I am a freelance writer, living in Bath with my wife and son.
I love my city, and love to live here. I write about Bath a lot, and sometimes about travels in Ireland and France.
Published June 12th 2020
A hidden gem, and a place of peace
Bath's Jewish Burial Ground is a wonderful place, and few people (even Bath residents) even know that it exists. Nestled between high walls at the southern edge of the city is this beautiful legacy to the Jewish community of Bath, that thrived from the 1750's onward. Visitors can expect to find beautiful headstones with Hebrew and English inscriptions, and a haven of quiet, tucked just off one of Bath's busiest roads. This place is only accessible by request or during open days, but this planning is well worth it. It is wonderful!
The burial ground is located in Combe Down, an area perched above the bowl-shaped centre of Bath, which is the place where a great deal of the honey-coloured bath stone that the city is famous for was quarried. Secured with a 1000 year lease in 1812, this is the tranquil final resting place of many members of Bath's Jewish community. A dedicated group of local residents, the 'Friends of Bath Jewish Burial Ground' now look after this place, and are lovingly preserving it for visitors and bath residents to enjoy. There is plenty of on-street parking along the road, and local shops and eateries for convenience stops before or afterwards. Click here to see the website, for history and more photographs.
An old photograph showing one of the beautiful carved headstones
Painstaking research has enabled the friends to identify and pay tribute to many of the burial ground's residents, people as diverse as Rev. Solomon Wolfe, a devoted reader of the Hebrew congregation and pillar of society who died in 1866, to young Hyman Somers who was just 15 when he passed in 1893, falling from his neighbour's roof whilst clearing it of snow. I found Hymen's grave very moving, and it is currently being slowly nudged by a lively Willow tree, whose swaying branches lend even more peace to the place.
This heavenly place is not easy to find, but this just adds to the lovely and gentle lure that it has. After being told about it, I had a fascinating (and socially distanced) tour with Christina Hilsenrath, a member of the 'Friends'. Contacting them via their Facebook page, Christina introduced my son and I to the burial ground, and told us about many plans to open up the site to visitors. Once vital preservation work on the stones has been carried out, plans are afoot to make the entrance path level and inviting, and to turn a beautiful building in the corner of the site into an education centre.
Not visible from the road, the burial ground flows to the right, where the site was extended in the 1860s to make room for more occupants. Despite suffering from the ravages of time, many of these headstones show beautiful Hebrew script and symbols that range from hands raised in prayer to holy images of cups and ceremonial objects. Christina told us that there are two very rare Sephardic tombs here, that are in keen need of restoration and preservation.
A lovingly restored legacy
The eroded front of a headstone, lovingly preserved
Despite the loving care and custodianship of the friends, some of the headstones have become eroded and delaminated over time. With the last internment in the 1920s, the site has been open to the elements for a great deal of time. On the very day of our visit, Christina was meeting a preservational architect to look into how the stones can be preserved. For me, this is what makes this space so special. It is vulnerable, and yet beautiful in its vulnerability.
Four headstones for two generations of Bath residents
There is a superb booklet entitled the 'Tombstone Trail', for visitors who are eager to find out a little more about the individuals and families buried here. Some sterling work has been done to discover a little about the lives of the residents, who contributed to Bath society in so many ways. A glance at this booklet showed me that there were Jewish opticians, tailors, haberdashers and dentists, to name but a few professions.
Anybody planning to visit Bath on or around the 20th of September this year is in for a treat. There will be a day of celebration, where the burial ground will be open to all to visit. I am determined to be there, come rain or shine! Click here to watch a video of this calm wildlife haven.