Bath Abbey is on a volunteer recruitment drive. Emma Clegg talks to volunteers – including an 87-year-old bellringer who uses YouTube and a tour guide who has conferred with the Archbishop of Canterbury. Photography by Deb Coleman

THE CHOIR CHAPERONE

“I thought you’d forgotten where we live,” Delyth Cardy’s husband commented recently. I can see why. Delyth is a volunteer at Bath Abbey and has been part of the congregation and an active member of the abbey since moving to Bath in 1970. She is also a member of the church council and she organises front of house, which involves scheduling stewards for concerts, providing first aid cover and organising tickets.

That’s not all. Delyth’s main role is as chaperone to the girl’s choir. She attends when they sing choral evensong on a Thursday. She is also there on Sundays. She keeps the choir in line, but also loves to be in the middle of the music-making: “For me, it is when I’m in there with them practising and I can see in their faces what it means to them, the joy they get out of what they are doing – they are so enjoying it, you know.”Delyth Cardy, girls’ choir chaperone

There have been significant changes to the abbey over the years. Delyth was the first ever lay person to serve communion in the 1990s: “That was a huge new innovation,” she says. “In those days we had the old words, not just the blood of Christ – it was an entire paragraph and you had to say a different one for each person.” She was also asked to be one of the first three lady sideswomen who were introduced in 1992. “I was asked because I was more able to withstand any flack,” she explains. And flack there was, with overheard comments such as “Whatever next?!” from the congregation.

Delyth is one of over 300 volunteers at Bath Abbey, which welcomes nearly half a million people each year. From flower arrangers to lay readers, welcomers to tour guides, stewards to chaplains and archive volunteers to bellringers, there is a vast range of roles to choose from, and each volunteer plays their part in ensuring the smooth running of the abbey.

THE WELCOMER

Song Li, who works as a welcomer for three to five hours a week, is a student from the University of Bath and is studying education. She is volunteering for a few months until she goes back to China to work as a teacher. “I found this opportunity on my university’s volunteer website. I like it because as a volunteer you need to talk to people from many different countries and it’s a good opportunity to meet different people.”

Everyone is warmly welcomed, Song tells me: “It’s exciting for me working on the welcome desk. It’s nice for me to meet all the volunteers and staff. They are all really, really nice. I love them. I totally love this town.”Song Li, welcomer

THE TOUR GUIDE AND LAY READER

Jeremy Key-Pugh is a former churchwarden and tour guide specialising in tours of the memorial stones at the abbey. He is also a lay reader, which means he has a licence from the bishop to lead services and preach. He joined the abbey choir in 1974 as a tenor, sang in the choir for 20 years, and remembers when the abbey was still gas-lit in the 1970s. He is the secretary of the Friends of Bath Abbey and a member of the church council. Jeremy explains how much things have changed in the time he has been there: “The old days, when the church was an autocracy by the parish priests, have gone. It is now much more of a collaboration. I totally respect the call to ordained ministry but I have a ministry as a lay person as well, which gives you a slightly different perspective.“

I ask how important the abbey is to him. “I couldn’t imagine life without the church, but I believe passionately and theologically that church is the people. This church means the abbey congregation and my friends. The building has got to be an aide to the mission of the church. We are not against it being beautiful and ancient and fascinating – the fact that it draws people here is truly wonderful, it’s a gift. But it mustn’t get in the way of what we do as a church.”

“I have had some wonderful experiences in my time here,” says Jeremy. “I was invited to Lambeth Palace in 2014 to confer with the Archbishop of Canterbury over who would be the next Bishop of Bath and Wells – it was just amazing. Little old me.”Jeremy Key-Pugh, tour guide and lay reader

THE ARCHIVE VOLUNTEER

While Jeremy is the resident expert on the wall panels and ledger stones in the abbey, he relies on the help of archive volunteer Gill Hylson-Smith. She is a retired teacher and a Latin expert. Many of the inscriptions are in Latin, so Gill’s translations are essential, particularly as new ledger stones are revealed as part of The Footprint Project when the main pews will be removed, uncovering a collection of unrecorded ledger stones.

Translating is not always straightforward: “Some of the stones are written in rather ‘showing off’ Latin, and not always good classical Latin. The stonemasons sometimes miscopied letters, so sometimes nothing makes sense until I have a Eureka moment.” Gill told me how retirement made her reassess her life: “When you retire you have to think what you really want to do and you don’t necessarily just want to spend all your time looking after your grandchildren, so I wanted to use my Latin. And I wanted to encourage other people. When you get old, that’s all you can do, encourage the young.”Gill Hylson-Smith archive volunteer

THE CHILDREN’S COORDINATOR

Patricia Shuttleworth is another retired teacher, who volunteers as the crèche and children’s group coordinator. There are four groups for Sunday school: the crèche, Sparklers for children under six, All Stars for six to eight year olds and Fireworks for eight to 10 year olds. Patricia works with the older children: “I have been a PE teacher so I’ve always had boundless energy. One thing I didn’t want is to be sitting there in my 70s, shaking my hands and saying ‘dear children’. It’s got to be fun and it’s got to be that they want to come back the next week.”

Patricia spends about four hours each week preparing for the half hour Sunday school lesson. There may be one child or there may be eight. Despite having a careful plan, she is always ready to deviate to fit around the children’s needs: “If your mind is in tune to where the children are and the way they are coming out with their problems, their wonders, their joys, their sorrows, then that’s what we need to be there for.”Patricia Shuttleworth, crèche and children’s group coordinator

THE BELLRINGER

Bellringer Jim Cook is 87 and has been ringing bells since he was 17. Indeed, until recently he used to cycle to the abbey before climbing up the 212 steps to the top of the tower for bellringing. He rings the bells once or twice on a Sunday, and there is a practice night on Mondays.

