Image of the church of Coston St Andrew shown side-on against a cloudy sky.
Caring for church buildings has become difficult during the lockdown. © Simon Headley
Caring for church buildings has become difficult during the lockdown. © Simon Headley

People, Place and Time

By Simon Headley, Historic Churches Support Officer in the Diocese of Leicester

Travel and free movement is something that many of us have taken for granted with church visits and meeting the volunteers who look after them being an essential part of my role. “You found us ok?” communicates more than genuine concern for the traveller. It implies that theirs is a remote and unique location, frequented by few and certainly not folk from Leicester. Making the journey ‘all this way’ means that they don’t feel so alone in their task, there is help and a listening ear. In context, things look different from how they might appear seated behind my desk.

To partially replace this I have been on a deanery by deanery virtual tour with the help of Pevsner, extracting key building information onto our database along the way, a task which would normally be difficult to justify. Themes are emerging that will provide valuable oversight and be a useful resource as we seek to deepen understanding of the challenges that our church buildings pose, and those looking after them face. 

The people who love these buildings and care and tend for them on a regular basis must feel this separation even more keenly and we underestimate the emotional value and importance of buildings and place at our peril.

The church of Plungar St Helen and its churchyard.

Journeying to visit church buildings has not been possible during lockdown © Simon Headley

During our exile from our churches we face practical considerations for their care. Simple but key questions with far ranging consequences, such as whether the roof is still on and that it hasn’t been stolen in the night: the thieves haven’t stayed at home. Yet the only way to see is from the inside. How can we look after these sacred spaces but still operate within government guidelines and safe practice?

The present circumstances give with one hand and take with the other. Grant applications that have been waiting for ‘time’ can now be completed: however, various funders are closed/not accepting applications. The church is shut, so now would be a great opportunity to carry out that particularly disruptive piece of maintenance, but we can’t go into church. Even if we could, the contractor isn’t working. Even if we could go into church and the contractor was working, the materials can’t be obtained. And so on…

The tower of Coston St Andrew and its churchyard.

Tower and churchyard of Coston St Andrew © Simon Headley

In the short term, one form of support which would be useful would be a scheme of grants in the £15,000-£25,000 bracket to get various small repair projects up and running. This might also be enough to get some stolen roofs back on in various places.

In the longer term, a further roof repair fund would be helpful. There are many churches whose roofs are at the end of their life but haven't been stolen, so haven't benefitted from insurance money or the impetus that losing a roof can have to sort its replacement out.

Where will we be when we finally reach the other side of this crisis? What businesses and skills will have been lost? What will the effect on the supply chain be? Will materials be available but at inflated cost – how are those costs going to be afforded?

The most important question of all is, what is the human cost? Numbers alone are but cold statistics – each person is a unique life. What knowledge and skills have been lost without the opportunity to pass on? And what have we each lost as individuals during this time?

Will our lack of access to heritage make us thirst all the more for it and make us want to engage all the more with it, and perhaps even more fundamentally, better fund and support it? I certainly hope so.

Black and white portrait photo of Simon Headley.

Simon Headley, Historic Churches Support Officer in the Diocese of Leicester © Simon Headley

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