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St Nicholas, Bathampton, Somerset

(51°23′49″N, 2°19′18″W)
ST 777 665
pre-1974 traditional (England and Wales) Somerset
now Bath and North East Somerset
  • Robin Downes
10 February and 3 March 2010

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The reader is referred to the report on the church of St Martin at North Stoke for important general material on this area, part of Mercia during the Saxon period.

The view showing Bathampton church in its landscape-setting looks across from the church to the water-meadows south of the Avon to the housing-estates of Batheaston on the other side of the river. The first bridge left of the church carries Mill Lane between Bathampton village and Bathampton Bridge (and Batheaston beyond) across the main railway line; the second (clearly more recent) bridge carries the lane over the newly aligned A4.

Bathampton and Batheaston, nowadays virtually suburbs of Bath, lie on opposite sides of the Avon (on the left and right banks, respectively) at the point where the river turns its course from north-westerly to south-westerly, flowing around the massif of Bathampton Down to its south — which hill rises to 204m above OD and thus makes a dramatic statement south of the river in a landscape otherwise characterised by north-south Cotswold ridges reaching down to end on the north side of the Avon valley. The Down, which shows ample evidence of exploitation in prehistory and later — Wansdyke, probable frontier between Wessex and Mercia, runs across the top — , is nowadays privileged by the site of a fine golf course which incidentally rewards the walker with exceptionally instructive as well as beautiful views.

Perhaps the clue to the siting of Bathampton is that the first river crossing above Bath itself (which may reflect a long-standing historical reality) is just north of the church — now effected by a fine bridge with attendant mill. The lane from Bathampton Bridge which runs past the west end of the churchyard would originally have continued south up to Bathampton Down, so one suspects here an important medieval and pre-medieval route. Nowadays, that route is very much cut across and obscured by later developments: (1) the Kennet & Avon Canal runs roughly east-west parallel to the south side of the churchyard little more than a lane-width away (and slightly elevated), the bridge carrying the present lane across the canal being about 100m west of its presumed original line; (2) the development of the village between the canal and the main A36 Bath-Southampton road which runs around Bathampton Down above most of the settlement. Housing development is predominantly orientated on that main road; it appears on the 1904 second edition OS six-inch map, based on an 1882-3 survey revised in 1902, to have been strung out along the A36 between Bath and Bathampton at least since the end of the nineteenth century.

A very recent development in road-building has resulted in yet another main road along the busy Bathampton corridor: the main A4 London to Bristol road, which used to run through Batheaston, has been provided with a by-pass (which makes a very easy connection — if of rather questionable æsthetic effect when viewed from certain points, e.g., Bathampton Down — with the A46 running north to the M4). Like the railway alongside, this runs past Bathampton through a cutting.

Archæological investigations attending the building of the new road in the water-meadow area between the river and the gravel terrace occupied by the most northerly part of the village discovered, as to be expected, evidence of exploitation from the Iron Age to the Middle Ages through the Roman and sub-Roman periods.

The remaining means of communication to take into account, Brunel’s main railway line to Bristol from Paddington via Chippenham and through the fine Box tunnel c.5kms east, is crammed into the small space south of the river as it passes Bathampton but, although only about 50m north of the churchyard, it runs through a cutting and is thus relatively unobtrusive. Once upon a time there was a station for Bathampton (just north-east of the church) but of course modern conditions have rendered that awkward as well as unnecessary. South to north, the canal is 500m from the main A36 road, the railway 150m from the canal, and the new A4 road about 25m from the railway — the church being squeezed between canal and railway.

Nowadays, the canal is much used for leisure (although there seem to be some permanent residents), its towpath is a fine walkway, the George pub opposite the church is very well patronised, Walter Sickert rests in the churchyard: consequently, this particular spot is often a scene of picturesque and happy activity, especially but not exclusively in fine weather.

Geologically, Bathampton is built on a gravel terrace created by the river Avon.

The church is 13thc in origin and consists of a W tower, nave, N and S aisles, S porch and chancel. The tower is 15thc, and the N aisle was added in 1858. The chancel was restored in 1882. There was an earlier restoration by Ralph Allen in the mid-18thc, but evidence of that was largely obliterated by later works. Construction is of ahlar and coursed squared rubble.


Bathampton was held by Bath Abbey church before and after 1066. Two thegns held it before 1066, and in 1086 it was held by Hugh the Interpreter, (3 hides), and an Englishman called Colgrim, 2 hides from the church.


Exterior Features

Exterior Decoration





The figure has been the subject of much dispute among acholars. It was described by Symons as 'the earliest and most valuable specimen of ecclesiastical sculpture to be found in Somerset', while Pevsner suggests that it is not Norman, but 'rustic Elizabethan work', presumably partly on the grounds of the ruff-like serrated collar. According to the Church guide, it has been said to be an effigy of St Nicholas. It has been dated to 1122 which, if it were a Bishop of Bath, would make it John of Tours, and it has been claimed to have originated from the tomb of Bishop John of Tours in Bath Abbey.

In the view of the present author there is surely enough evidence that this figure copies a conventional twelfth-century image. He has sought analogues for the collar design in the twelfth century and has found only one — in the representation of Titus in the MS illustration shown by Cahn as No.66; that is not really sufficient and it would be helpful if anyone else can shed light on this odd feature of dress. The effigy may indeed represent Bishop John of Tours (or of Villula), who did so much to raise the status and independence of Bath Abbey as well as the building of the Norman Cathedral. However, he was not noted for his learning and the author would propose an alternative identification with Bishop Robert (formerly a monk of Lewes Priory), who certainly was noted for his scholarship.

Having been Bishop of Wells between 1088 and 1090, John of Villula was bishop at Bath (having transferred the see from Wells) until 1122; after Bishop Godfrey (1123-1135) Bishop Robert worked assiduously to build on the developments achieved by John. It is also thought (by historian Ralph Henry Carless Davis, who edited the translation published in 1976) that he was the author of Gesta Stephani, a principal source for the history of the troubled reign of King Stephen. The bishop, in charge of Bath’s defences during the rising of Robert of Gloucester against the king, got caught up in events to the extent of being captured. However, he survived and maintained his work as bishop until his death in 1166. He therefore served — like his great predecessor John of Villula — for about thirty years. Placing the sculpture after, say, 1170 — rather than c.1125 — may give more time for the conventional iconography associated with a bishop to be established, but that is certainly not a firm argument. (Neither does the author wish to exclude the possibility of John of Tours being the subject of commemoration in this effigy.)


W. Cahn, Romanesque Manuscripts: The Twelfth Century (Volume I of A Survey of Manuscripts Illuminated in France). London 1996.

Historic England Listed Building 32021.

N. Pevsner, The Buildings of England: North Somerset and Bristol. Harmondsworth 1958, 137.

Rev. Prebendary Scarth,"On a Sculptured Effigy on the East Wall of the Chancel of Bathampton Church near Bath", Journal of the British Archaeological Association, XXXIV (1878), 119-21.

H. and M. Whitttock, The Anglo-Saxon Avon Valley Frontier: a River of Two Halves, Fonthill Media Limited. 2014.