Thundridge Old Church Action Group (TOCAG) Inaugural Meeting

On Wednesday 27th February, 27 people attended the inaugural meeting of the group (provisionally the Thundridge Old Church Action Group) at the Feathers, with apologies from a further 11, which is probably just as well as it was standing room only.  A table of those and other potentially interested parties is included at the bottom of this post.

The summary below is an informal personal recollection, so apologies for any misrepresentations or omissions.

Background

Cllr Clive Brigden opened the meeting with a brief background to the current situation, particularly that there have been intermittent discussions starting many years ago between East Herts Council and the Diocese to reach a permanent solution to the management of this site. Through Clive’s efforts the churchyard has been maintained to its current standard, first by himself, and latterly by the council. However, this has not addressed the maintenance of the tower itself, and the feeling is now that the Diocese wish to bring this to a conclusion. It was said this is part of a wider objective of the Church Commissioners for many redundant church sites nationally.

Purpose

It is expected that the purpose of any action group would broadly be to implement whatever actions are necessary to ensure the site was maintained in its current state in perpetuity. Mechanisms for doing this might include the establishment of a trust to take over its ownership and management, private sale with appropriate covenanting as has been done with at least one similar site, or long-term leasing at a peppercorn rent.

Several attendees commented this process should be viewed positively, not simply as a reaction to a threat, but as an opportunity to celebrate and improve the site and public engagement with it.    

The Threat

We do not yet know all the facts about the intentions of the Diocese, what they can actually do with the site, and with what due process.

It was felt by most that the ‘sensitive development’ option the Diocese stated would not be viable, either through practical reasons arising from the remote location, or due to the status of the site itself and the surrounding landscape. However, it was also stated that there are at least some indications that this cannot yet definitively be ruled out.

Similarly, the ability of the diocese to demolish the tower cannot yet be definitively ruled out, particularly as they themselves suggest they are able to do so unilaterally. However, the expectation was that strong opposition from bodies such as the Hertfordshire Building Preservation Trust, Historic England, the very adverse publicity that would arise from this, and the listing of the tower and scheduling of the site and surrounding land, would greatly discourage the Diocese from taking this action.

Overall, the feeling in the room was that the Diocese were most likely to simply wish to divest themselves of the financial liability of the site, and their threats were designed to encourage that outcome. Recent communications from the Diocese have indicated a wish to engage constructively with any serious proposals that would achieve that aim. It was expected that a meeting would be arranged with the Diocese soon in order to get greater clarity on these points.

The Landscape

It is strongly suggested that the church site itself needs to be considered within the landscape of the Rib Valley. By establishing and strengthening the significance (a technical term) of the landscape the church itself would be better protected, as well of course as the much cherished valley itself.

The valley has many exceptional attributes, including:

  • Its ecology as a nationally rare chalk stream and a green corridor
  • An exceptional wealth of undisturbed archaeology from the Neolithic, Iron Age, Roman, Medieval, post-medieval and 20th century
  • The Capability Brown landscape at Youngsbury, designed to feature the church
  • Its green belt location, with increased significance in view of the Ware North development, as an asset to the physical and mental health of East Herts. residents

Influencing  the Thundridge Neighbourhood Plan to specifically recognise this area is suggested to be one possible approach, which has some fast-approaching deadlines for the pre-submission public consultation, but there are also other well established independent mechanisms for establishing significance that the group intends to pursue.  

Tasks/Roles/Sub-Groups

Clive outlined several tasks he felt needed to be progressed

1) Communication within the action group, as far as possible online, to maintain a common sense of purpose and progress avoiding inappropriate bureaucracy.

2) A Petition, online and/or physical to clearly establish the strength of public support for the action group purpose

3) Publicity, raising awareness of the threats, opportunities and progress of the group, both within Thundridge parish and those from further afield who value the heritage and use the valley as an amenity.
The website thundridgeoldchurch.org has already been created and there is a great deal more that can be done with this. Offers of editing, branding and IT skills were made at the meeting. 
Facebook was also mentioned as a potentially useful tool that may complement the website.
Encouraging local schools, social groups, wildlife, sport, photography and archaeological societies to be involved were all suggested.

4) Fund raising, both in the short term to build a ‘fighting fund’ for essential professional services and expenses, and longer term to purchase and maintain the site itself.
Charity donation sites such as JustGiving were suggested as easy to set up and trusted by the public and can be used directly to fund expenses. This may be superseded or complemented with charity, or independent bank accounts, perhaps with affiliation to an existing charity as a shortcut.
Several offers of finance and loans have been made that could help enormously to get things moving quickly.

5) A great deal of technical research and activity will be required to find out what the legal and technical positions are, what options there are to progress them. This is expected to include the improving the significance of the valley to protect it, setting up charities, trusts and bank accounts, conveyancing, insurance, surveying buildings, archaeology and ecology, and engaging with statutory bodies and other stakeholders.  
Both during and following the meeting, there were some wonderful offers of directly relevant advice and help in these areas from those present, but it was also pointed out that independent professional services would certainly be necessary as well.

Next Steps

Above all, Thundridge Old Church Action Group needs whatever skills, experience, contacts, knowledge and above all active participation and taking on of tasks that members can offer.

It was truly wonderful and heartening not only to see so many people concerned and motivated to attend but also to offer an amazing range of help.

We will try and contact everyone who offered help or to take a role, and apologies if we did not remember everything. Please contact Clive Bridgen, Emma Blowers or Christopher Melluish if you have any comments, suggestions or offers of support. Any and all thoughts, corrections and ideas are welcome – nothing is decided, definite or dismissed at this point.

It is our intention that everyone be kept up to date with overall progress, through email and, perhaps more sustainably, through the website.

Thanks

Thanks to Clive for arranging and chairing the meeting, everyone for attending and The Feathers for generously hosting us.  

Attendees and Apologies

Name
Abel-Smith, Dorothy
Archer, Catherine
Bell, Neil
Bentham Trevor & Donald McCleary
Blowers, Emma & Dave
Bonnett-Powell, Charlotte & Alun
Bradley, Christine, Ashley & 4½ yr old
Brigden Clive
Burton, Graeme & Jan
Charge, Maurice & Lorraine
Clark, Laura
Davey, Ann
Dawkins, Mary
Day, Dennis
Elliott, Malcolm & Dorothy
Felus, Kate
Hammond, Ann
Harwood, Kate
Hickman, Norah
Mann, Pat
Melluish, Christopher & Susie
Mottershead, Jos
Palmer, Lynn & Tony
Pearce, Claire & James
Royce, David & Lesley
Savile, Zita
Shand, Alasdair & Angela
Taylor, Brian
Topham, Sue & John
Wisbey, Paul