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The Beonna at All Saints Benington, Lincolnshire

Finalist for the Best Rescue of a Historic Building or Place award, sponsored by Keymer, at the Historic England Angel Awards 2018.

For the village of Benington, the closure of the medieval All Saints Church was the catalyst for action. Since the 1970s the community had seen the steady loss of vital services such as the post office, village shop and doctor’s surgery.

For many, watching the slow decline of their church that had stood at the centre of the village for centuries was painful, and they were not prepared to lose their last communal space whose history and beauty were a source of civic pride The rescue of the parish church has not just restored a shared space but has paved the way for social change, providing a model for other struggling rural communities.

A steep learning curve

“The closure of the parish church in 2003 was the final blow,” says Judy Crowe, recalling local feeling about the decline of village life in Benington in south Lincolnshire, after shops and other services shut and the village hall, a wooden building opened in 1923, became increasingly difficult to maintain.

But seeing the Grade 1 listed building boarded up and starting to decay was also the turning point as local people channelled their frustration into the Benington Community Heritage Trust (BCHT), a body formed with the aim of reopening the church and giving it a sustainable future. For the community it was the start of a challenging process to secure funding for their project.

Judy Crowe, a trustee, says: “None of us had any previous experience of this type of project and so there was a lot to learn. We had to get to grips with all the different kinds of grant applications, for example. Four of the eight trustees worked in local agricultural or horticultural businesses where hours were unpredictable, and four were retired. Meeting organisations in normal working hours was difficult. It was a steep learning curve.”

Overcoming challenges

One particular challenge was securing funding and the land for a car park to serve visitors to the new community space. “As is the case with most medieval churches, there was no parking near All Saints. But in the 21st century a community centre and events centre without a car park would not survive,” says Judy Crowe, adding that while many funders might be prepared to fund a Grade 1 listed building, persuading them to fund a car park was a different matter entirely. Eventually the BCHT secured a piece of land and the community are selling the land on which the old derelict village hall stands in order to repay loans for it.

Overall, the BCHT managed to secure £2.3m of investment from lottery funds, trusts and foundations, including £200,000 from the Challenge Fund. At every step of the way, says Judy Crowe, the community played a part, holding fundraising events and helping to research the history of the Beonna, whose unique features include an incomplete 12th century chancel vaulting system, rare 15th century Angel roof and intricate 19th century carvings. Benington itself has a rich history and is mentioned in the Domesday Book.

“What surprised me was how much we were able to learn about the history of All Saints and the village from the building itself, from the memories of village residents past and present, and from the extensive records in Lincolnshire archives,” says Judy Crowe. “But I was also surprised at how many people locally and at a national level share our passion for preserving and using heritage buildings.”

Why this category?

If the campaign to restore the All Saints church brought the community together, the reopening of the Beonna will help to preserve that sense of unity. The restored building will provide a space for activities for different generations, including lunch clubs and social events for the elderly, as well as parenting classes and other activities for families. The trust hope the high-quality events space will also attract new visitors to the village and provide the opportunity to host training and workshops for local people.

The BHCT’s trustees are now invited to speak to other communities to share what they learned through rescuing the All Saints church and giving it a new lease of life. Throughout the restoration itself, the trust has hosted numerous tours and talks about the building and local history to maintain local interest and momentum for the project.

The building has now been removed from the at-risk register, which is a significant achievement for a volunteer group, says Judy Crowe. But most important, she says, is that the group’s legacy “gives the next generation something to be proud of”.

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