On 17th May Christopher and myself met with three representatives of Historic England at Thundridge Hill House, and visited the old Church site. We are very grateful for this opportunity, and had a wide ranging discussion of our aspirations and what support we might possibly expect in these austere times. Overall I felt encouraged by the meeting that there is a possibility for getting some help and support out there that I believe is critical to making any real progress, and I think they were also encouraged to understand that after many years of no real progress in securing a future for this Heritage at Risk site, TOCAG was a genuinely new potential factor.
The view I expressed of our current status is assessing whether taking the tower into community ownership is an approach that has a reasonable probability of being viable and sustainable (which is by no means certain), before making a further commitment of time and money to going down that road.
I consider our ‘mission statement’ to be maintaining the site more or less in its current condition in perpetuity: structurally secure; with its heritage features protected and maintained as far as possible; and with public access and as an asset to the community and the landscape. I appreciate this may have to be more ambitious (revenue generation & community engagement) in order to be viable.
Considering the remoteness of the site, it’s small size and lack of access and services, I believe its revenue generation capability will always be very limited. I think it has potential to be used for small scale events (e.g. MidSummer Service, wedding photography, historic and ecological education events, yoga, etc) but more with a view to demonstrate its use by the community rather than to create any significant income.
Therefore, I anticipate that to a significant degree any trust would have to rely on charitable and public funding and I think it is essential to get a realistic conservative estimate how much can be reliably expected to come from those sources, initially and ongoing.
Conversely, it will also be essential to establish the costs involved, over an extended period, in bringing the site into a structurally safe condition with vandal deterrence and any other improvements that significantly and immediately enhance its usability or manageability (tree management, informative signage, laying down gravestones, secure container onsite, solar floodlights, basic access, etc?)
We learned that Historic England’s current strategic priorities are more towards Regenerating Historic High Streets, but given the exceptional attributes of the Old Church and its place in the landscape, are going to consider whether it might be possible for them to assist us through a ‘Project Development Grant’, with scope to include something like
- Update information about the status and condition of the Old Church Tower and churchyard, and cost estimates for essential and recommended next steps, building on the detailed assessment of 2013, this being essential input into any future grant applications for repair and other actions.
- Investigate and set out potential practical options for a sustainable future/business plan for the site, again perhaps drawing on previous reports
- Anything else relevant to planning a way forward under community ownership, presuming through a Buildings Preservation Trust
The site visit also highlighted a few potential action points, including
- The possibility for taming the yews on the west boundary to create an open space giving more scope for events, both community and commercial and improving visibility of the tower in the landscape.
- Severely cutting back the one large yew immediately adjacent to, and overtopping the tower
- The need to remove ivy on the walls and woody growth on the roof