The History of St Nicholas Church, Bathampton

The approaches to the Church of St Nicholas are rather special. The usual way is through our interesting High Street and over the horseshoe arched canal bridge designed by John Rennie, the Kennet and Avon engineer. This gives pleasant views both ways along the busy canal. The church lies ahead offering spiritual refreshment close to the ancient George Inn, the source of worldly sustenance.

From the north the road squeezes past the Old Bath Brewery and over a narrow Gothick toll bridge between the former water mills, past Bathampton Manor and over a Brunel GWR bridge.

The medieval foundation of the church is verified by the record of John, vicar in 1261 and the vicarage being ordained in 1317. The base of the tower is medieval, probably 15th century. Nicholas Pevsner thinks the chancel arch may be old. It may be circa 1240. The capitals at the top of the columns don’t match and no revivalist Victorian would be so incorrect.

In the outside east wall of the chancel is a rough figure of a bishop with a crook and book surrounded with consecration crosses, almost certainly 12th century work. With certainty it can be called hacked about a bit. This east wall looks distinctly medieval in its lower part and Saxon masonry was found nearby when the recent extension was built. On window cills in the South Aisle are two recumbent effigies, a cross legged and headless knight and a lady with a wimple attributed to about 1375.

The church as it stands today is evidence of a long history, repairs and adaptation by its parishioners. It remains bright clean and polished and obviously well loved. The sympathetic accommodation of the Australia Chapel and the recent imaginative yet harmonious extension of parish rooms add proof of our continuing faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

Ralph Allen, the cross country postal innovator and, importantly, quarry owner who was involved with the great architect John Wood in developing Georgian Bath acquired Bathampton Manor on his marriage in 1731. Allen rebuilt much of the parish church and added a family chapel on the south side of the nave. Much of the family is still remembered there, but he himself was entombed under a Roman pyramid at Claverton He left the church aisles with tower, nave, chancel and his chapel. Today only his barrel shaped ribbed plaster ceiling in the nave remains.

The tower is Perpendicular in style and 15th century. Access was through a small internal doorway which still exists, but has been supplanted by an exterior door. The upper parts are in the same style but a little thin and probably the result of restoration. There is a ring of six bells of which two are pre-Restoration. A clock was added in 1865.

In 1858 the major alterations of the nineteenth century began. A north nave aisle was built, the arcade being early 14th century decorated in design but the arches are four centred in the manner of a century later. The wall memorials were rearranged. In 1882 the south nave aisle was built with the arcade matching that of the north side. At the same time a south porch was provided. In 1897 the vestry was built and the choir decked out with surplices for the first time. The east wall of the chancel was altered and three lancet windows glazed with formal patterns in an Early English style in architectural frames were made and installed.  Internally a centrepiece of a high relief scene of the Last Supper was installed with three saints in mosaic to left and right. At probably this time a hip-knob was added to the east gable and is said to have come from the nearby conventual barn.

The aisle roofs are panelled in wood, the Australian Chapel having gilded bosses as enrichment. There are some excellent wall memorials of the Georgian period to distinguished citizens. The centre window in the north aisle is a bold picture of Jesus healing the paralytic in Capernaum who was let down by friends through the roof. Next to it is the Shuttleworth memorial window of 1862 but in Art Nouveau style. The west window of the south aisle commemorates Major General Ralph Edward Allen CB who died in Egypt in 1912. It depicts St George equipped as a knight with two attendants. The west window in the tower commemorates Elizabeth Perry Nisbet, is dated 1861 and has interesting armorials. In it a colourful choir of angels affirms ‘Blessed are the meek and pure in heart’

The Australia Chapel

In 1974 the eastern part of the south aisle was designated the Australia Chapel. Previously it had been the Allen Chapel and still holds memorials of the family associated with Ralph Allen.

Captain, later Admiral Arthur Phillip commanded the expeditionary flotilla of 11 ships carrying 1487 people of whom 759 were convicts to Australia. He sailed from Portsmouth in May 1787 and reached ‘Sydney Cove’ on the 26th January 1788, a day commemorated as Australia Day. Admiral Phillip is respected as a commander and as first Governor in Chief of New South Wales. He lived in Bath and is buried in the chapel. The original wall memorial with anchor, coiled rope, canon and ammunition and boat shaped urn is on the south wall.

The chapel is paved with Wombeyan marble and furnished in Blackbean wood from Australia. The pair of Perpendicular style windows are glazed with arms of the Federal Government and six Australian States, bright and colourful like the people they represent and who contributed to this memorial.

The present choir stalls and reading desk were constructed from the same Blackbean wood in 1979.

On or near Admiral Phillip’s birthday the 11th October a special service is held attended by representatives of Australia. Bathampton Poms welcome Aussies and the flag of Australia flies from the tower.

The New Church Rooms

The newest part of the church is the much praised suite of rooms and ancillary accommodation culminating in the gabled Miller Room which is rotated through 45°. David McDonagh, the architect is much praised for such a bold, but deferential addition to our church. It opened in 1993. We, the parishioners are constantly grateful to the Miller Family and others who contributed to such a pleasant meeting place.

The Churchyard

The setting of the church is an integral part of the evidence of the role of Christianity in our parish history. A Lychgate built in 1859, listed memorials and ancient trees, a memorial cross of 1904 in celebration of Victoria’s reign and an ancient font all combine to make a typical English scene.

Walter Sickert, 1860-1942, an apprentice of Whistler and a friend of Degas and President of the Royal Academy is buried with his wife, Therese Lessore. He lived his last years nearby at St Georges Hill House. Viscount John Baptiste Du Barry was killed on Bathampton Down in 1778 in the last legal duel in Britain. His grave is just north of the west door. Another famous person buried here is William Harbutt, the inventor of that modelling substance, ‘Plasticine’ close to the site of his former factory.

Open and Welcome Church

The church is normally open every day and visitors are very welcome and especially so to our services. The church and congregation remain firm witnesses to faith in our Saviour, the Lord Jesus.