The Twentieth Century Society

Review: Our Lady and St Alphege, Bath

Caroline Shaw, with a preface by Gavin Stamp (120 pp, £9.99)

Reviewed by Peter Howell

Sir Giles Gilbert Scott called St Alphege’s (as it is usually known) his ‘little gem of a church’, and wrote that it ‘has always been one of my favourite churches’. Situated in a suburb off the tourist track, it is not as well-known as it should be, and it is to be hoped that this excellent book will help to bring visitors. Scott described it as ‘my first essay in the Romanesque style.’  It was built by the Benedictine monks of Downside Abbey as a daughter church to St John’s, the Gothic church with a spire which provides such a contrast with Georgian Bath. Dom Anselm Rutherford, Prior of Bath, chose the style, which pleased Scott, who replied that ‘I have often felt I should like to design a basilica church.’ It seems to have been Dom Anselm who suggested Santa Maria in Cosmedin, in Rome, as the model. Scott’s first work for Downside, in 1912-13, had been the conversion of a medieval barn at Midsomer Norton into a church; then in 1917 he was asked to design the nave of the Abbey Church (1922-25) – see Gavin Stamp’s chapter in Downside Abbey: An Architectural History, edited by Dom Aidan Bellenger (2011).

The foundation stone of St Alphege’s was laid in 1927, and the church was opened in 1929. Additions were made in 1953-54, but the campanile remains unbuilt (what an opportunity for an imaginative donor!). Features of particular interest include the splendid baldacchino, the capitals vigorously carved by W D Gough, the light-fittings in the form of golden ‘sunbursts’, and the Cosmatesque floor made of Ruboleum. The church is also of interest as an example of the influence of contemporary liturgical reform, and in particular of the ‘Downside Movement’. In 1965-6 the high altar was removed, and an ugly new one placed in front of the baldacchino. The font was moved from the baptistery to the sanctuary, and the ‘temporary’ pulpit was also removed. Otherwise, the church has been well looked after.

The current Parish Priest, Fr Richard Barton, who initiated this project, has been most fortunate in having associated with his parish such a talented author, photographer, and designer. They have produced an elegant and generously illustrated book which is one of the best church histories I have ever seen. It includes a tour of the church and biographies of the people chiefly responsible for it, and many of Scott’s drawings are reproduced. It cannot be too highly recommended.

Copies can be ordered from St Alphege’s Presbytery, Oldfield Lane, Bath BA2 3NR (please add £3.50 for postage and make cheque payable to St Alphege’s Parish).

Published February 2013