The oldest steeple jack in Britain?

Peter Harknett is a steeple jack of great renown working in the counties of Sussex Hampshire and Surrey. An active Octogenarian, he has spent half his life sitting in a Bosun’s chair dangling repairing and restoring churches.

Until the lockdown in 2020 , Peter could be found assailing heights, far and wide. 

Simon Smith of W L West and Sons Ltd shares with us just a few snippets of the life of Peter, probably Britain’s oldest steeplejack, and the joy he gets from working on some of the tallest steeples in the land.

Masters of their trade

Steeple jacking really came into being  in the 16th century where travelling acrobats with their poles and ropes with no fear for heights started to carry out the work. To advertise how brave they were,  they would swing off a church spire for the amusement of local people and found there was more money in repair work than in performing. 

Steeple jacks are a fearless bunch of highly skilled workers who are masters in lead , copper, iron and timber  and masters in using ropes, levers and cantilevers and use their own specialised jargon.  

Scaling tall buildings using ladders and ropes using the Bosun Chair rather than erecting expensive scaffolding can save a huge amount of money on church spire repairs.

Perils of the job

Peter joined Bertram Mills Circus as a rigger after his National Service.  One of his first  jobs after leaving the circus to become self-employed was fixing a Gothic school tower in Surrey  which needed re-slating.  

He recalls working on the top corner bobbing in the wind when a gust caught him and the safety ‘Fall Rope’ he tied wrapped round his leg because it was getting in the way!

The gust of wind knocked him against he building and he fell over eighteen feet and the manilla rope rubbed across his shin and rubbed into the bone.  His first aid kit was a bit of old rag and insulation tape! Then back up the ladder and back to work on the Bosun Chair.

Peter’s red ladder, as shown, was an impressive sight indeed!

Oak shakes can last over 80 years

Timber roofing tiles have been around since pre Roman times and they are still very common in parts of Europe for roofs in Austria and Germany.

Peter is a leading authority on oak shakes for church spires. A shake is cleft from a roundel cross cut from a log into a disc.  They are cleaned flat so they sit well on the spire.   Using a three layer tile constructions they are nailed to a sarking board.  

Oak is very durable and can last well over 80 years if laid up correctly.  It is also very hard and off-putting to woodpeckers, birds that can easily destroy a wooden shingle spire.

Peter used to cleft his own shakes from roundels we cut in our yard but now he works with a family firm called Rapold GmbH and Co  based in Bad Reichenhall in Bavaria.  We now distribute these hand cleft oak shakes for all manner of church and building cladding.

Peter, a pipe smoker, is a great raconteur, with a wicked sense of humour to this day – ask him the off items of ladies’ underwear he has retrieved off weathervanes!

Until recently he used to cycle round the square steeple at the very top of Guilford Cathedral – no safety nets. 

“Every day is a school day,” Peter often remarks and he loves sharing his knowledge with others. What a boon to all of us involved  in conservation and restoration.

This lovely insight into Peter’s work has been provided to us by Simon Smith of W L West and Sons Ltd, timber merchants who specialise in church steeple repair and restoration. They are also a member of our Professional Trades Directory which contains over 200 companies, all experts in their own field of work. More details can be found on our website.

Churches – where people seek to do good.

In a special guest post, Revd Fergus Butler-Gallie, Priest at Holy Trinity church, Sloane Square, London, shares with us his views on the church as a place where people have always and continue to, do good within their communities.

‘Yea because of the house of the Lord our God : I will seek to do thee good’ Psalm 122, Verse 9

“I have a desk in church. Sometimes I wonder, especially if I ever glance across a bank statement in the midst of my work, whether this is wicked of me. Would Christ come in today and over turn my desk for a furtive look at my online banking app?

I hope not – for I am not alone in my appropriation of God’s house but instead am surrounded by legacies of this building’s rich and varied use. The high altar stands in front of its rich marble reredos as a statement of the centrality of sacrament rendered in stone and in the corner behind me boxes of toys and books sit as testament to the role of new life in inheriting and learning the ancient faith in their new generation.

