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Churches Conservation Trust: keeping Hertfordshire's churches alive

PUBLISHED: 15:11 01 April 2019 | UPDATED: 15:11 01 April 2019

St Andrew's in Buckland near Royston (photo: Churches Conservation Trust)

St Andrew's in Buckland near Royston (photo: Churches Conservation Trust)

Churches Conservation Trust

For 50 years, the Churches Conservation Trust has been working to ensure redundant churches remain an asset to their communities

Churches are part of the fabric of our towns and cities, the markers of a centuries-long period when church-going and religion formed the building blocks of day-to-day life. Since the onset of the First World War changes in English society have meant the importance of religion has lessened for many. Rural villages emptied as men were called to wars and industry moved to bigger places. Churches in these areas particularly suffered as their congregations dwindled. By the 1960s many had fallen into a state of abandonment and disrepair and, despite their historical significance, protecting these buildings was often seen as a hindrance to development rather than a benefit.

It was in response to this that the Redundant Churches Fund (now Churches Conservation Trust) was created in 1969. It was a unique partnership between church, state and charity that meant an official body would take responsibility for these important buildings. Since then, more than 350 churches, including four in Hertfordshire (Oxhey Chapel, Watford; St Mary’s, Little Hormead; St Andrew’s, Buckland and St James’ in Stanstead Abbotts), have been vested in its care by the Church of England, with the trust working not only to protect and restore these ancient structures, but to ensure they continue to be enjoyed. This year marks the trust’s 50th birthday, with various events taking place across the country in celebration.

Conservation work calls on the skills of traditional craftspeople and the latest technologyConservation work calls on the skills of traditional craftspeople and the latest technology

All the churches in the trust’s care are listed, with many being either Grade I listed or Scheduled Ancient Monuments that date back to the medieval period. Anthony Bennett, director of development at CCT, says, ‘These buildings are an integral physical record of English rural and parish life over thousands of years.’

With their paintings, stained glass windows and architecture, churches are ‘museums without walls’, Anthony says; landmarks that offer a fascinating insight into our history in a way that few other buildings can. To ensure they remain that way, the trust carries out extensive conservation projects, from fitting new lead roofs to restoring one of England’s earliest oak doors.

While rescuing and restoring the buildings in its care has been, and continues to be, a major focus, the work of the CCT today is as much about rejuvenation. Central to this approach is ensuring that these buildings continue to be used by the people around them.

The tiny Norman church of St Mary's in Little Hormead near Buntingford. The trust describes it as having 'an atmosphere disproportionate to its size' (photo: Adrian Powter)The tiny Norman church of St Mary's in Little Hormead near Buntingford. The trust describes it as having 'an atmosphere disproportionate to its size' (photo: Adrian Powter)

‘Churches are intended to be places for community and gathering,’ Anthony says. ‘And the buildings themselves can host diverse purposes.’

The charity has a dedicated regeneration team that works to find ‘new use’ projects for these versatile spaces when they are no longer needed primarily for worship. A particularly successful project was St Mary at the Quay in Ipswich.

‘We partnered up with the charity Mind UK, and have repurposed the space as a drop-in centre for mental health care and mindfulness,’ Anthony explains. ‘It’s also used for conferences, but it remains available as a place for worship too.’

Conservation work calls on the skills of traditional craftspeople and the latest technologyConservation work calls on the skills of traditional craftspeople and the latest technology

He notes that the use of the space in this way isn’t necessarily anything new: ‘Churches have always been spaces for contemplation and reflection, so in a sense what we’re doing is putting new wine in old bottles.’

Due to a changing demographic – the Muslim population in its vicinity – All Souls in Bolton had become redundant. But as a result of the work of the CCT, it has been transformed into a number of different units that cater to the needs of those living nearby, including a doctor’s surgery, a start-up space for businesses and a cafeteria.

‘It’s been so successful, and it’s great to see the space being used by lots of different faith groups for different purposes,’ Anthony reflects.

Oxhey Chapel, Watford (photo: Alessandra Guiso)Oxhey Chapel, Watford (photo: Alessandra Guiso)

Half a century on from its formation, the Churches Conservation Trust has changed the fate of declining, disused religious buildings. Its conservation work has enabled the history of these fascinating buildings to live on, while also breathing much-needed new life into their walls too. These buildings now host an eclectic range of events each year, from concerts to gin nights, opening their doors to people from all walks of life, regardless of their beliefs. Thanks to the trust, in hundreds of places churches are once again a vital asset at the heart of communities.

Events will be held across the country to mark the Churches Conservation Trust’s 50th anniversary. For details, and for more on its Herts churches, go to visitchurches.org.uk

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