looking at the north side. It's a small, low church. It has a castellated tower and the vestry extension coming out to the side. looking at the north side. It's a small, low church. It has a castellated tower and the vestry extension coming out to the side.
A short porchway with a pointed roof. It has noticeboards either side of the doorway, which has a rounded top, and there is a lantern above the door. Just inside the door is a wooden bench seat and some sunflower A short porchway with a pointed roof. It has noticeboards either side of the doorway, which has a rounded top, and there is a lantern above the door. Just inside the door is a wooden bench seat and some sunflower
Looking down the length of the church from the altar. There is a stained-glass window on the back wall and carved memorials on the wall. The church is dark, with parts lit up by sunlight coming through the door and windows Looking down the length of the church from the altar. There is a stained-glass window on the back wall and carved memorials on the wall. The church is dark, with parts lit up by sunlight coming through the door and windows
The altar has an ornated embroidered cloth and two lit candles on top. Behind it is a wide, stone carving with animals and crosses carved into it The altar has an ornated embroidered cloth and two lit candles on top. Behind it is a wide, stone carving with animals and crosses carved into it
The window has depictions of the life of Jesus and his disciples - the road to Calvery, the ascension and his approach to crucifixion. The window has depictions of the life of Jesus and his disciples - the road to Calvery, the ascension and his approach to crucifixion.
A wooden pew in partial darkness. In the part where the light is shining is a copy of the Bible A wooden pew in partial darkness. In the part where the light is shining is a copy of the Bible
A small, carved wooden mouse on the edge of a pew A small, carved wooden mouse on the edge of a pew
A stained-glass window by the pulpit depicting the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus. Next to it is a statue of the crucifixion A stained-glass window by the pulpit depicting the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus. Next to it is a statue of the crucifixion
A bookshelf full of hymn books. They're carefully stacked with one sitting diagonally to the others at the end of each shelf A bookshelf full of hymn books. They're carefully stacked with one sitting diagonally to the others at the end of each shelf
Looking diagonally at the back wall. The stained-glass window is seen, as is a candelabra hanging from the ceiling with white candles in it Looking diagonally at the back wall. The stained-glass window is seen, as is a candelabra hanging from the ceiling with white candles in it
Five memorial plaques on a wall. They're mostly rectangular in shape with white central areas with the wording carved on it Five memorial plaques on a wall. They're mostly rectangular in shape with white central areas with the wording carved on it
The font is round, carved from a single piece of stone. It has some pointed oval shapes carved around the base of the bowl. It has a lacy tablecloth on the top of it The font is round, carved from a single piece of stone. It has some pointed oval shapes carved around the base of the bowl. It has a lacy tablecloth on the top of it
The squint is a small, rectangular window carved into part of the wall. It's looking towards the altar The squint is a small, rectangular window carved into part of the wall. It's looking towards the altar
A wooden panel, rectangular in shape with a rounded top. At the top, it says "The parish of Charlcombe is known to have been existing before A.D. 1042" then lists the rectors between 1312 and 1897 A wooden panel, rectangular in shape with a rounded top. At the top, it says "The parish of Charlcombe is known to have been existing before A.D. 1042" then lists the rectors between 1312 and 1897
A second, identical wooden panel with a list of rectors from 1904. It's currently less than half completed A second, identical wooden panel with a list of rectors from 1904. It's currently less than half completed
The current rector talking in the church. He's looking down through the church and has his hands crossed, mid-gesture as he's talking The current rector talking in the church. He's looking down through the church and has his hands crossed, mid-gesture as he's talking
An old sarcophagus grave, leaning and broken, in between the church wall and a large yew tree An old sarcophagus grave, leaning and broken, in between the church wall and a large yew tree
A model of a small bird and two pot plants placed at the base of a gravestone A model of a small bird and two pot plants placed at the base of a gravestone
The top of a tall gravestone. It has a rectangular top with a depiction of Jesus' crucifixion. Directly behind is a yew tree The top of a tall gravestone. It has a rectangular top with a depiction of Jesus' crucifixion. Directly behind is a yew tree
The old vestry door (no longer used) is small and narrow. It's just next to where the vestry meets the main church The old vestry door (no longer used) is small and narrow. It's just next to where the vestry meets the main church
A military-issue rectangular gravestone. It has a military insignia, croos and dedication carved on it A military-issue rectangular gravestone. It has a military insignia, croos and dedication carved on it
A carving of a plant (acanthus?) on the corner of the vestry. To the left, a man (out of focus) can be seen walking towards the camera) A carving of a plant (acanthus?) on the corner of the vestry. To the left, a man (out of focus) can be seen walking towards the camera)
A small tunnel running alongside the church. It's closed off by a metal gate with a padlock A small tunnel running alongside the church. It's closed off by a metal gate with a padlock
Two graves - one a larger sarcophagus, the other a standard rectangular stone - in the corner of the graveyard. The graves are underneath a lot of foliage and the area is quite overgrown, so there is a lot of dappled shade Two graves - one a larger sarcophagus, the other a standard rectangular stone - in the corner of the graveyard. The graves are underneath a lot of foliage and the area is quite overgrown, so there is a lot of dappled shade
A wooden bench by the graveyard. On the back of the bench is an inscription, reading "rest and be thankful" A wooden bench by the graveyard. On the back of the bench is an inscription, reading "rest and be thankful"