Brass plaques and stained glass speak, in rich Victorian prose, of lives lived in august splendour and next to them temporary notices about hand wash and distancing whisper of the strange confines of the lives we must needs live now.

All of these are, I suppose, marks of people. All these fixtures and fittings were planned and paid for, used and loved, wept over and celebrated, by creatures of flesh and blood.

Living stones

It has been a worryingly popular false dichotomy circulating of late which would suggest that people and buildings represent an ‘either/or’. That either the building or the people are ‘The Church’. Of course it is more complex than that. The church is a building, but one quite unlike any other: that is to say it is living stones. It is a building shaped entirely by people; by their hopes, their grief, their prayers. By people, and by their relationship with their God.

Holy Trinity church, Sloane Square, London

Our churches, therefore, are monuments to interconnectedness. To the idea that – to quote the priest-poet who had oversight of perhaps our nation’s most famous church, St Paul’s – ‘no man is an island, entire of himself’. Rather, we are linked by our history, common human tragedies and joys, and by an incarnational faith, which undergirds the whole. ‘Because of the house of the Lord our God : I will seek to do thee good’: that vision of the church is one that grounds it in relationship and community. The house of God is a sermon on ‘love thy neighbour’ wrought in brick and mortar.

Many churches seek to do good to their communities. I look from my desk in church today, cold though it is and in the midst of this lockdown, which for so many had proved more bitter than any flurry of winter snow, I see a house where people have long sought to do good. The very walls seem patched together with memorials- some to my taste, others less so- but all to those who sought to do good. There are less explicit memorials here too: the slight wearing of a pillar, its stone gently touched each week by one who loved its specific place, the shallow trough in the paving where the gate bolt has dragged for well over a century- a gash in the stone itself standing testament to gates open and welcomes extended.

Small ordinary goodnesses

Despite our present situation, it is a house where people still seek to do good today: lavatories are open as a clean and safe place for those who spend their day on the streets, a collection for our local foodbank is ready to be delivered, careful preparations are underway for a funeral, so that the dead might be commended to the eternal with the love by which they were known whilst alive. Small, ordinary goodnesses perhaps- but ones to which it is ever more important that we cling in times as drear as these.

Our church is very typical in this regard. It aspires to be a house of good because it is first and foremost a house of prayer and across the nation I see and hear of churches doing exactly the same, each and every day. As we seek to rebuild our society, seek to be more aware of where it is we might do good, the houses of the Lord our God- and the people who make them what they are- will be as important as ever. When I leave my cold desk in a moment I shall pray for them all just before I leave, and for all those- the National Churches Trust in particular- who support them.”

We thank Fergus for sharing his thoughts. Thousands of churches and chapels across the the UK currently seek to do good work within their communities, as documented in our House Of Good report produced last year which highlighted the social and economic value of church buildings.

As well as being a clergyman, Fergus is also author of ‘A Field Guide to the English Clergy,’ a Best Book of the Year for The TimesMail on Sunday and BBC History. More information available at One World Publications.

Churches are a photographer’s dream

In a guest post, Julian Guffogg shares with us the joy and excitement he gets from photographing churches and the treasures hidden within their walls, be it the stained glass of an East Window, a delicately carved memorial or intricately carved stonework. Julian’s photo library is available to view on Flickr and Geograph.

“As a child both my parents were religious, so we attended church every Sunday. As I grew up. I was expected to attend every week until I was a teenager. To me, church was somewhat boring, usually cold with hard seats and lots of old people! And of course there was the musty smell that only churches seem to possess.

Occasionally we would make a trip to Tewkesbury Abbey and it was always impressive with the incense, ceremony, and the wonderful organ music.

Over the years my faith waned, and I would sometimes pop into churches as a tourist on holiday, but it was not until I started participating in the Geograph project (whose aim is to photograph something in each of the 1 km squares as seen on ordnance survey maps)  that I started looking more closely and photographing churches.

The challenge of getting inside

Most were easy to photograph from the outside, but the problem was getting inside and finding the points of interest. The challenge was intensified by the fact that many churches were locked; usually a keyholder could be found, but this was not case for all of them.

