Listen to the Audio Guide and discover:
- The dedication of the volunteers and the Nimbus Conservation Team who spent hours carefully cleaning the inside the Abbey between 1995 and 1997.
- How thousands of toothbrushes were used in the cleaning of the stonework which was black from hundreds of years of soot and pollution!
- How the cleaning team managed to reach and clean hard-to-clean areas
- How real gold was applied to some areas of the ceiling as part of the restoration process
- The exciting discovery when the area above the East Window had been cleaned
Soot, smoke and dirt
By the 1990s the stonework inside the Abbey was not as you see it today. Dirt in the air had built up on the stone and caused it to turn from the beautiful cream colour you’ll see as you look around the Abbey today to a shade of black. It’s hard to imagine, but if you look carefully at the bottoms of some of the pillars either side of the main aisle you will be able to see some parts that are still as dirty as the whole of the Abbey was before 1996.
Dust, candle smoke, and the old gas lighting had turned the stone grey and black! So Bath Abbey employed a local company called Nimbus Conservation Ltd to help restore the Abbey’s stonework to its beautiful best. The inside of the Abbey would have to be cleaned from top to bottom so the first thing to do was to put scaffolding all around the Abbey right up to the roof, so that they could clean all of the stone.
The supports for the scaffolding were placed around the pillars either side of the central aisle and then the scaffolding built up either side of it. The “bridge” Peter mentioned then connected the scaffolding either side of the aisle so that the cleaning teams could cross between the scaffolding on the north and south of the building. At the top of the East Window, wooden planks were put between the scaffolding to make a floor so that the cleaners could reach the ceiling.
Cleaning the inside of the Abbey
A small area in the west of the north aisle had been cleaned as a trial and after this was complete and the scaffolding was up the team from Nimbus Conservation began to clean the rest of the stone work.
Claire Anstey who joined the Nimbus Conservation cleaning team in the summer of 1996 recalls what they used to clean the stone, the process of cleaning it, and the difference that cleaning hundreds of years of worth of dirt from it made to how it looked!
After removing the surface dust with a hoover, the stone cleaning team washed the dirt from the stone with water. The team worked from the top of the building downwards (so that dirty water didn’t run down the walls and onto parts they had already cleaned). It could be a messy job and the team wore old clothes that they didn’t mind getting wet and dirty. The sights, sounds, and smells that high up was certainly a memorable experience for the cleaning team!
Cleaning the 'hard-to-clean' areas
The team used a small amount of special stone cleaning detergent in the water they used to clean the stone. However, sometimes the dirt wouldn’t come off by cleaning it with water, sponges, and toothbrushes alone. Or, there were places where the cleaners couldn’t fit their brushes between the memorials (or monuments) on the wall of the Abbey. On those occasions, the cleaning team had to use a special substance known as poultice.
The poultice was made up of clay, shredded blotting paper, and had ammonia in it (so it had a distinctive smell!). It was thick like porridge and was smeared on by hand using gloves. Poultices were used on hard-to-clean areas, including windowsills, between the wall memorials, and on some of the ceilings that have colourful areas of paintwork. In those areas, the poultices helped to remove the dirt and reveal the colour beneath.
To find out more about how the poultices were put on and how they worked, download the Audio Guide.
Applying 'gold leaf' to the ceiling
If you stand in between the choir stalls facing the East Window and look up at the ceiling you will see three green diamond-shaped areas that were revealed. They have coats of arms in the middle of them. After the dirt was removed from these coloured areas, the paintwork was restored to its former glory. To make the gold parts stand out so that you can see them so high up, the conservators put real gold onto the ceiling using what is called “gold leaf”. The conservators spent countless hours carefully applying in order to make it stand out.
An important discovery
If you look directly above the East Window you will see that the outlines of the arches above the window are painted red and green. This kind of decorative ceiling above the altar and sanctuary is known as a “ceilure”. This paint work had been covered up during the 1830s by a lime wash (similar to a white paint for stone) which was then also covered over by the same pollution from the gas lighting and candles as the rest of the stonework inside the Abbey. It was discovered as the conservation team washed away the dirt and lime wash during their cleaning of the Abbey. It was a significant find! In the following clip Peter Martin describes how it was uncovered.
Claire was one of the cleaning team who went to see the paint close up after it was uncovered. She describes the painted arch as a “rainbow”. In the following clip she describes what a big day it was when it was discovered and what else they uncovered above the “rainbow” during the cleaning.
Time, teamwork and dedication
The cleaning inside the Abbey was completed by June 1997. The work restored the Abbey’s stone to its original colour. It took between 7 and 10 conservators 18 months to clean the inside of the Abbey. During that time they used over 1000 toothbrushes and 1000 sponges. It was time consuming, manual work, but we hope you think that it was worth it as you look around and see the beauty of the stonework in the Abbey.
The success of the job would not have been possible if the Vergers and Abbey staff had not worked closely with the Nimbus Conservation team. In this final clip, Peter Martin the Abbey’s Head Verger during the cleaning work, talks about how everyone worked together.