave pews, a major element of the interior, and replace them with chairs. The argument is that this would enable the nave to be used for a wider range of events and different forms of worship.

The abbey argues that its floor needs repairs, so the pews will have to be removed; but there would be nothing to stop them being reinstated afterwards. Another argument is that removing them will enable the ledger stones beneath to be read by tourists; this is pretty thin, considering that most tourists read only a tiny fraction of the hundreds of visible inscriptions on the wall monuments. The fragile ledger stones are currently protected beneath the pew platforms; exposed to heavy foot traffic and with chair legs being moved about on them regularly they might soon deteriorate.

More minor changes, such as removing the pews from the aisles, would ease the flow of visitors and give the abbey more flexible space for smaller services, without causing significant harm. But the complete removal of the nave pews would strip the Abbey of a major layer of its interest and richness, permanently harming the interior. Our online petition against the proposals has been signed by over a thousand people, and we urge you to add your name to it.

As local author Bel Mooney has said: “What is this for? The abbey has worked beautifully (for concerts as well as worship) since the Scott pews were installed and will continue to do so when common sense, aesthetics and economics prevail to retain them.”

It is not too late for Bath Abbey to rethink its plans and we hope they will do so.

Charles Curnock

Footprint Project director for Bath Abbey on why the abbey is removing its pews

Bath Abbey’s floor is collapsing. There are massive holes beneath the floor causing it to subside and if left as it is, it won’t be long before it collapses completely. In order to carry out these essential repairs, all the fixed furniture in the church, including the pews, will need to be lifted.

Lifting the pews and repairing the floor is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity; it will mean that we can maintain and make improvements to this beautiful building, and change how it can be used to better serve the city, visitors and future generations. It will also reveal an important part of the city’s heritage; for the first time in nearly 180 years, hundreds of ancient ledgerstones currently hidden beneath the abbey’s pews will finally be seen and newly appreciated. We’ve called this project Footprint.

Footprint is the abbey’s vision for the future; a £19.3m development supported by Heritage Lottery Fund, and provoked by the urgent need to repair and renew the Abbey’s collapsing historic floor. Once the floor has been repaired, and underfloor heating powered by energy from Bath’s hot springs installed, we intend to reinstall all the hand-carved Gilbert Scott pews (the Corporation Stalls) and most of the machine-tooled pews behind this. Our proposal is to restore the nave and side aisles to the pre-Victorian layout by opening it up. These areas will remain free of pews – and when seating is required, we’ll use chairs in these areas instead.

An open nave will release the abbey’s potential as a place of worship, celebration and community events, in a way that it previously couldn’t. It will make Bath Abbey a more inclusive space and provide more flexibility in how it is used, where people can gather for informal worship, community meals, massed choirs and bands, festivals, schools’ days, and children running through as yet unimagined events.

An open nave will allow visitors to flow naturally without pinch points and give visitors full access. Currently access is poor for wheelchairs, pushchairs, walking frames or those requiring level access. The new layout will enable wheelchair users to move freely around the church and to be part of the congregation/audience rather than being restricted to the side aisles. We will also have full access to the historic floor and ledgerstones, 80% of which are covered by pews. Many ledgerstones date back to the 17th and 18th centuries, and bear inscriptions which can tell us fascinating stories of those who lived and worked in Bath, as well as visitors who came to use the spa waters.

The abbey is a living church where hundreds gather every Sunday. It’s important for us to listen to those who use and care about the abbey – and we have. Worship for services now demands more flexibility of seating and spaces for large and small congregations. Within the abbey community there is broad agreement on that we need the Footprint project in order to bring the abbey one step closer to fulfilling its commitment to being a place of congregation, equal access and hospitality.