At first my interest was in monuments, especially those from the sixteenth and seventeenth century, usually showing a kneeling couple either side of a prayer desk dressed in their finery complete with ruffs and hats. Often they were shown holding a skull – what did that mean? Below the couple there were often whole rows of kneeling children, boys facing one way, girls facing the other, and even swaddled babies at their feet.

Quite often these monuments were brightly coloured and had strange Latin inscriptions (unfortunately I did not do Latin at school) and also coats of arms. A good example of this is at Saint Mary’s church, Bottesford in the Vale of Belvoir which has multiple monuments to the Earls and Dukes of Rutland.

One of my most memorable church visits was in Herefordshire. It was mid-December and there had been a lot of rain which had caused the River Wye to flood. I wanted to visit Holme Lacy church which is situated remotely, near to the river. When I turned off the main road to the access road to the church I was dismayed to find it was all flooded. Closer inspection showed that it was only a few inches deep and I could proceed with caution.

I finally arrived at the church and it was quite magical when I pushed open the door and stepped into the gloomy nave in silence. There was a wide south aisle and north transept, and at the end of the chancel was a gorgeous east window. There were also several excellent monuments from the eighteenth century complete with putti and flaming urns.

As time went by, I developed an interest in stained-glass, ranging from very old medieval glass to the most modern. I also perfected my photographic technique, as photographing some windows can be quite challenging. This is now my main interest and I have been lucky enough to photograph quite a lot of stained glass  – from the ancient windows at Canterbury (when I first saw these at the Cathedral I was in awe), to the windows of Coventry Cathedral from the 1960s.

Many stained glass windows have recurring religious subjects, and my religious education has proved helpful in understanding these scenes.

Visiting more churches

In 2015 I moved from Sussex to Lincolnshire and was able to visit more churches and take more pictures, especially of Lincoln Cathedral. The Cathedral has some very good roof bosses with highly detailed carvings. They are so high up they are difficult to see in detail, nevertheless, the artist who created them gave as much attention to detail as if they were at ground level.

Over time, one gets to recognise certain styles and periods of history, although I regard myself as still a novice. It is always inspiring to think of the work that has gone into these buildings, even the humblest church usually has an interesting history, and I can imagine the bands of stonemasons travelling round the country doing their work. Indeed I can sometimes recognise similar styles of work carried out by particular masons where those with a certain style to their work have visited.

It is great to know that the work is still being carried on by stonemasons today. At Lincoln Cathedral, and at others, there have been many new grotesques and figures added to the fabric.

COVID-19 has made it very hard to visit churches and cathedrals, but I intend to carry on adding to my photographic archive and posting images online as soon as I can. ” 

We thank Julian for allowing us to share this edited version of his article about visiting churches. Julian’s photo library is also available to view on Flickr and Geograph.

Lead Theft – Organised and opportunistic crime

The Scrap Metal Dealers Act 2013 was introduced to tackle rising levels of metal theft. The purpose of the Act was to reverse the upward trend in levels of metal theft through stricter regulation of the metal recycling sector to make it more difficult to dispose of stolen metal.

Despite the introduction of the Act, partly due to the involvement of organised crime and also because of increases in the price of some metals, over the last few years there was a marked rise in the incidence of the theft of metal, and in particular lead, from church roofs. One striking example was when 20 tonnes of lead – the entire roof – was stolen from All Saints’ Church in Houghton Conquest, Bedfordshire in October 2018.

Figures published in 2020 seem to show a decline in metal theft. However, below, Antonia Grey, Policy and Public Affairs Manager for the British Metals Recycling Association says, these figures may well be misleading. She also makes clear that during these economically challenging times, metal theft may become more opportunistic with smaller items being stolen. So, please do take all measures you can to protect your church from lead and other metal theft crimes.

One of the best ways to protect a church is through a roof alarm. The good news is that Allchurches Trust’s Roof Protection Scheme provides grants to help churches install roof alarms in response to the issue of metal theft, which continues to be a very challenging issue across the UK.  This scheme has been extended until the end of 2021 and the amount of funding available has been increased, with grants now funding up to 50% of the cost of the alarm, up to a maximum of £2500. 

Metal theft – are the offical figures underestimating the extent of this crime?