Bellringing is evidently a lifelong passion – Jim told me that he watched the National 12 Bell Striking Contest in Cambridge at the weekend, not in Cambridge, but on YouTube.

“Nowadays I’m restricted by my ebbing strength to ringing the smaller bells,” Jim says. “There are 10 bells at the abbey and we usually manage to ring 10 for a Sunday.” Jim is also on the money-counting team, accounting for collections, donations, candles and entrance fees.

Jim explains that there are endless sound variations when ringing bells: “You can ring changes on more than one bell – there are 5,000 different combinations on seven bells [change ringing is ringing a set of bells to produce variations in their sequences].”Jim Cook, bell ringer and money counter

“You can also ring with the bells fully muffled,” Jim says, “and it comes through quieter and with a softer sound. You can also half muffle them, so you get the loud note on one side and as you swing the bell back you get the soft one. And that is really moving.”

And how does ringing the bells make Jim feel? “When it goes well it’s really very good indeed, when you get the rhythm just right,” he explains. The same as in rowing when you are rowing in a crew and it just goes whoosh, and by gum it’s good.”

STEWARDS AND TOUR GUIDES

Robin Dixon is a more recent recruit, joining as a steward and tour guide six months ago. He was working as a National Trust volunteer, leading walks in Prior Park and on the Bath Skyline. He had been a lay minister in an Anglican church and so he was also asked to help out with the abbey chaplaincy team.

Robin’s historical knowledge is extensive and the history of the abbey building fascinates him: “One of my interests is why the building is the way it is. Why do we have those enormous windows and what does it tells us about the belief of the people who built them? I’m reading about how the place was built, because it really is quite extraordinary. They would have used windlasses to get the stone up the scaffolding.”

My conversations with volunteers are dominated by the importance of welcoming visitors. In Robin’s words, “One of the key principles of the abbey is offering hospitality. It’s part of the tradition that goes back centuries to the time of the Benedictine priory church and the monastery that was part of it.”Robin Dixon, steward, tour guide and lay minister

Pete Jones is a volunteer steward and guide, a retired English teacher who joined the congregation six years ago. Before he was a volunteer, Pete spoke to a steward who told him he is sometimes asked, “Do you still have services here?”. Pete says he became a steward because he wanted to be asked that question.

Volunteering for Pete is about his faith: “I’m here because I’m doing it for a bigger reason. I’m here because I’m a Christian and I’m representing our church, but I’m also representing the city and the country. And I want to project all our good features.”

He tells me that an abbey tour takes about three quarters of an hour. “When I take primary school children around,” he says, “I do it as a journey of faith. So I start in the east with the baptism and head to where you receive communion. And on the way I describe the lecterns and pulpits.” Many of the visitors are full of questions: “People don’t have an automatic connection with the church as they would have done a generation or two ago. So it’s fertile ground. And if we can show love and compassion as Christians then it’s planting the seeds of what we’re about.”Pete Jones (left), steward and guide

THE SHOP VOLUNTEER

Lynda Gray, who has been a shop volunteer for nine years, working two afternoons a week, doesn’t attend the abbey. “I came into the shop one day,” she explains, “and said ‘Have you any work?’, and they had me signing on the dotted line before I could say ‘Jack Robinson’. I said I didn’t attend the abbey but they said it didn’t matter.

“I liked the little shop and I knew you’d get loads of tourists coming through. I used to work for an airline so I’m used to dealing with different nationalities and I thought it would be nice to continue that, and talk to people. I really enjoy it.”

What is the value of volunteering, I ask? “If you enjoy talking to people, working here is ideal,” Lynda explains. “It’s also surprising how much you learn when you are volunteering, about Bath and about the abbey’s history.”Lynda Gray, abbey shop volunteer

THE ASSOCIATE PRIEST

Evelyn Lee-Barber – whose background is in team development and management development – was ordained five years ago before she came to Bath. She trained as a curate and stayed in the city, working full time as an associate priest and she is also on the leadership team of the abbey. “I am called by God to be a priest. So this place and this community allow me to express that calling. I don’t know who is the bigger gift, me to them or them to me. I am a shepherd, a servant, a messenger, a watchmen, a steward. That shapes what I do here.”

Tuning in to each person’s needs requires some sensitivity. Robin Dixon is well attuned to this: “There are sometimes people who come here who are in a big storm as they are crossing the sea of life. They come here to find some kind of peace. You can sense when people do need some kind of support.”

Evelyn is awed by the number of volunteers who give their time each week: “Think about the number of hours people give here collectively. And we all contribute to that. We use the gifts we have got in enabling others. And what we’re all able to do in different ways is to join in with people’s celebrations and deepest moments of grief. And there aren’t many places where you get to do that.”

Jeremy believes that some people in Bath see the abbey as not relevant: “They might say ‘the abbey is not for us’, but that’s absolutely not true – the abbey is for everyone. We want to encourage everybody.”

In 2013, members of the congregation contributed 17,940 voluntary hours each year. As part of the abbey’s Footprint Project, there is a plan to train 100 new volunteers by 2020. Visitors are growing year on year, so the abbey wants to engage better with them and new volunteers will be needed to support the new discovery centre and learning space.

“The abbey is sometimes called ‘the lantern of the west’ – it’s a guide through a dark world,” Robin tells me. It’s clear that each of the volunteers help to keep the abbey lantern burning.

If you are interested in finding out more about becoming a volunteer at Bath Abbey, contact Gwen James, volunteer officer: volunteer@bathabbey.org; tel: 01225 422462. Vacancies are also advertised on the website: bathabbey.org/get-involved

Featured image: The Rev Evelyn Lee-Barber