Caring for a thousand years of history
The inaugural Churches Conservation Trust Annual Lecture was given by the architect Richard Griffiths, a CCT trustee, in 2001. The following is a shortened version of it.
The roofs of All Saints, Thurgarton, were propped by scaffolding when the Churches Conservation Trust took it on. They have since been renewed and the walls made sound.
Conserving its collection of more than 330 historic churches is the fundamental purpose for which the Churches Conservation Trust (CCT) was set up in 1969. Without the trust, many churches of exceptional architectural and historic interest no longer required by the Church of England for regular worship would at worst have been demolished, or at best have been undergone drastic conversion to alternative uses.
To save them from this fate, funds are granted by the Church of England and from the State for (in the words of the Pastoral Measure 1983) ‘preservation in the interests of the Nation and the Church of England of churches and parts of churches of historic and archaeological interest or architectural quality’. This fundamental objective of preserving and repairing the churches has in recent years been widened to include the further strategic aims of promoting access and enjoyment through adaptations, education programmes and events; and of working with local communities to revitalise and increase the use of our churches.
At present, about 30 churches are considered for redundancy each year, of which maybe three may eventually be vested in the CCT. Churches may be considered for redundancy for a variety of reasons, including a declining congregation, inability to afford the cost of repairs, or the existence of major structural problems. Only churches of major architectural and historic interest are vested in the CCT, where alternative uses could be accommodated only by means of alterations that would result in serious loss of architectural significance, or where demolition would be the only other possibility.
In respect of those churches where vesting in the CCT is a possible outcome, the CCT commissions an architect to report on the condition of the church and on the cost of repair. The recommendations will generally be in two categories – first, repairs to put the external envelope of the church into a sound state of repair, keep the water out, and create adequate environmental conditions for the conservation of the fabric; and second, those works of internal conservation of monuments, fittings, finishes and decorations, possibly including desirable elements of restoration, that are desirable rather than essential.
It is now the policy of the CCT to carry out all the works in the first category in advance of vesting, or at the time of vesting. In order to put the churches newly vested in the trust into a sound condition, a proportion of the trust’s income is ring-fenced within the new vestings budget, currently around £850,000 out of our total annual expenditure for conservation of around £4 million each year. The remainder of the budget available for conservation, around £3 million each year, is allocated to the budget for works to the existing estate. As a consequence, the funds available to address the needs of the second category of desirable but inessential work to the newly vested churches is very much more dependent on funds which are restricted for use on particular named churches, or on project-based fundraising.
The architect’s report on churches being considered for vesting in the CCT will these days also address the facilities that affect accessibility and use of the church, including improving physical access in the
A monument at St Mary Magdalene, Croome d’Abitot Photo: Boris Baggs
triennium. As a result, repairs are now carried out in rather bigger contracts than was the case previously. This makes more economical packages of work for both architects and builders, and more effective use of the conservation managers’ time in managing the programme of work.
Very often the problems identified in the sexennial reports need careful investigation and monitoring over many years before effective repair strategies can be decided upon. Before embarking on major and expensive repairs it is also highly desirable to carry out trial repairs and remedial measures in order to ascertain their effectiveness. To o often in the history of building conservation well-intentioned repairs to historic buildings have caused problems rather than solved them. The classic example is the use of hard-cement mortars to repoint masonry, which leads to long-term decay of the masonry owing to water trapped in the wall that can no longer evaporate through the soft lime mortar joints that would have been in the original construction.
The programme of repairs to the existing estate is planned to coincide with the triennial funding cycle, with projects that are planned for the next three years being included within the existing estate budget. This accounts for the largest proportion of CCT expenditure, but is never enough to carry out all the work that is desirable. Less vital works often include the conservation of internal finishes, monuments and fittings identified in the second category of recommendations made in the condition surveys commissioned from our architects before churches are vested in the CCT.
Our ability to carry out these works is therefore particularly subject to the availability of external sources of funding, or of those funds whose use was restricted to particular churches when they were donated to the trust. Keen local supporters are crucial to this fundraising effort, but the CCT has also been able to a limited extent in recent years to use part of its central accumulated reserves to carry out highly desirable projects that can transform the appearance of a church or safeguard the long-term preservation of important monuments and fittings.
