Restoring a church during the COVID pandemic

In 2019 the National Churches Trust awarded St James Church, Leckhampstead, Berkshire a £15000 Cornerstone grant towards a major five year project to restore the church.  COVID restrictions caused severe disruption to work and costs increased.  Church warden, Michelle Martin explains how the Friends of the National Churches Trust came to the rescue.

Photo: John Lord

St James Church is an usual but beautiful Victorian building designed by S.S. Teulon in brick and flint, which contains artefacts from all ages including an eleventh century font, fourteenth century bell, Jacobean pulpit and Georgian altar rails.  However, many other critical elements were showing their age and needed urgent attention.

Our Five Year Plan

In 2015 a five year plan was developed. Stage 1, the restoration of the front porch and boundary wall was successfully completed in 2017.  Fundraising for Stage 2, the Roof Appeal, commenced in June 2018 and £220,000 was raised by the end of 2019.  Initially we were just looking at replacement of the roof but as the project progressed it became clear it had to include the repair of the stained-glass windows and an upgrade to the lighting.

Steel support beam added

This stage was finished in May 2021, requiring additional funds of £40,000.  The National Churches Grant was the final grant received and enabled us to reach our target. As a result, we have been able to re-tile the roof, make the building weather-proof, improve the roof insulation, and resolve the structural movement in the roof and walls.  The church is now no longer on the National ‘Heritage at Risk’ register.

The Friends Vote Grant rescued us

The project was by no means “textbook”.  Covid happened just after the scaffolding was erected in March 2019 and as the roof was taken off tile by tile, first a bat appeared, and then more and more problems were revealed – rotten beams, leaks, decayed brickwork, and damaged guttering, to name but a few.  Work was put on pause, but the costs kept on running.  The National Churches Trust came to the rescue again in helping us when we received a Friends Vote grant to cover Covid costs and an additional grant to help fund additional work, such as the repair of the trusses supporting the tower to stop it falling down.  We are so grateful to the Friends of the National Churches Trust for voting for us, these grants made all the difference, enabling us to start the project and then helping us finish the work.  Some contingency was included in the scope of work, but a pandemic was definitely not one of the scenarios accounted for. 

The reality is that managing projects of this size is very stressful at times from design and faculty application, fundraising, through to building works, project management and sign-off.  There was no magic formula, just the tireless hard work, commitment, energy and support of the PCC and the Fundraising Committee, and all those who supported us including Trusts, donors, the community and all who worked on the project with us. Leckhampstead is only a small village of about 300 and we were lucky to be able to build a team of volunteers to organise local fundraising, research grants, develop grant application writing skills, manage budgets and projects, and develop good working relationships with architects, builders, and specialist craft-people.

Fundraising is a continuous challenge

St James is like many small churches and has many costs both running costs (clergy costs, energy bills, and insurance) and capital costs (building works and repairs). With lower congregations and donations, ageing buildings, increased regulation, and higher costs, fundraising is a continuous challenge.  Normally pre-Covid most of our annual church running costs were funded from regular worshipper donations and local fundraising and we hope this will resume in the coming months.  Our reserves were used up in the building work and so future capital projects will need to be entirely funded through Trust donations and grants.   Post-Covid, it is a similar but different world, with the fundraising landscape no easier. 

We are now commencing Stage 3, the installation of an efficient heating system, flexible seating, and additional facilities, which is planned to start in 2022. It continues to be a journey of peaks and troughs and many false horizons, with unexpected problems requiring creative solutions, the odd moment of despair but in the end sighs of relief combined with triumphant highs. 

We thank Michelle for her insight into what it has been like to manage a church building project through a pandemic. More information can be found on the St James website.

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