Village church for village life award – The winner

Winner £10,000 prize
St Andrew’s, South Warnborough, Hampshire

With its knapped flint walls and wooden bell tower, St Andrew’s is a charming example of a modest Hampshire church. The difficulties it faced in 2000 were typical of rural parish churches in the 21st century: poor lighting, cramped pews, cluttered space and no facilities to enable the building to be used for more than regular Sunday worship. Not only have these difficulties been overcome in an exemplary fashion, but the whole community has been involved in the transformation of the church.

The work has focused on a reordering of the interior. Pews were removed from the chancel so that the rest could be spaced out and made more comfortable. The area beneath the bell tower has been opened up and furnished with chairs. These changes have increased the seating capacity of the church from 125 to 170. The once-gloomy interior has been transformed by a new and flexible lighting system. In addition, the installation of skylights in the south aisle and the removal of trees in the churchyard admit more natural light.

With a fully functioning hall already in the village, it was felt that the best way the church could serve the needs of the community was to provide a meeting place and additional space for events. A Heritage Room has therefore been created in the south aisle by the installation of glass partitions and solid removable screens between the dividing pillars.

These can be closed to form a separate room, or opened up to enlarge the church, but the judges agreed this screen was heavier than was strictly necessary and that—when closed—it blocked much of the hard-won natural light flooding in from the south aisle. Basic kitchen facilities have been installed in the south-west corner of the aisle and a disabled loo housed behind this in a discreet wooden extension at the back of the building. One of the unexpected highlights of the reordering has to be the creation of an intimate chapel from unused space in the east end of the south aisle. The building committee that undertook the work was made up of members of the parochial church council and the wider community.

Recommended videos for you

Local craftsmen were employed, and storage containers and extra manpower were provided at important junctures by the men and women based at RAF Odiham. A substantial slice of the labour was undertaken by a local volunteer group, the South Warnborough Gentlemen’s Working Club. This includes individuals both from within and outside the church-going community, and their energies saved an estimated £35,000. The judges unanimously agreed that this was an outstanding project that has involved the whole community, ensuring the future of their church as a focus for village life.

£5,000 prize
St James the Great,
Aslackby, Lincolnshire

Some parishes may be intimidated by the financial commitment and logistics necessary to undertake substantial alterations to their churches. If so, St James the Great shows how such a transformation can be undertaken in stages, with physical changes following a transformation in attitude.

In this case, the funds weren’t immediately available to carry out alterations such as the addition of a loo, basic kitchen facilities, good lighting and efficient heating. Instead, the village community embarked on a five-year trial to see whether—and in what ways—its church could be used for events outside the liturgical remit. This is a highly commendable process, which allows for a true understanding of the building’s strengths and needs. It also gives time for the practical process of fundraising and—crucially—the development of properly considered designs.

To undertake the trial, an appeal was launched for a new set of chairs (the pews had been removed in the early 20th century). Many of the chairs were individually sponsored by members of the community or friends of the church. The choice of woven-reed upholstery for the chairs—rather than monochrome material covers—was particularly commended by the judges as sympathetic to the interior.

The community has also illustrated its concern for the historic furnishings of the building by restoring a fine 18th-century example of the royal arms. The final location of the restored arms is still under discussion.

Over the five-year trial period, the villagers of Aslackby have proved that their centrally located church is a natural hub for village life. The building is used on a regular basis for concerts, family activity days, talks and a highly successful film club, all of which are attended by significant numbers of visitors from the surrounding area, as well as by the villagers themselves, and by both worshippers and non-worshippers. To make these events possible, the facilities of houses near the church have been made available. With their period of research over and the wider community now firmly involved in the use of the church, the necessary physical alterations are now under final review.

What the judges said after visiting the churches

Sir Roy Strong

This year, there was an encouraging and noticeable shift from parishes thinking tentatively about change to definitely wanting it. Moreover, all had recovered from hesitancy about secular use, finding that it in no way impaired the sanctity of the building for worship. What emerged also was the importance of the church as a focus for communities in remote areas of the country, where there was literally nothing else within easy access. However, this tide for change also had its slough of despond. The negativity of many preservation authorities sometimes engendered a fear about legal obstacles to change. This led communities to compromise on what they wanted in favour of what they could get through the planning process. Some professionals involved in projects —notably architects—might have been more dynamic in realising the visions of the congregations they were serving.

Rev Nigel Done, rector of Norton St Philip, Somerset, the 2008 winner

Behind the inspiring stories of churches hosting suppers, dances, concerts and pantomimes, of coffee brewing at the back and children buzzing in the churchyard, I found a familiar nervousness about opening up these special places to new activities. Could such deeds destroy the very spirituality of the buildings? The problem is that the spirituality of a church is a careful praxis of place, people, purpose and prayer. In each of the churches we visited, I found something of the inspiring energy that comes from these things weaving together well. Congregations had different starting points, but all had taken an honest and careful look at the place they had inherited, and considered whether the common purpose of the community could still be served by it. Most significantly, they had allowed their hearts to be moved to reach out in love (sometimes well beyond their own community), and action was underpinned by the quiet confidence of a calling God has placed within them. In the case of our winners, prayer and contemplation is leading to appropriate and well-considered action.

Sue Clifford, Common Ground

Why are churchyards developed as havens for wildlife only when they cease to serve as burial places? Would you not rather lie, vital or dust, among butterflies, bees, bats and birds than plastic flowers? Bravo to the shortlisted St Bega’s for a whole graveyard—long-grassed, flowery, full of whispering grasshoppers—with a porch to be a summer home for swallows. It’s easy to place boards to catch droppings and muslin drapes to stop ingress of birds into the church itself. The advance of culture asks that we live well together, the circle of nature demands it.

Fred Hohler, former master of the Mercers’ Company

Lighten our darkness—a cry as true today as in 1662. Wherever pews gave way to chairs and open space, wherever skylights and plain glass let daylight flood into unencumbered nave and chancel, there the spiritual space sang out its beauty and availability—to all. So obvious, yet so unexpected. As unexpected as the aisle converted to create an intimate chapel. Our judging vicar beamed. He would accept the parish just for this; somewhere to sit down, light a candle and talk in seclusion with a parishioner. Another church reborn.

Ptolemy Dean, architect

Adding to the architecture of an ancient church requires sensitivity and skill, but also a great deal of flair and courage. The starting point must be to analyse what is most important about the building and what qualities give the greatest pleasure. At the same time, there might also be a recognition that improvement could be made, to reveal aspects of the existing building presently concealed, or to introduce new qualities previously unimagined. It is a difficult path to tread and only very rarely achieved, but, at South Warnborough, the vision that lay behind the reopening of the timber tower, the reworking of a 19th-century screen and improvements to the levels of lighting all struck a chord even if, admittedly, some of the new joinery lacked the panache of the old.