The trust has always been very conscious of its unique ability to preserve churches and avoid changes that might affect their historic character. It has also generally taken the view promoted by William Morris and the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, that the churches should be accepted as they have come down to us, resisting the urge to restore their appearance to what they may have looked like at an earlier period in their history. There are exceptions to this general rule, and the trust has never been as extreme in its views about preservation as, for example, the Society for the Protection of New England Antiquities, which preserves a small number of houses for preservation, only accessible to scholars for study purposes, and therefore immune from the implications of accommodating visitors.
context of the new disability discrimination legislation. The architect’s costed recommendations will address the requirements for access for maintenance and inspection, and the facilities that will allow extended uses of the church, including heating, lighting and the provision of toilet and kitchen facilities.
The first priority for the churches that are already in the trust’s care, of course, is routine maintenance, keeping gutters and downpipes clear, dealing with leaks, keeping vegetation at bay – all matters where a stitch in time can save far greater expenditure later. Water is the great promoter of decay. Once a masonry wall is thoroughly soaked through, it can take months or even years to dry out. Even after the source of water is removed, the great sink of water already in the masonry can lead to frost damage, timber decay and dry rot for long afterwards.
The trust’s conservation work is the responsibility of five conservation managers working under the director of conservation. The conservation managers, now regionally based, work closely with the field officers in the regions, who also act as eyes and ears of the trust in identifying problems.
All the churches owned by the CCT have a full inspection and condition survey carried out by the appointed architect every six years. Until recently this was every three years, to coincide with the triennial funding cycle of the Church of England and of the state. In view of the regular visits carried out by conservation managers and field officers this has now been increased to six years, more in line with the normal quinquennial cycle that applies to churches in use, and half the churches are inspected each
The preservation of the decorative treatment of the inside of CCT churches as it exists at the time of vesting is also a matter of considerable debate, as these are often of recent date, and are considered by many to detract from their architectural and aesthetic appearance. Does one take the view that the decorative schemes are part of the history and interest of the building, or that redecoration is a routine part of the maintenance of the building and can therefore be renewed at will?
Health and safety legislation and the risks of working at heights mean that the inspection, clearing and maintenance of roofs, gutters and downpipes can no longer be carried out in the way that was normal in earlier years. fortunately, the range of cherry pickers and access platforms now available is very much more sophisticated and varied than it used to be. There is also the possibility of installing guarding or fall arrest systems to allow access to roofs that would otherwise be inaccessible.
A fall arrest system was recently installed at St Swithun’s in Worcester, where the parapets are very low and the congested urban site means that external access would be otherwise very difficult to achieve. The fall arrest system consists of steel cables fitted at the bottom of the north and south nave roof slopes, to which you can attach a clip on your harness before stepping on to the roof from the doors at the end of the roof space.
The Disability Discrimination Act, which came into force last year, requires those providing a service to the public, which of course includes the CCT, to make reasonable adjustments to their buildings so that the quality of service offered to visitors with disabilities is not significantly worse than that offered to others. Access audits have now been completed for a good number of our more heavily visited and urban churches, and the reports on new churches that are being considered for vesting in the trust will now always include an audit of the barriers to equal access for all. In many cases providing temporary wooden ramps and possibly handrails is all that is required. In other cases more significant interventions and new design are needed to provide adequate long-term solutions to the problems. There is a great opportunity for lateral thinking, and of course there is no point in providing level access within one of our churches if the only way to get to the church in the first place is through a churchyard that contains steps and over which we have no control.
There is a very large section of the public who are unlikely ever to visit our preserved historic churches for religious or heritage reasons, but who will visit because of educational outreach work, or for events and activities that take place there. In the course of visiting our churches for these activities, visitors will discover and may possibly be touched by their beauty and atmosphere, or perhaps by that sense of history and endurance that acts as a contrast to the pace and frenetic activity of everyday life.
