The Ladders to Heaven at Bath

Bath is best known for its stunning early Georgian architecture, mostly designed by John Wood, father and son (see The Making of the British Landscape, pp. 424-7). These superb buildings have quite rightly earned the city a place as a World Heritage Site, but we must not forget that it would have been far more important, had not most of its working-class and tradesmen’s houses not been recklessly demolished (with the shameful approval of the City Fathers), in the 1960s, an event remembered by urban archaeologists, as ‘The Rape of Bath’.

Anyhow, while I was waiting to do my talk I decided to spend an hour or so looking around the magnificent Abbey (now the parish church). This is a superb building with some very sensitive Victorian restoration (mostly by Scott) and a host of wonderful 18th century memorials to worthies from all over the country, who had taken the waters for their health – but who nonetheless succumbed. Sadly, many of these were hidden behind some modern artwork, which was not good. In fact I found the evangelical tone of the place rather all-pervasive and a bit heavy-handed. I know the Church does some good abroad, but the anthropologist in me feels they should also acknowledge the fact that missionaries destroyed so many native African social structures – which partly explains that unfortunate continent’s many current problems… But I digress.

The abbey interior, especially the Sanctuary at the east end (the equivalent of the Chancel in a non-monastic church) is stunning, and its fan-vaulting leaves one breathless. In fact I developed a bit of a stiff neck and I was reminded just how good, and how unique (in Europe) is British late Perpendicular architecture: King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, and St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, are the two best-known examples, but the quality continued, right through the 16th and just into the 17th centuries. My old college, Trinity, Cambridge has a fine later Perpendicular chapel, although not of the quality of the Bath Sanctuary.

One of the unique joys at Bath are the two ladders of ascending angels carved into the north and south piers of the west front. These were executed when the Abbey was still under monastic control in the late 15th century and are not part of the later rebuilding and restoration, which followed the Abbey’s dissolution (in 1539). Then the buildings began quite rapidly to fall down, doubtless as a result of the lead having been removed from the roof.

Angels ascending the ladder to Heaven on the West front of Bath Abbey (late 15th century).

Angels ascending the ladder to Heaven on the West front of Bath Abbey (late 15th century).

Bath Abbey, Somerset: close-up of unique angel ladder on west front

A close of the less-than-fully confident angels, on the ladder at Bath Abbey.

I gave my talk, which seemed to go down quite well, largely I suspect because my interviewer, Jenni Mills, was so professional. I also handed round cards for the Alan Cadbury detective/thriller, so we’ll see if anyone responds. Fingers crossed. Then afterwards, as I was walking to the station I turned my mobile back on again and noticed I’d missed a call from our neighbour, who I shall call Jack. I knew we’d had half a dozen new lambs, and I also knew that Jack, being an ex-stockman, was always at the end of a telephone line, in case of emergency. So, without putting-on my glasses, which lay concealed deep inside one of the hundreds of zip-up pockets in my rucksack, I thought I’d text Maisie in the lambing sheds, to find out why Jack might have phoned me:

‘Jack phoned. Do you know why?’

This morning she showed me what predictive text had made of my myopic effort to wrestle with the keyboard, while walking downhill (something I don’t do often in the Fens):

‘Jack sinned. Do you know why?’

And that’s where I’ll leave it: my Thought for the Day.

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