 

Charlcombe Church (or, the Parish Church of St Mary the Virgin, Charlcombe, to give it its official name) is Bath’s oldest church and the place of many great childhood memories for me.

Although it underwent extensive work in the 19th century (including the addition of the vestry on the north side and the stained-glass windows), the church was first built during Norman times. It’s a tiny church, but has enormous character. Here’s a few fun facts about it.

  • The walls are covered in memorial stones dating as far back as the 17th century.
  • The pews were made by Robert ‘Mouseman’ Thompson.
  • The pulpit is built into the wall of the church instead of the usual freestanding structure (there may originally have been a door in the outer wall so the rector could walk directly to the pulpit from outside).
  • The font originates from the Norman era and is carved from a single piece of stone.
  • The organ was made by Harrison & Harrison and is quite unusual for its small size.
  • There is a ‘squint’ (or hagioscope, to give it its proper name) by the font to allow members of the congregation to see the altar from behind the wall.

 

Charlcombe Church and me

Charlcombe is the church my parents go to and is where they took me every Sunday morning of my childhood. As soon as we were old enough, we were recruited into the choir, along with the other children there. We wore choir robes and two of us would carry candles on poles, accompanying the censer and the rituals they carried out with the rector (although it’s Church of England, it’s a ‘high church‘).

Although I’m no longer a particularly religious person, I have very fond memories of Charlcombe. The congregation was (unsurprisingly) quite small, so it was close and friendly. Everyone knew everyone. After the service finished, when the grown-ups were tidying up and standing around talking to each other, we children would play in the graveyard. There was a small, dark tunnel running along the west wall of the church which we’d dare each other to venture into. We thought there were skeletons and other scary things down there. In reality, I think it’s just a drainage channel, or some such. It’s now secured with a padlocked gate.

There’s also the yew tree to the side of the entrance, with a large sarcophagus-like grave next to it. We’d climb around the edges as a game of balance.

Around the north side of the church, the hillside is cut away by the wall, with metal railings along the edge of the cutaway. More balancing.

There are lots of old and interesting graves, too. I used to wander around looking at them, reading the names and the dates.

Happy memories …

 

The photo essay

The essay is mostly about details and about light and shadow. There are a couple of shots of the length of the church, but not many. That’s another project for another day.

The only portrait in the essay is of the rector, Philip Hawthorn. I was at the church for a friend who was interring her mother’s ashes. The photo of Philip was taken while he was speaking during the memorial service. Philip is a wonderful, warm, funny, friendly person and, as guardian of the church, it’s only right he’s included.

Charlcombe Church is a beautiful, precious piece of history. If you’re in Bath, or visiting the city, the church is open for visitors every day. Get yourself along and soak up some peace and tranquility.

 

Further reading

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