By Antonia Grey, Policy and Public Affairs Manager, British Metals Recycling Association 

When the latest Office of National Statistics’ (ONS) metal theft data for year-end March (YEM) 2020, I was more than somewhat surprised that metal theft was down. Reports in the media and those I heard anecdotally indicated quite the opposite.  

So, I decided to have a closer look. In its most recent dataset, the ONS reports that at 15,947 incidents, overall metal thefts are down by 91. However, these data do not include thefts reported in Greater Manchester, which in YEM 2019 topped 1,300. In fact, given Metropolitan Police statistics show 8,248 catalytic converters were stolen in London alone in 2019, the data presented by ONS are curious to say the least.  

The ONS data also shows a concerning increase in infrastructure-related events, going from 6,884 to 8,313. The fact that many companies are not reporting what can be high-value thefts, possibly due to large insurance excess values or perceived reputational damage, means the ONS data will not be presenting a true picture and this figure is highly likely to be far higher. Worryingly, crimes recorded by British Transport Police (BTP) have nearly doubled going from 459 YEM 2019 to 850 in the latest dataset. The last time BTP reports were over 850 was in 2013, the year the Scrap Metal Dealers Act was implemented.  

Organised crime

Moreover, that ONS data does not reflect that the type of metal theft has changed. It has gone from individual low-value thefts such as a length of lead flashing to highly organised, gang-led thefts where entire church roofs are stolen.  

Such is the scale of losses that the value lost to metal theft is now said to have surpassed the £220 odd million calculated by Deloitte in 2011, which led to the introduction of the Scrap Metal Dealers Act in 2013. This is interesting because in 2011, the country had barely come out of the deepest UK recession since the Second World War.  

With the country once again beset by recession, it seems likely that stealing metal may once again become in vogue amongst those who see it as a victimless crime, who think insurance companies will pay up and all will be well. To quote BTP’s then Chief Constable Andy Trotter back in 2011: “Metal theft is a classic acquisitive crime, and acquisitive crime generally increases in difficult economic times.” 

Yes, cash has been banned from the sector and there are enhanced ID checks since then but there is now little to no enforcement by police services or local authorities. This is not for want of willingness, it is for want of budget. The Home Office look at the ONS data and declare ‘all is well; the Scrap Metal Dealers Act is working’. I would question how data that is potentially missing over 1,000 thefts can be relied upon? I would also question if the Act is working why were there an additional 1,429 infrastructure thefts?  

It seems to me there must be a disconnect in the way that metal thefts are reported. For example, is the theft of a catalytic converter a metal theft or theft from a vehicle when it comes to ONS data? Likewise, if someone steals a load of copper from a plumber’s garage, is that metal theft or burglary? As far as I am aware, metal theft is not a specific offence code within police recorded crime (PRC), which means the problem could be greater than we think. 

I also don’t believe that the ONS data is linked with the data gathered by the Energy Networks Association’s SIRS database. I understand that even if communications companies or power companies don’t report a metal theft to the police because the value was below their insurance excess, some still put it on SIRS (as long as they have the internal reporting systems in place). This means the data is there. 

Better enforcement needed

I don’t believe that we will truly tackle metal theft until we have proper enforcement of the Scrap Metal Dealers Act. However, there will be no funding to support sustained enforcement until we have the data to lay before the Home Office. In short, the first thing that has to be done is to find a more accurate way to gather metal theft data. Surely the first step is to give all metal theft a specific offence code. This needs to be supported by ensuring that all metal thefts are recorded, not just the ones that exceed insurance excesses.  

I may be being naïve, but I remain ever hopeful.  

Reprinted by kind permission of the author.

Why church buildings matter today.

In a guest post, Reverend Charles Chadwick, a Friend of the National Churches Trust Church, writes about why church buildings have an important role to play in Christian mission in the 21st century. He writes in a personal capacity.

In an age marked by distraction and uncertainty church buildings speak of permanence, stability and serenity. They can serve as places to withdraw to from the over-active and anxious times we live in. They can be where the tired may rest and find peace. Bishop John Inge has written of church buildings as being places of journey, encounter, and pilgrimagei. He believes that they proclaim that God is present and active in the world, and that God is not to be forgotten. Their physical presence echoes the Hebrew word emuna with its sense of trustworthiness and reliability. In a way that cannot easily be put into words they elicit loyalty, respect, and a sense of the sacred.

