Christopher Howse

The tiny charity that saves derelict churches from destruction

The tiny charity that saves derelict churches from destruction
The church’s timber belltower [Alamy]
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There is a plateau of neglect upon which an old church seems to sit for a while blessedly spared from ‘improvement’. But on the far side of the plateau, the land falls away steeply to closure, vandalism and ruination.

St Mary’s church, Mundon, possessed of a rare tranquillity, had begun slipping off the plateau by 1975. The nave was exposed to rain by a gappy roof. Brambles lashed in the wind at the broken windows. Demolition was proposed. But in that year it was taken into the care of a small voluntary organisation, Friends of Friendless Churches.

So it was that I could find myself standing in the dimness of the church on a winter afternoon (there being no electric light) talking to a volunteer, Christine McDonald, who has lived within half a mile all her life. ‘As teenagers before 1975,’ she said, ‘we saw the signs “Danger. Keep out” as a challenge, and got in through a broken window. It stank of mice and mould from sopping hymnbooks, and there were dead birds in the rubbish on the floor. We had a game, and the forfeit was to stay on your own in the church for ten minutes. It was scary.’ Now with the church set in order, but not redecorated, she finds the scariness turned into a ‘specialiness’ hard to put into words. ‘It’s as if someone is watching over you in a welcome way. I feel very much at home here. It’s a place for quiet contemplation.’

This blessed plot where St Mary’s stands, sheltered in a little wood among open fields, was once set within a moat. It lies in that unfashionable county of Essex but is an antidote to Towie. Of course there are ugly bungalows not far away, but the village of Mundon had moved from its surroundings to drier ground two or three hundred years ago.

The beauties of Essex are evident round here: old tile-roofed houses with upper storeys weatherboarded or decorated with pargetted patterns in plaster; a sudden flock of birds wheeling against a stand of willows, their bare switches of twig bright in a patch of sun. Teasels stand in the hedgeless field boundary by the narrow road. The asphalt runs out before you reach the clearing where the timber belltower of St Mary’s rises not so high above a skirt of old handmade tiles.

The Georgian box pews [Morley von Sternberg]

I see a living continuity in the bell named Vincent that has hung in this tower ever since it was cast in 1400. Vincentius reboat ut cuncta noxia tollat, it says round the soundbow, ‘Vincent resounds to drive away all harmful things.’ We even know the name of the bellfounder, John Langhorne, who made a cousin of Vincent, now in the V&A.

St Mary’s church demonstrates the truth of a principle of that sensitive Church of England architect Ninian Comper which he called ‘unity by inclusion’. The church structure is fundamentally 14th century. Its strangest feature is also its most successful: the tower has as its corners four great oak trees, each axed from round to a square shape. You find yourself in their midst when you walk in through the low west door. But to keep the tower steady in the marshy ground, thick balks were set to prop it at angles, braced by cross-members. That structure produces what looks like a skirt of roof and low wall from the outside.

Passing under a stone arch, the visitor can see the red terracotta tiles sloping downhill towards the chancel, via the small nave lined with 18 well-preserved Georgian box pews. We church-crawlers like the look of box pews, forgetting perhaps the pain of thigh bones wedged onto their narrow seats for a long Georgian sermon.

On the nave wall above those pews is a wonderfully preserved bit of painting from the 14th century: the head of a king with a medieval crown. This must be St Edmund, King of East Anglia and Martyr, whose body was filled as full of arrows as a hedgehog has quills by wicked pagan Norse raiders more than 1,100 years ago.

Mundon is only five miles or so from Maldon, on the wide Blackwater, where in 991 the Anglo-Saxons fought the Vikings. It is celebrated by a poem written near the time. The point to notice is that the English, the East Angles, lost. That made them heroes.

There is no useful outcome today, though, in losing the battle to keep churches from ruin and true to their purpose. But looking out of the plain glass window eastward from St Mary’s, you might think the Vikings nearby still. Mundon sits in marshy ground on the Dengie peninsula: the Blackwater to the north, the Crouch to the south, and to the east land turning into water. By the sea stands St Peter on the Wall, the bare Anglo-Saxon church to which people now like to walk in pilgrimage, east from ancient timber-built Greensted church (close to London’s Central Line) via Mundon.

The terracotta tiles of St Mary’s Mundon [Jason Neilus]

Not so long ago, a spouse making a match at Mundon risked death from ague, the recurring malaria from marsh mosquitoes to which only local people had resistance. The unsteady land, with clay pockets, explains the cracks in the walls of St Mary’s.

In the 18th century the chancel fell down. From the outside one of its rebuilt walls is of a lovely red and bluish chequering of handmade brick. On the other side of the church a medieval doorway is sheltered by a 16th-century wooden porch, about which James Bettley, the recent reviser of Pevsner’s Buildings of England volume for Essex, enthuses as one of the finest pieces of woodcarving in the county.

How, though, can one place St Mary’s aright in the architectural heritage of this country? It’s not Westminster Abbey. That is its peculiar virtue. Among the 29 churches in England looked after by the Friends of Friendless Churches (another 29 being in Wales), it is the favourite of Rachel Morley, the charity’s energetic young director and only full-time employee.

The Friends were started in 1957 by Ivor Bulmer-Thomas, who found support from people like John Piper and John Betjeman. Bulmer-Thomas and his wife Joan Bulmer (whose name he added to his own) funded the charity’s work themselves during their lifetime.

There are 10,000 medieval parish churches in England. Parishes cover the whole country and serve anyone who lives in them, Anglican, atheist or Muggletonian. But who will pay to keep them from ruin? Not, I fear, the Church Commissioners of the C of E, who are hot about the bottom line, but not in my opinion sensitive to communities.

In some moods I think it would be better to let a church fall back into broken stone — ‘Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky’ as Philip Larkin put it in ‘Church Going’ — rather than to turn it into an unwanted extra coffee shop or a house for a commuting executive. But then I look at a place like St Mary’s, Mundon, technically redundant, like a miniature windswept Torcello cathedral in the Venetian lagoon, but freely open to visitors, and I’m glad that volunteers like Christine McDonald keep it open for people and persevere in propping up the walls.