A massive £20 million project to save one of the West's most famous churches has taken a huge step forward after winning the first backing of lottery funds.
The Bath Abbey Footprint project has been awarded £389,000 of Heritage Lottery Funds to finalise its plans to transform the famous city centre church for the 21st century.
The floor of the ancient building is collapsing, and rather than just patch it up, abbey church leaders want to install a new heating system using the nearby hot springs, enlarge the space for the congregation and to help stage concerts and events, and create new visitor facilities.
The entire Footprint project will cost at least £19.3 million, with £10 million funded by a bigger bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund next year. The initial support grant indicates that the HLF is backing the idea, and is prepared to grant money now to finalise the plans and help with the bigger bid in a few months' time.
Bath Abbey is just one of a list of heritage projects backed by the HLF in an announcement this morning. Church leaders said they were delighted to be told they were on the right track, and that they would have to undertake a massive fundraising drive to find the other half of the project money.
Bath Abbey's rector, the Rev Edward Mason, thanked the abbey's congregation, the local community and stakeholders, who have "worked so hard in supporting" the funding application.
"We are all delighted to learn that we have secured initial support from HLF today," he said. "This is great news for the abbey as well as the city of Bath and everyone who has put so much time and effort into this.
"The abbey has been at the centre of the Bath community for over 1,200 years. Footprint will make the abbey fit for purpose and the changes will make it possible for current and future generations to use, understand and fully enjoy Bath Abbey.
"Thanks to the HLF, we are a huge step closer to achieving this," he added.
The Footprint Appeal director, Laura Brown, said the plan was already well on the way to fruition – planning permission has been given, and they have already raised £2million. "Together with the HLF's support, we are in a very strong position," she said.
"Now of course the really hard but potentially very exciting work starts. There are certainly big challenges ahead but the HLF's decision is the best news we could have hoped for and makes the project a tangible reality," she added.
And the Heritage Lottery Fund said the Footprint project was "essential". "The great medieval Bath Abbey has a rich history, and the innovative Footprint project will ensure that this special place can continue to play a vital role in the lives of the thousands of people who visit every year," said the South west head of the HLF, Nerys Watts.
"Our initial support for the essential capital work plans, collections care and the use of sustainable energy will bring the abbey into the 21st century, enabling people from Bath and further afield to enjoy this special place for many more years to come," she added.