Thursday, 7 August 2014

The Bath Abbey Audio Tour

The Bath Abbey audio tour is free and can be downloaded from The Abbey's Website. It doesn't come with any instructions or map so I simply walked inside and pressed play.

What I was not expecting was that as well as beginning a half-hour audio tour I would also be walking into an organ concert! Screens positioned around the abbey showed the organist at work which meant looking at his legs dancing over the pedals. It's rare, I realised, to pay so much attention to a musician's legs unless he is a she, the skirt is cut short and the music doesn't distract you too much.

Breaking me out of the pedal dance was the audio tour which navigated me around the abbey and attempted to draw my attention up and not down. A man and woman speaking with clear, well-recorded and eminently civilised voices, talked about the chandeliers and their design, the roof and, of course, the history of the abbey. The directions for what to see and where to stand were good enough for what they were doing but I felt they lacked the precision that a live guide would have and with that, the ability to focus on very specific details which can be used to tell a larger story. I was usually brought to rather general areas and told about that part of the church, that statue or window but not, for example, to a single pane of a window or a specific doorknob. As such, I had the feeling of slightly floating through the space, carried on waves of Bach that were now reverberating throughout the abbey.

I then came across the church VJ who was editing the concert live, switching from leg shots to hand shots which inevitably reminded me of pictures of Rick Wakeman. This, of course, was not part of the audio tour but was quite fun to observe as I always like to understand how a show is put together.

From time to time the organ would get impressively loud and provoke a volume war with my tour. I have to admit that I am not normally one for organ concerts, nor heritage tours of churches, for that matter, so what I write here should come with this major caveat. The effect of experiencing these two stimuli together was curious and not entirely unwelcome. They did not cancel one another out and produce mere noise, nor did they exactly augment one another either. Rather, they allowed one other to exist and be heard without either of them becoming too demanding upon the attention.  

There came a moment when I was walking around with my headphones on that I realised I was the only person doing so and most other people there were glued to the concert. What's more, if they were to look at me it would probably not occur to them that I was listening to an audio tour but instead they'd probably take one look at me and think, what a stupid moment to be listening to music. I partly like audio tours because of the subversive potential they hold, namely that the person taking them can be listening to a commentary that could not possibly be given out loud in that site yet can appear as if they are simply listening to music. In this instance in the Abbey however, it was I who became noticeable.

The audio tour continued regardless and got thick into the history of the abbey. It really is a content heavy audio tour packed full of names and dates that I have pretty much all forgotten. The historical detail was great but I was unable to hold onto it as there was no clear narrative. That, I think, is a common problem when telling the history of an old building, as they often have an excess of stories that defy any single narrative. Still, the effect was to transform a place that is rather beautiful and does have some things worth seeing into a standardised heritage site with less and not more uniqueness as a result of the commentary's framing. It may be that in trying to tell everything it becomes increasingly difficult to say anything.

This brought me to the source of the music: the organ. I remember hearing some surprising stories about church organs and even more surprising ones about organists performing subtle acts of sabotage on their rivals by reassigning keys and tubes an hour before Sunday mass. Even if these nefarious deeds are exceptions and not the rule, they nonetheless offer ways into an understanding of the instrument, musicians and church that stay in the head a lot longer than the date of the restoration of the roof.  

In general I found the Abbey and audio tour to be very accommodating to tourists. Unlike some places which remain primarily a place of worship, the abbey seems to recognise its appeal to visitors, allows almost complete access to them and is happy with people using flash photography. The only area that it said we should not enter, but could look inside, was a small chapel on the side of the altar. My guess is they rightly view tourists as both a source of revenue (there is a suggested entrance donation) and that they can also offer a religious point of contact in an otherwise secular tourist experience. The audio guide does encourage visitors to return for a church service and so has an evangelical role but does this in an understated way that would not turn off the average visitor in a way that a more 'now get down on your knees and repent your sins' message would. 

As well as history being a running theme of the tour, architecture also played a significant role, and it was no surprise why. As is often the case with churches, there is a lot to be said about the roof. 

The concert ended and the organist emerged to take applause. He did so slightly self-consciously and did not milk it at all. This was entirely fitting with the spirit of the place as it came through on the audio tour: accomplished and dignified. This was one of the moments when the two worlds of the tour and concert came together in a pleasingly harmonious way. 

I was then brought to this tapestry and explained its significance. The flags were not discussed in the audio tour, however, and given the current Israel / Gaza conflict which led to the resignation of a government minister yesterday over Britain's position, they immediately grabbed my eye. On a guided tour I would have asked the guide what the intention behind placing them here was but here, instead, they simply hovered on the margins of the audio tour.

An interesting moment came when the tour came to this statue and talked about it being vandalised during the English Civil War. This was one of the parts of the commentary that situated the church's history within the wider history of the country. Being a building tour, however, we then moved onto the next point of interest and dropped this story like a stone. In this respect the tour was not a history of the building but rather a tour of various historical and architectural points of interest dotted around the building. It's a subtle distinction but a real one and in this respect it reminds me of the Undiscovered East End Tour which takes you to points of interest that can be found in that part of London. History, in both tours, is treated as a marker of significance but the tour as a whole lacks a coherent narrative that places its history, or rather histories, on a single timeline.

The tour showed how the walls of the abbey are lined with plaques commemorating the people who have been buried here and it drew my attention to this one in particular. It is, as the guide states, testament to the growth of empire and, if I can put it this way, shows that the abbey was clearly the place to be seen dead in Bath. The walls are crowded with the great and good and as the tour amusingly notes, poorer people were buried further away preserving a class distinction in death. 

And then when it came to an end there was the classic exit through the gift shop. Curiously, after I took this picture I was then asked not to take any more pictures in the gift shop. While welcoming pictures in the abbey they had decided there was nothing to see here. Maybe they were right, but I prefer to be the judge of that. In any case, I then stepped outside and in doing so realised that the tour did not take me around the exterior of the building, it was solely focussed on the interior. I was left reeling with a head full of numbers, a jumble of names and the memory of the bass organ shaking my stomach. It was definitely a full experience, yet it was one which now leaves me with very little I can hold onto except the very civil atmosphere that is Bath Abbey. 

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