The ability of events to bring in a new audience should not be underestimated. Over 27,000 visitors went to see Anthony gormley’s field for the British Isles when it was installed in the south-east chapel of St Mary’s Shrewsbury. They will have seen at the same time the magnificent timber ceiling and the extraordinary collection of stained glass in the church. New audiences are vital for the future of the CCT, as it is the place that our churches hold in the hearts

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The nave of St Mary’s, the only complete medieval church in Shrewsbury. An installation by Anthony Gormley brought 27,000 visitors to the church. Photo: Cloud Nine Photography
St Mary’s, Shrewsbury, has a magnificent collection of stained glass from the 14th to the 19th centuries. Most of the glass was brought from elsewhere, much of it from Europe, by two remarkable clergymen, and installed in St Mary’s during the 18th and 19th centuries. Photo: W Scott
The proud red gothic tower of St Leonard’s dominates Bridgnorth’s skyline. Seemingly medieval, this massive church is almost entirely a Victorian restoration. Around it is an oval of charming houses, almost like a cathedral close. Photo: Eddie Brown
different categories as an aid to strategic thinking. This is particularly important in view of the limitation of our resources, not only of funding, but also of staff time.
The first of the seven categories of church identified in the estate review, and by far the largest, is that of churches of high conservation value, where the priority is maintaining and repairing the churches to make the most of their special architectural and historic interest. Then there is a small number of churches or church towers which we own but consider are not of a quality that in the present funding climate would make the grade for being vested in the trust. We are marketing them to find suitable new users who would take them over, saving the trust future maintenance and repair costs.
Next are two categories of churches where there may be opportunities for rural development projects or possibilities of reaching local management agreements with keen groups of users and supporters in the local community, encouraging a sense of local responsibility and ownership and freeing up CCT staff resources. Then there is the category of churches with potential for development to accommodate extended uses. The final category is of large urban churches with the maximum potential for developing new audiences and contributing towards the regeneration of urban areas and communities.
Preservation can seem a lonely and thankless activity, engaged in an unending battle to arrest, or at least to slow down, the inevitable effects of time and decay on the things that we love. Conservation, by contrast, is in my definition positive and forward-looking. We are now beginning to see the churches in our care not as an ever-increasing portfolio of redundant churches, as may once have been the case, but as a more fluid estate, in which some churches may be run by local communities, some licensed or leased to be used by particular groups, some sold or converted to other purposes, some possibly even returning to parochial use.
Most of all, though, I believe that it is by widening and strengthening the place that the churches hold in the affections of the public at large through use and activity that we can best ensure the long-term preservation of our wonderful collection of historic churches, and that the wider way in which we are now conserving and adapting our churches is therefore essential to providing them with a sustainable future.
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Richard Griffiths is principal of Richard Griffiths Architects and a trustee of the Churches Conservation Trust.
and minds of the public in general, and of the local community in particular, that is the surest safeguard of their long-term survival.
As trustees, we are very conscious of the risk that alterations made to satisfy legislative requirements and to accommodate extended uses of our churches might be at the expense of our central purpose of preserving the churches for posterity. Churches vested in the trust fall outside the Church of England’s faculty jurisdiction system, and are subject to the normal secular system of listed building controls. Nevertheless, we do not rely purely on the requirement to obtain listed building consent, but have recently agreed as trustees a conservation policy against which proposed alterations to our churches can be assessed.
In essence, this has been drafted as a conservation plan for our complete estate of churches, following broadly the methodology set down in the guidance documents published by English Heritage and the Heritage Lottery fund. The CCT conservation policy also sets out the procedure for making applications for alterations to our churches. Depending on their complexity the application will then be considered by the senior management team of the CCT, including the head of conservation, or by the newly constituted Conservation Working group. This is chaired by me as trustee representative and consists of experts in the conservation field, currently Matthew Saunders of the Ancient Monuments Society, Adam Wilkinson of SAVE and David Heath of English Heritage, all acting in an individual capacity.
The trust has recently carried out a review of its entire estate of churches, classifying them in six
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