Church closed after roof beam falls on altar during the night

30 August 2019

JAMES WOODHOUSE

A HISTORIC church in Norfolk has been forced to close after a roof beam fell into the chancel.

The 12-foot-long section of oak beam smashed into the altar of the Grade I listed St Mary’s, Wiveton, near Blakeney, and then snapped in two as it toppled on to the communion rail. James Woodhouse, a churchwarden, said that the parish was relieved that the incident happened in the middle of the night and not during the family communion, when children and their parents gather round the altar.

“We can’t quite understand how it happened,” he said. “There were some extremely strong gusts of wind that night and they must have shaken it free, but it was obviously ready to go.” The beam was riddled with worm holes.

The Rector of Blakeney, the Revd Richard Lawry, said: “Deathwatch beetle was involved. Whether it was just that or other problems, too, we must wait and see. Fortunately, it came down in the middle of the night when nobody was there. It was found by the cleaner in the morning. It was a pretty hefty piece — goodness knows what it might have done if someone had been standing in the sanctuary; it probably would have been me.

“It was felt that it would be safer to close the whole building, at least until we have the opportunity for a full survey of how things are in the roof. Most of the church is 15th century; so I suppose you have to expect things like this. It had already been established that some work was needed on the south side of the chancel roof. This beam is from the central part; so it may or may not be connected.

“In a sense, if this was going to happen, it was the best time it could happen; so we can repair it all in one go. So there is a sort of bright side to it all.”

The church’s fabric officer, Stephen de Loynes, said that it was important for action to be taken quickly. “We don’t want things to deteriorate, and we also want the church open,” he said. “This church is a tremendous asset: it’s one of the jewels in the crown of north Norfolk.”

St Mary’s now faces a costly repair bill, as only the altar’s oak mensa is covered by insurance. “Whatever the outcome, we must anticipate having to raise a huge sum to ensure that the whole roof is safe,” Mr Lawry said. “There is not much in the bank; so we will be looking for grants.”

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