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.
- The church on the St Stephen’s Church website (dual parish). The page includes a link to a PDF book with further histories and information on the church
- Charlcombe Church on the Charlcombe Parish Council website