In The Beginning
Christian witness may have taken place on this site since Roman times. The first church was built soon after 971 AD and dedicated to the memory of Swithin, Bishop of Winchester from 852 to 862. The foundations of this Saxon church lie beneath the floor of the crypt.
In medieval times Walcot was a hamlet outside the walls of Bath. It was taken within the enlarged city boundary in 1590.
The Saxon church was badly damaged by storms in 1739. John Wood, the architect who led the astonishing expansion of Bath in the mid 18th Century, put forward plans for a replacement, but a design by the then Churchwarden, Robert Smith, was selected instead. This church, completed in 1742, was soon swamped by the rapid growth of Georgian Bath’s elegant ‘Upper Town’, and John Palmer (architect of Lansdown Crescent) was commissioned to build a new one.
A New Church
Palmer’s new church was consecrated in 1777. Within ten years it also became too small, and Palmer extended it eastwards by two bays. A classical spire, added in 1790 to the existing tower, completed his design. St Swithin’s became the parish church of Georgian Bath. Today it is the only remaining 18th Century parish church in the city.
During the 19th Century the rich and famous worshipped here. Many of them are commemorated by memorials inside the church. The space for burials ran out, a new cemetery was opened on Lansdown in 1848 on land attached to William Beckford’s tower, which was conveyed to the then Rector by Beckford’s daughter, the Duchess of Hamilton.
In the Victorian era St Saviour’s, St Stephen’s, Holy Trinity and St Andrew’s were built as daughter churches to accommodate the growing population of the parish. All except the last eventually became independent parishes. The present-day parish extends from Royal Crescent in the west to Snow Hill in the east.
Under Christ's Influence
In the 1840s a stained glass window depicting the Ascension was inserted in the east wall.
In 1881 a landslip destroyed 175 houses opposite the church (where Hedgemead Park is now). The church building suffered too and had to be strengthened.
In 1891 the east end was re-ordered in line with contemporary thinking about church design. Most of these alterations disappeared in subsequent refurbishments, except for the shallow sanctuary which projects discreetly over Walcot Street.
In 1958 a programme of changes included a new east window to replace the one blown out during the bombing of Bath in 1942. The replacement window maintains the Ascension theme, with the church itself depicted at the feet of Christ.
The exterior of the church was cleaned and repaired in the 1990s. Major restoration of the interior in 2008/9 provided a light, airy worship space which respects Palmer’s original designs, linked by a new staircase to the fully redeveloped crypt. Together they form the hub for continuing Christian witness to the local community.
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.”