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Rare medieval thatched church in Norfolk destroyed by fire weeks before repairs completed

11 February 2022

Alamy

Firefighters attend the fire at St Mary’s, Beachamwell, on Wednesday of last week

Firefighters attend the fire at St Mary’s, Beachamwell, on Wednesday of last week

FIRE has devastated a rare example of a thatched medieval church just weeks before a three-year repair was due to be completed.

St Mary’s, Beachamwell, near Swaffham, in Norfolk, was left a burnt-out shell on Wednesday of last week after a workman’s equipment accidentally set the thatch alight. The roof was being repaired after damage by lead-thieves in 2019, which forced the church to close. “It was due for completion next month,” a churchwarden, John Sanderson, said. “They were just doing some final pieces of work when the thatch caught. They used a fire extinguisher, but when that was gone there was nothing to stop the fire.”

The Grade I listed building, which dates from the 11th century, is one of onlyl 100 thatched churches in Britain, most of which are in East Anglia. Historic England described St Mary’s as “a rare surviving example of a medieval, thatched-roofed church”.

Despite fears for the stability of the medieval round tower, believed to be the oldest in Norfolk, insurers hope that the church can be restored. The claims director at Ecclesiastical Insurance, Jeremy Trott, said: “Sadly, this isn’t the first church fire we have dealt with in our 135 years of insuring churches, and we know from previous experience that the building can be restored. We are experts in these complex projects, and we are already working closely with the church, PCC, and our partners, on the steps towards the restoration of the building.”

Ten fire appliances and about 60 crew were called to the incident last week. A spokesman for Norfolk Fire Service said: “It was a really, really substantial fire that will take a long time to repair. You can see by what’s left of the building that it took hold very quickly.”

The fate of historic inscriptions on the walls is still uncertain. They include a list of building materials and their prices, thought to have been made by medieval stonemasons; and the Beachamwell Devil: a figure with horns, a whip, and a grin, with its tongue hanging out.

The church is in the south-west Norfolk constituency of the Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, who expressed her sadness in a Twitter message and promised to do “all she can” to assist in its restoration.

In a statement on Monday, the diocese of Ely said that, despite the devastation, “the vast majority of the valuable items from within the building were unharmed.” They included the marriage and current burial registers, and the service book. The baptismal register was lost, but many baptism details are recorded in the service book, which dates back to 1970.

The Archdeacon of Huntingdon and Wisbech, the Ven. Hugh McCurdy, and the Revd Dr Ian Mack, a self-supporting minister in the benefice, said that they were grateful for the hard work and dedication of volunteers and supporters since the blaze. “These are very difficult and challenging times. We hope that the local community and residents will join with the small group of volunteers to assist the Friends of St Mary’s as they begin to think about the future of this ancient church.”

Archdeacon McCurdy told the BBC that the parish had ensured that insurance was in place, despite the considerable cost. “We are very fortunate . . . the few people who worshipped here regularly were able to find the cost of insurance, which is quite considerable each year, but it is fully insured.” The insurers were supportive of rebuilding the church, he said.

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