I have swapped my London life for Norfolk, where I am restoring a house built by Lord Walpole in the early 18th century. At the same time I have taken on the chairmanship of the Norfolk Churches Trust, an immensely successful charity caring for churches of all denominations.
The Trust makes grants to virtually every important Norfolk church in need. It has given more than £8m in grants, with £150,000 distributed this year in a very thorough and careful process. The Trust was founded by the indomitable Lady Harrod in the 1970s. Although the biggest task is looking after the medieval churches which are Anglican, it cares for Catholic ones too.
Norfolk has more than 600 working medieval Anglican churches and 200 ruins – the largest collection in the world, assembled when Norfolk was one of the richest counties in England. By contrast, there are about 20 Catholic churches spread thinly over 2,000 square miles and which, with the exception of the fine gothic cathedral of St John the Baptist in Norwich, are mostly rather poor quality brick buildings.
Some Anglican benefices have up to 10 parish churches often less than a mile apart. Given the general depopulation of Norfolk and ageing Anglican congregations, churches can be lucky to have one communion service a month. Many have been closed.
As these churches are often listed, local congregations are expected to look after them. Medieval wall paintings which are cracking and ancient carved stonework which is worn out add to maintenance costs. There is concern about villages losing their post offices, shops and pubs, but nothing would change the physical appearance more than the loss of the churches with their round towers, spires and churchyards.
But what do you do with so many important churches which have a tiny population of non-churchgoing residents and parishioners who are literally dying off every year? One thing is to make them useful for the community. But this means installing lavatories and a kitchen as no one will hire or use a building without them. In the past, there has been great resistance to this from church authorities because they are more concerned about churches’ architectural integrity than their usability. Often a shed with a composting loo is the only compromise.
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