They also have the capacity to gently mould within people a sense of the divine in both conscious and unconscious ways. They provide places for silence and calm, reflection and prayer. A beautiful and well cared for church can transmit something of the character of the Christian faith as well as the perception that this building is a place where God can be encountered. A sense of the holy where generations of people have engaged with God and where the distance between earth and heaven is reduced can be conveyed in historic churches. People may experience a sense of awe and reverence for the magnificence of God, or feel curious and interested in the faith on which they were founded.

The interconnectedness of place, memory and relationships

The 16,000 Anglican Parish Churches are widely recognised as places where the stories and events of people’s lives, and local communities, can be connected to the story of God’s engagement with humanity through Jesus Christ. This is evident at christenings, weddings, funerals, and Christmas. Family histories are often deeply connected with the story of their village church. The interconnectedness of place, memory and relationships often has deep significance for people. Their sheer physical presence reminds us that God took human form and presence in Jesus of Nazareth and in a subtle, almost unspoken way they remind us of the importance of the doctrines of creation and incarnation.

They have the potential to connect people with history and heritage. English people have a strong interest in the past and its physical spaces and places. This is demonstrated in the considerable growth in membership of the National Trust, which reported having 5,600,000 members in 2019, and ‘500 heritage properties’. Church buildings have the potential to act as a bridge with this facet of English life. At its simplest they are the outward and visible sign of the nation’s ecclesiastical and spiritual heritage.

Serving the common good

Church buildings have an important part to play in serving the common good. This aspect of a church building’s identity has increased in many rural communities where other village public spaces and amenities such as the shop and the pub have closed in recent times. The parish church is now often the central focus of village community life. In 2006 the Rowntree Foundation observed that faith buildings, as well as being a resource for the neighbourhood, give the faith community visibility and a platform for wider engagement. As Luke March, Chairman of the National Churches Trust, observed in 2019, “At a time when so many public buildings are closing and high

streets are losing their shops, church buildings are places where people can meet, collaborate and build community, as well as continue to worship”. The House of Good Report by the National Churches Trustii in 2020 made the point that church buildings are more than places of worship and that they provide a growing list of essential services for people in need. Their work shows, “That the UK’s church buildings are not just Houses of God. They are also Houses of Good…. Despite having to lock down, some 89% of churches continue providing local support – from online worship to delivering shopping to isolated or vulnerable people”. Interestingly the Local Government Chronicle wrote in December 2020 that Councils should make better use of churches to bring communities togetheriii

At its simplest a Christian community needs a home to meet in and a distinctive building serves this purpose well. Church buildings can be a reminder that God chooses to reveal himself in specific places, such as to Jacob in Genesis 28, to Moses in Exodus 3, and to Isaiah in Isaiah 6, and such places are deemed to be sacred and holy. Such revelations elicit a response. They witness to Christian faith being alive and often, through the windows and other physical aspects of the building and its surrounds, to the message of that faith. They have an invaluable role to play in the developing life of a Christian community for they are the designated places where the congregation, the local embodiment of Christ, comes for worship, to be taught, fed and sent out to love and serve God in the world.

Potential to attract people should not be underestimated

At a time when concern about the environment is increasing, the area around church buildings can provide a space where, through carefully managed churchyards, fauna and flora can flourish. They can offer a haven for local wildlife as well as demonstrating stonemasons’ creativity and the social history of a parish. Beautiful and artistic gravestones and well-tended graves can remind us of the value of every human life.

Church buildings deserve to be valued as historical assets that convey more than can be put into words. They have been adapted in a whole range of ways across the centuries and much creative re-ordering work is currently happening, particularly in the rural context. They can be a physical means by which communities may be drawn together, where God may be encountered, and they can be a place that cultivates a deeper sense of what it means to be truly human. Their potential to attract people, to be admired and appreciated, and to elicit affection and affirmation should not be underestimated, for it is from these that faith may well grow.

Revd Charles Chadwick December 2020

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