Judging the best village church

Six months after the launch of the award in Country Life, the search for the winner for the Village Church for Village Life Award entered the next stage with the judges’ visits to the six finalists. Making up the panel were Sir Roy Strong, Fred Hohler, Master of the Mercers’ Company, Marcus Binney, architectural writer and co-curator with Sir Roy of the V&A’s 1977 exhibition Change and Decay – The Future of Our Churches, and Candida Lycett Green, writer and daughter of John Betjeman, famed for his celebration of the English Country Church.

The trip was a marathon journey, taking in the six finalists over three days in Hertfordshire, Sussex, Somerset, Warwickshire, Shropshire and Norfolk. It highlighted the variety of ways in which communities had made their church buildings the centre of village life.

Our first visit, to Hexton in Hertfordshire took place while the morning playgroup was still in full swing in the now open plan space of the nave. A short while ago St Faith’s was in a near-ruinous state, with water pouring through the ceiling. Under the guidance of Anne Ashley Coles (regrettably unable to be there for our visit), the village pulled together on a project to restore the church, creating in the nave a flexible open space, still connected to the chancel but also able to function as a separate area which was for the use of the community in place of the village hall. Today the church is used by an array of individuals and organisations, for regular events as well as one-offs such as fashion shows. The initiative is of greatest benefit to the local school, which now has a space for gym lessons and theatre productions as well as for morning playgroup. The village hall, which was abandoned in order to focus resources on the church, is now a flourishing shop and tea room serving delicious homemade cakes – as the group will be able to testify.

From Hertfordshire we travelled south to Sussex, and St Mary’s in the village of Slaugham. With significantly larger resources than those at St Faith’s, Hexton, the alterations at St Mary’s were on a wider-reaching scale. The pews have been removed throughout, and their replacement with chairs and a new stone floor – complete with under floor heating – has resulted in a bright and welcoming atmosphere. As at St Faith’s, the addition of a lavatory and a kitchenette – in this case housed within a large self-contained room screened off by glass and wood panels in one corner of the church – has enabled the building to be used for a variety of activities. Completed only at the end of last year, the rector, Garry Simmons, and his team are still in the early stages of exploring the ways in which the building can further be used by the whole community.

On the second day of visits, we travelled south-west to Norton St Philip in Somerset and the church of St Philip and St James. With no suitable venue for the 300 or so small-scale meetings taking place within the 6 churches overseen by rector Nigel Done, it was decided to create one in the church. The Hub, as this two-tier glass and steel structure became known, incorporates a kitchen, lavatory and vestry on the ground floor, and a cosy, glass-walled room above. From plans and photographs it appears striking yet sympathetic. The upper layer has the benefit of offering an elevated view across the church. Since its completion in 2005, The Hub has become far more than simply a meeting room. It opens the church up to use by a diversity of groups.

Our next visit of the day took us to St Peter’s, Whatcote, in Warwickshire. This has only 150 inhabitants, one of the smallest villages to nominate an entry. With a few simple alterations this church can be easily adapted to a range of different. The removal of the pews has opened out the space of the nave and the location of a lavatory in the bell tower, and the ingenious design of the ‘kitchen in a cupboard’ and its matching vestry/storage pair, mean that the adaptations to the structure do not impinge on the space when they are not wanted. Completed in 2004, the church is regularly used for everything from first aid classes to film screenings.

From Warwickshire the group then travelled north to Shropshire, spending the night in Worfield in order to visit the village church of St Peter’s the next morning. St Peter’s was one of the largest and most architecturally splendid churches on the shortlist. Like many large medieval churches, the interior is difficult to heat and light effectively. The Madeley Rooms, which spread across two archways at the back of the church, consist of a spacious meeting room, substantial kitchen, three lavatories and a further room for a playgroup. They provide a warm meeting room in a church desperately in need of extra facilitiesThe rooms are used for a variety of regular meetings and one-off events.

After something of an epic voyage from north Shropshire, our final destination was the church of St Margaret’s in Thorpe Market, Norfolk. Almost every one of the nominations we received told a tale of trial over adversity, but the story of the revival of St Margaret’s is one of the most extreme. Down to a congregation of only a handful and faced with closure, the two remaining members of the PCC took matters into their own hands and set about restoring the fortunes of the church. An extension at the rear of the building was constructed on the site of the old coach shed, and houses the kitchen, vestry and lavatory. The main body of the church remains little-changed except for the addition of a demountable stage and a portable screen for lectures and film evenings. Among other events, St Margaret’s is now a popular venue for music recitals, and boasts an increasingly strong choir. Critically, aside from the area around the altar, no pews have been removed in the main body of the church, provoking a good deal of debate among the judges. As Margaret Hunter, one side of the driving force behind the project explained, with three village halls in the locality it was felt that they were part of the church and there was no need to remove them.

The four judges have a difficult task to perform. As suggested in the criteria for entries, they will be looking at the community value of the project, the quality of the design of any alterations, and the sustainability of the building. The circumstances of each finalist are unique, but the one uniting theme of all these examples is that they been driven by the strength and determination of a number of remarkable individuals. The winner will be announced on 30th July issue of Country Life.