WHEN 28,000 acres of Norwich diocese, near Thetford, was requisitioned by the War Department in 1942, St Mary’s, West Tofts, was left “sitting in solitary splendour like a flint battleship on a grassy sea”, the Revd Dr Bill Beaver says. And so it has remained, in what is now the Stanford Training Area.
Yet it is a rather special church. It was restored by the Pugins, father and son, in the mid-1880s, to become a Pugin gem. Since its closure, there has been some maintenance by devotees from the area, and some restoration, although there is no electricity, and it can be visited only by written application to the Regimental Sergeant Major.
Earlier this summer, Dr Beaver, as Officiating Chaplain then assigned to the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment, was shown the church by the RSM, and was overwhelmed by the Pugins’ genius. He thought it would be wonderful to bring the church back to life, if only for “a moment”, and the authorities agreed. He was, at that time, looking after a summer camp of some 300 army cadets from south-west London, “and so, with the approval of their commandant, and some tutelage in the sensitive cleaning of various surfaces, a fatigue party of 25 young people from Croydon set to work gently cleaning everything they could reach”.
They worked with enthusiasm, and were full of questions that gave Dr Beaver the opportunity to explain many details of church architecture and practice. They finished by filling the chandeliers with hundreds of candles.
On the Saturday evening, there was an all-ranks choir practice, and on Sunday the entire corps of cadets (and not just the Christians wanted to come, Dr Beaver says) marched to St Mary’s behind the Corps of Drums of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers to rededicate themselves to the ethos of the cadet movement: to be responsible and unselfish citizens.
Now the church is locked and silent once more, but it has had its moment of glory.