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Resurrection for ancient buildings

11 July 2014

The Synod is debating its funding for the trust that cares for historic churches no longer used regularly for worship. Rachel Giles reports

"Why this country is the way it is": Loyd Grossman outside St Peter's, Cambridge

"Why this country is the way it is": Loyd Grossman outside St Peter's, Cambridge

WALKERS and church crawlers will know the experience of discovering an ancient, beautiful church in some remote place - of pushing open the door, and wondering at the history and tranquillity of such a special building.

The Churches Conservation Trust (CCT) enables many such moments of discovery: there are now 345 churches in its care in England. Established by the Church of England Pastoral Measure of 1969, it conserves the ancient church buildings of the English landscape that would otherwise fall into ruin through demographic change. It restores them, and, where relevant, makes them once again into community spaces.

Today, the General Synod will be voting on the Church Commissioners' proposal to continue their contribution to the CCT's funding. They give £1.34 million a year. The Department of Culture, Media and Sport also provides funding. The CCT "leverages" this funding to raise individual and charitable giving; and specific projects also receive HLF grants.

The TV presenter, gastronome, and writer Loyd Grossman has been chairman of the trust since 2007. He balances this position with several other high-profile executive positions in heritage and the arts, including chairmanship of the Heritage Alliance, and the National Association of Decorative and Fine Arts Societies (NADFAS). He is also a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries.

Growing up in New England, he says, led to a passion for churches: "The classic New England village or small town has a village green . . . the white meeting house with a big spire. And, of course, when I moved to England in 1974, I immediately realised just how special and how important English parish churches were."


TO MR GROSSMAN, the parish church is the essence of Englishness, "and the essence of defining why this country is like it is, and not like every other place. . . So the parish church has to be preserved."

What draws people to these special churches? "Aside from anyone's own interest in faith or spirituality - anyone who is remotely interested in history, in art, in the sense of what makes one place different from another, in why this country is the way it is, and why the places we live are like they are.. . . All those things are to be discovered in parish churches."

There are also, Mr Grossman says, social reasons for protecting and transforming churches. Communal spaces are scarce; many villages have lost their pub or their shop. But the parish church remains. "And almost inevitably, it's the most beautiful, certainly the most inspiring, building in the neighbourhood. So let's use it. . . When we're trying to rediscover, rekindle a sense of belonging . . . the parish church is a great place to start."

Yet these buildings pass into the care of the Trust because their congregations have dwindled away, or are tiny. He is pragmatic on this point: "Although our churches are not used for regular parish worship, they're host to thousands of events. Our beautiful parish church in the centre of Sudbury, in Suffolk, is so lively because of concerts and lectures and art exhibitions, and it feels like one of the centres of what's happening in that very beautiful town. You know, our churches are loved and used, and that's the important thing. Whether they have a defined congregation or not almost doesn't matter."


THE CCT's projects range from smaller-scale restorations of stained glass to long-term projects, such as the transformation of St Mary on the Quay, in Ipswich. "Here you have this big medieval church," he says, "in a part of town that has been ruined by the planners of past years; so it's kind of marooned."

To create a future for a huge, crumbling medieval church in an unpopular part of town, the CCT has entered into partnership with the mental-health charity Mind to restore the church, transforming it into a drop-in and well-being centre. Charity, community, and church all benefit, Mr Grossman says, and the project will have a sustainable future.

All Souls', Bolton, was built between 1878 and 1881 by local mill owners for their workers. The huge Grade II* listed building - "a really big ship of a Victorian church", Mr Grossman says - has been closed for 23 years, vandalised, and is rarely visited. The cotton industry's decline meant that the congregation ebbed away; demographics shifted completely, and the present community is now largely South Asian.

In-depth consultation revealed a need for a building that would bring the community together. With £3.3 million of funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, an imaginative plan involving the construction of two "pod" structures, creating buildings within the church building, will provide a new centre for youth activities, training, health and welfare services, for people of all faiths and none.

The "pods" are multi-functional and yet preserve the fabric of the church. "The most wonderful thing is to see the way in which that community has come to love that church, and has adopted it," Mr Grossman says.

As with St Mary's, he says that it is essential that the project is a long-term solution. "Because what we never want to do is to do some very glossy conservation job, and then, five years from now, be saying 'What do we do with it? No one's using it.'"


THE CCT also undertakes preventative projects. If a church is at risk of falling out of regular use, the trust works with parishes and dioceses to avoid reaching crisis point. One such example is All Saints', Benington, in Lincolnshire. "Rather than have the church come into our care, we helped them to set up a charitable trust which was then able to raise up to £2 million to keep the church in local management," Mr Grossman says.

