Pumping new life into the Village‘s heart

How a lottery grant for St Mary’s is about more than bricks and mortar

St Mary’s commands your attention. Sitting atop the Village, surrounded by its leafy graveyard, it is impossible not to admire it even though you might not have ever attended a service there or been inside for an event. And that’s something that the Reverend Vanessa Conant and her husband Cameron want to change.

“Historically, churches have been places for gathering people – not just people who consider themselves Christians, but everyone,” says Vanessa. “And in the past couple of hundred years it’s become more like a private-interest club and so what we would like to say is: ‘This church belongs to you, the community, and you are welcome. There is something here for you whether that’s worship, art, music or just a place where you can be peaceful’.”

Vanessa and Cameron are very much on the same page when it comes to their vision for St Mary’s. And it’s not just a vision about making it a more inclusive centre of the community; it’s also about securing its future for generations to come. This vision has been given a boost recently when St Mary’s was awarded £1.67m by the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) after applying for a grant a second time.

“The HLF said it could see a real development between the two applications, particularly in terms of the partnerships and local support. It could see there was a hunger for this kind of project and the church had really begun to build local links and connections, which gave it the confidence we could deliver,” says Vanessa.

As the application was in the London pool, it faced serious competition, and rumour has it even beat out one of city’s big museums. In other words, no mean feat. Now the task is to implement the plans: fixing the fabric of the building, which is in desperate need of repair (including a new roof ), a new entrance to the church in a cloister-like extension and programming activities that will broaden the diversity of people using the church.

The new entrance would be a single-storey extension into the car park and include a reception area, offices, lavatories and an industrial kitchen that would allow catering for events. Full plans still need to be completed and approved by Heritage England, the Diocese and Waltham Forest Council – but initial architectural drawings have been done by Matthew Lloyd, the firm the church intends to use for the project.

The award-winning pratice was chosen, says Cameron, because of its long history of successful and sympathetic work on historic churches and buildings such as the Royal Society of the Arts.

Vanessa says the extension would make the church more accessible in several ways. First, by having offices in the church rather than across the graveyard in the Welcome Centre, it could be open more frequently as people would actually be based in the building. And a broader range of events could be held in the church as the industrial kitchen would allow catering to be done on-site.

Inside the church, the proposed works also include plans that Vanessa and Cameron recognise could raise some eyebrows: removing the pews and replacing them with chairs.  “Beautiful, light, stackable chairs,” Cameron says. The idea being that this would allow the space to be used in many more ways and also do away with a persistent problem, says Vanessa: “With the pews, the sight lines are so limited. I am very aware that, whether for worship or a community event, there are a lot of people who can’t see anything. And if you come in a wheelchair you have to sit in the middle of an aisle. There’s something excluding about the pews.”

In terms of those people who might not want to see the character of the building changed, