Preserving our heritage
As the Church of England continues to decline, concern increases over many of its ancient buildings. Who will maintain the fabric if the Fabric Fund, if it exists, is no longer sufficient as congregations struggle to find the quota to pay the clergy, and to fund the diocese?
A wise landlord will have a building fund that is sustained by say 2½% pa of the capital value of the building. To follow that precedent would require a massive increase in a parish budget.
To take a local example, Wingfield is a small parish with a nationally important medieval building and competes for scarce money from big donors when timbers rot, roofs leak or walls crack. Donors want some local finance and if that cannot be raised the Churches Conservation Trust may take over.
To date they have “mothballed” 341 churches that merit their limited funds aided by 2,000 volunteers. Redgrave and Bungay are local examples.
Today wealthy patrons are scarce, and as governments continue to trim their sails the local community must continue to be responsible.
In 1980 the Diss Express reported that Wingfield Church had undergone an important and major restoration when a great deal was done (involving mainly the removal of the old pews) at a cost of £1,078 plus local contributions amounting to £703.
In 1983 with a total of £3,000 in the Fabric Fund, masterminded by Bernard Wellingham helped by Sheila Kent, the second major restoration was started. The 1990s brought more vital work and for nearly 20 years the Church was swathed in plastic sheeting and scaffolding. Skilled carpenters, glaziers, stonemasons of the highest standard were brought in.
Extensive restoration of the Great East Window and north chancel windows with their medieval glass, which was sent to Wells Cathedral for expert cleaning and also 24 clerestory windows and associated stone tracery, as well as the refurbishment and re-leading of the Nave roofs was carried out.
A huge effort of fundraising went on with invaluable support from the village and local people who contributed in total some £30,000. The names of whom were until recently displayed at the back of the Church.
Over 20 years numerous personal letters were written to donors, all over the world, particularly America where the Wingfield families had come together to form a society. Grants were sought and English Heritage helped a great deal. At the end of it all over half a million pounds had been spent, the Church was properly roofed, the glass saved, the interior was completely refurbished. But of course it is a work in progress to keep such a precious old building in good repair.
The Tower and the Bells were yet another story. The Tower structure had to be strengthened for the bells, costing £81,000, but an age-old crack, said to be the result of the foundations, remains and is monitored.
Over the years, however, bolts had rusted and No 5 bell had cracked. With the remarkable help of the Suffolk Guild of Ringers and volunteers, the bells were refurbished locally at a cost of only £6,000. Clearly this was much less than would have been the case had the work been done by a contractor.
The main expense was the heavy no 5 bell weighing in at 9cwt 1qr and 9 lbs cast by the renowned Wm and Alice Brend of Norwich in 1602. This one we took to Cambridge on a small lorry to be welded using a new technology. All the bells and the frame weighing several tons were lowered using a tiny Japanese electric hoist, cleaned, wooden wheels repaired and rehung with new ropes and brightly coloured sallies.
A team of ringers trained and rang in the Millennium, throughout led and inspired by one surviving bell ringer, Betty Syrett of Wingfield Hall (now deceased).
So what does the future portend for Suffolk? Top-down organisation prices are prohibitive, as we have seen with HS2. But will bottom-up local responsibility work – as it did before? It is effective in a number of parishes. The best hope might be to shift the burden to a new body that would be created out of the Churches Conservation Trust, expanding its brief beyond just redundant churches and modelled on The National Trust, one of Britain’s success stories.