Saved for posterity-a race against time! (PART1)

Pammie describes the efforts made to restore St Margaret’s church tower

The story begins one September day in Boughton in 1996. Pam Wakeling happened to be walking down the road past the church, and glancing up, noticed a hole in the wall of the tower which she was convinced had not been there before. Pam reported this to the churchwarden , Mrs Audrey Payne, and Derek Thackeray, a PCC member who lived in School House. Together they climbed the tower to investigate. Significantly, they discovered a pile of fresh rubble on the stairs which signalled that the fabric of the tower was probably beginning to crumble, and within a short time the church architect Mr Swash had been contacted and asked to inspect the tower. He confirmed their suspicions that the fabric of the wall had been breached and advised that the problem should be dealt with without delay because a severe winter could worsen the situation disastrously.

A builder was consulted who estimated that the cost of repairs would be £18,000 and a standing committee was set up to look at ways and means of raising this amount. The committee, chaired by Rev Michael Tucker and led by Derek Thackeray, prepared a letter of appeal which was delivered to all 76 houses in the village. This appeal initially raised £3500, and a further £5,000 was raised by some generous individual donations. This now was sufficient to approach the Norfolk Churches Trust and English Heritage and other funding bodies such as Historic Churches for help. In this way a further £13,594 was gifted from various funding bodies – the bulk being received from English Heritage – and plans could be made.

In November, just ahead of winter, it was possible to arrange for the scaffolding to be erected and work began, proceeding right through winter with completion in early January 1997. It is just possible that one person’s keen observation that September day may have averted a sudden and dramatic collapse of the tower. This, in fact happened 200 years ago (I was told) to All Saints Barton Bendish, then one of three churches in the village. The tower of the mediaeval church collapsed spectacularly and without warning one-day in 1787. The church itself was then demolished and sections of it used in the restoration of the ancient church of St Mary the Virgin, while the rest was put to other more mundane use. All Saints House in Church Road now stands on that site. The remaining Church, dedicated to St Andrew, is now the regular place of worship.

The Vicar, Rev Michael Tucker (at that time also vicar of the other three parishes of, Wereham, Barton Bendish and Beachamwell) had just received a Quinquennial Report on St Margaret’s from the church architect Mr Michael Squash, highlighting the extremely fragile state of the Grade 11 listed building. St Margaret’s appeared to be in a very similar state of dangerous collapse. A sobering report which detailed three categories of work that needed immediate attention; the first category was pronounced “urgent”, the second category was considered “necessary” and the third category he considered “desirable”. A veritable Hobson’s choice now faced the PCC.

The report came as no real surprise considering that the ceiling of the South Aisle was propped up with scaffolding and, when it rained, water poured through the roof and was collected in buckets in an old tin bath. The right-hand pew platform in the nave had completely rotted in parts and was cordoned off as too dangerous for use. There were widening cracks in the walls and the plaster was crumbling off at an alarming rate.

Rev Michael Tucker and the PCC then consulted Derek Thackeray and asked him to draw on his Charity and Church finance experience to advise the PCC on the way forward. Derek recommended that a successful local fundraising campaign would be more likely to encourage the generosity of grant-making bodies rather than simply pleading for their help.

And so an appeal fund chaired by Greg Baddock and helped by 16 other members was set up to appeal to the village for help. They began by putting an appeal letter through every door of the village, which then comprised 270 households, explaining the need to take drastic action if the church was to be saved. The target was set at £10,000 to be raised within a month. It became a race against time.

The village shop, then run by Ken and Betty English, posted weekly totals in the shop window. It became a nail-biting race to see whether the target could be reached within a month. After the first week, on 1st May 1998, £2380 flowed in. By the end of the second week the handsome sum of £4252 was announced on a bright yellow card in the window. On 15th May after only three weeks this sum had risen to a princely £7,344 and on the 22nd of May the grand total of £10,117.12p appeared triumphantly in the shop window.

With this wonderful response from the entire village (200 donations ranging from £1.50 to £1000) the Appeal Committee was able to apply to English Heritage for help with the remaining £81,500 needed for the work. English Heritage responded with a 60% grant of £54,891 towards the restoration. To this could be added another £14,000 which represented 10 years of fund raising through festivals and fetes and so on.

After the fund raising and long before restoration could begin, came the real hard work of applying for funds. This involved long hours of filling in forms and applications for the ” faculties” to ensure that the work would be done by authorised people approved by Church conservation and restoration experts. There were long months of waiting, involving many hours of time-consuming correspondence and record-keeping. Eventually by 2001, the final hurdles were overcome -the architect and stonemasons found and hired and work could begin.

The first step was to erect scaffolding around the tower and begin the skilled replacement and restoration of the elegant pinnacles that had once graced the four corners -which had long since decayed and disintegrated. At the same time the upper part of the tower was repaired and re-pointed.

The essential work on the South Aisle and chancel roof could then begin. The roof slates were removed and replaced and the ceiling repaired together and the south-side drains. All this was to cost £87,500.

What a difference it made – the church was safe and dry the immediate threat averted – the pinnacled tower now stood tall and proud – St Margaret had regained her crown-but the work was not over yet!

Pammie Walker

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