Christopher Howse

The tiny charity that saves derelict churches from destruction

The church’s timber belltower [Alamy]

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.

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