On Thursday 28th March, David Blowers & Christopher Melluish met with representatives from the diocese of St Albans including: Dr Christopher Green: Chair of the Closed Churches Uses Group ; The Venerable Janet Mackenzie : Archdeacon of Hertford ; Emma Critchley : Pastoral Secretary and Ann Jansz : Pastoral Officer.
We were warmly welcomed and proactively provided with a great deal of information and documentation regarding the recent history of the site and plans to secure it a permanent future, which I have summarised into some of the main threads below.
The Diocese expressly wish to be as helpful and supportive as possible in providing whatever information, experience and contacts will help TOCAG and we look forward to working with them closely in the future.
My own thoughts from this new information and perspective, were to emphasise the importance of engagement with the community and, partly through this, the development of a sustainable Business Plan for the site.
We need to find out what people want, would possibly even be excited by, and would be willing to use, take part in and support on the site. This could range from basic, conservative ambitions to something much more aspirational (see Clophill Heritage Trust in Bedfordshire, below). We also need to engage as soon as possible with any and all potential sources of advice and funding, notably Historic England, the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Architectural Heritage Fund (AHF) and anyone who has been on a similar journey to work out what is possible.
Attempts to find a permanent plan for the site
The earliest attempts to find an alternative use for the old church site date back to well before the 1990s (a document in 2010 states ‘at least thirty years’), while the Thundridge Parochial Church Council was still responsible, though the Diocese were involved even at this stage.
When the church was closed /declared redundant under Church of England legislation in April 2013, it was ‘vested’ in the Diocesan Board of Finance (a registered charity), with the Boards Closed Churches Uses committee having the task to find an alternative use for the site within 2 years.
After two years, procedure dictates that the Church Commissioners became involved to bring the situation to a successful conclusion, the criteria for which are that it should be ‘appropriate, sustainable and viable’. The Diocese remain responsible for the day-to-day responsibility management of the site through the Closed Churches Uses Committee, with the Church Commissioners making final decisions on its future.
The site is on Historic England’s (formerly English Heritage) ‘Heritage at Risk Register’. Historic England will advise and support any proposals that will result in its being removed from this list. We have contacts within Historic England with extensive involvement in the site.
Plans for alternative use date back to at least 1988 when the Hertfordshire Building Preservation Trust unsuccessfully approached the Landmark Trust and Vivat Trust to consider it as a holiday home, and around 1990 the District council advertised the tower with ‘SAVE British Heritage’ on their ‘Nobodys’ Home’ register of empty and decaying buildings.
The plan for residential conversion is being explored again now by the Church Commissioners due to its perceived potential for long term sustainability of the site and because no other sustainable management plan is currently available, other than demolition which is nobody’s preferred outcome. Sale of the site may realise some nominal value (if planning consent & access could be secured), but this is not a motivating factor.
The challenges of developing the site are formidable, including securing planning consent, arranging access & services, managing impact to graves and structural remains of the church within the scheduled monument, developing within the constraints of the Grade listing of the tower, and dealing with adverse publicity.
In 2006, Historic England were not supportive of a development approach, but are said to be more ‘relaxed’ now.
In November 2018, and again in March 2019, the Parish Council formally stated their opposition to any potential development (or demolition).
However, Conservation Officers of East Herts Council have met recently with the Diocesan surveyor and the Diocese are ready to proceed to the ‘pre-application’ advice stage
The Diocese have also approached local landowners for access rights and discussions with RABI have recently proceeded as far as a draft deed of grant being prepared for changing bridleways to a single track private right of way, with passing places and provision for running services. This deed is not specific to one route, but it is thought to be preferred to come down bridleway 29 and approach the site from the east. This arrangement has not yet been put into action.
At the present time, the planning brief has been halted while initial negotiations with TOCAG take place.
Keeping the site as a managed ruin has consistently had the greatest support in the past few decades from stakeholders. The Diocese confirmed that they would not expect to realise any value from the site if this approach were followed.
Covenanted private ownership should not be ruled out, but if the site is to become successfully managed by an entity such as a Building Preservation Trust, it must be felt to be owned by, and fulfil a purpose within, the community. This generates grassroots support, both practical and financial, discourages the cancer of vandalism and will be a key element in bidding for essential funding streams from public bodies, such as Historic England, the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Architectural Heritage Fund (AHF), because schemes such as this are usually inherently uneconomic to one degree or another.
Recent suggestions for managing the site in this way are consistent with previous documented suggestions such as: provide controlled vehicular access for visitors and maintenance contractors; enhance, explain and make accessible the local natural environment; engage with schools for outdoor classroom study with natural world and historic topics; publish online and onsite historic information about the church, the moated enclosure and surrounding landscape; arrange outdoor public worship at major Christian festivals, as used to be carried out in living memory; organise community events such as picnics, concerts and dramatic productions; re-route footpaths to cross the site; rebuild the boundary wall, install metal grille gates and/or viewing access via an internal cage
The Diocese gave the example of Clophill Heritage Trust which faced a similar situation of the rescue of a derelict Grade II* listed and scheduled monument church, and whilst this is probably a lot more ambitious than I think many would be currently considering there is a lot of food for thought in what they have done. (see https://www.clophillecolodges.co.uk/about-us)
Maintenance and condition
The site has a continuous history of persistent and serious vandalism, which has consumed much of the resources applied to it, including: smashing gravestones; breaking into the tower whenever sealed; setting fires and attempting to detonate gas cylinders; applying and incising graffiti, destroying the twelfth century door arch and destroying attempts to control vehicular access to the site. Nevertheless, despite minimal repairs, the tower is generally in good structural condition, though the inner staircase is in a dangerous condition
As far back as 1908 an article in the Hertfordshire Mercury speaks of finding the church ‘badly mutilated’ and William Gerish observing damage done by ‘bands of hooligans from neighbouring places’
In 1987 the Hertfordshire Buildings Preservation trust paid for repairs and to seal the structure. At the same time, the Groundwork trust cleared and tidied the churchyard. A farm gate installed at the entrance of the track to the site was installed and vandalised
In 1990 the building was formally declared a Dangerous Structure, in response to which the tower was resealed, a further metal gate was installed by the Groundwork Trust, and iron railings removed from the site as they were being used as tools for further vandalism.
In 2007 a ground level inspection identified the need for ‘high level holding repairs’ to ‘make safe the fabric and slow the rate of decay’, leading to scaffolding being erected in April/May 2010, and repairs carried out with £15,000 costs funded jointly by English Heritage, East Herts Council and the Pilgrim Trust.
In 2013 a detailed ground level inspection was carried out identifying five items requiring immediate attention, four items requiring further monitoring, and 18 that were ‘desirable in the future if the site is to be retained’.
Since 2103, nearly £15,000 further has been spent on the site, including in 2014 installation of a ‘sacrificial board’ which has been effective in preventing entry to the tower, despite further attempts using power tools. The inside of the tower has in any case been filled with ‘rubble from the site’ as an additional deterrent. Large tree trunks laid by local landowners across the approach paths have been effective in preventing vehicular access for some time.
Maintenance of the churchyard by East Herts and local residents has resulted in it being in a much better state, and anecdotally vandalism seems to have reduced in recent years.