In April, the CCT acquired its 345th church, in Ayston, Rutland. "It was phenomenal to go into that church for the first time - kind of like unwrapping a Christmas present," he says, animatedly. "Outside, it looks fabulous - a largely medieval church, which, I think, has 12th-, certainly 13th-century origins, and it's just magnificent inside: beautiful, beautiful late-medieval stained glass.

"And suddenly," he says, his eyes shining, "it's just a revelation. Every time a new church comes intoour care, there's this thrill and excitement about what the possibilities are, and what there is to discover."

Too diplomatic to name a favourite, he enthuses about the diversity of churches in England. "You know, you very rarely walk into a parish church and think 'Oh, I've seen this before.' . . . It's that intensely local and individual feel that parish churches have, which, I think, makes them so emotionally effective. Because they're all different.

"Anyone can go into any of our churches, and be overwhelmed by the beauty and the history; but they can also get tremendous inspirational value, because the parish church was always about 'What can we aspire to, is this the best we can do?' And to make that available to everyone, in a time when inspiration is in relatively short supply, I think is a huge privilege for us."

All churches in the care of the CCT remain consecrated. "It's a great thing," Mr Grossman says, "because it prevents them from falling into inappropriate use, and because a consecrated building hasa different feel from a building that's been deconsecrated. That spiritual, inspirational dimension of the church is what makes it not just another heritage building."



St Michael and All Angels, Princetown 

ST MICHAEL and All Angels, Princetown, on Dartmoor, is the only church in England to have been built by prisoners of war. Sailors captured during wars with France and the United States in the early 19th century were held in Dartmoor prison, and built the church during their incarceration.

In 1904, the National Society United States Daughters of 1812 funded a stained-glass window in the east chancel to commemorate the prisoners. Over the past year, the CCT has worked with volunteers to conserve the window. The harsh Dartmoor weather had affected the delicate painted detail of the stained glass, and water ingresses had caused the internal bars of the window to bow and leak.

The CCT's first entirely externally funded project, it has supported a conservation internship and educational workshops with Princetown Primary School. New visitor information and community and volunteer support has helped to put St Michael's on the Dartmoor tourist trail.



All Saints', Benington 

IN 2003, the 800-year-old All Saints' closed. A declining population, reduced church attendance, and a mounting repair bill beyond the means of remaining churchgoers put the church on the path to redundancy.

The CCT worked with the community to bring together the local authorities, landowners, and the diocese to create a community trust and raise the £1.9 million needed to repair and reopen the church for community use, including occasional parish worship.

The church building, renamed The Beonna at All Saints', will become a hub for community activities, and education and learning, and will restore it as a centre of village life. It willalso provide much-needed services, such as a pick-upand drop-off point for postal items, and will sell basic groceries.

The project has saved the church from permanent closure, but it has also given it a sustainable future, reducing dependency on the Commissioners' funds in the long term.


All Souls', Bolton   

ALL SOULS', a Grade II* listed building, was a target for graffiti, vandalism, and theft after its closure in the 1980s. Largely unvisited, empty for 25 years, and situated in a neighbourhood that had changed culturally from when it was first built, it held little relevance for people in the area. An independent charity was created, All Souls', Bolton, and, with the help of the CCT, it secured funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, English Heritage, Bolton Council, and a number of trusts and foundations. 

It is now set to become a modern, multi-functional space for the people of Bolton, of all faiths and none. The project will create a new place to meet, learn, and share resources, offering health and welfare services, as well as a training and performance space. All Souls' will also host a multimedia exhibition that tells the stories of Boltonians through history to the present day. It opens in the autumn.



St Mary the Virgin, Ayston 

ST MARY THE VIRGIN, in the picturesque hamlet of Ayston, came into the care of the CCT in April. The site has been in ec­­clesi­­astical use since the 12th century. 

The main body of the church is 13th-century, with additions in the 14th and 15th centuries, when the tower and clerestory were built, the chancel was rebuilt, and the south porch was added. There are pieces of early-15th-century stained glass in the win­dows of the south aisle, and there are also visible fragments
of medieval wall-paintings in the church. 

This year, the CCT will spend about £436,000 on repairs to roofing and masonry, improved below-ground drainage, wall-painting restoration, window con­servation, and many other areas that need attention. The charity is developing a volunteer team to care for the church, and to promote St Mary's to visitors as one of a cluster of churches in the area.

For further information: www.visitchurches.org.uk/Ourchurches/Completelistofchurches/Church-of-St-Mary-the-Virgin-Ayston-Rutland/


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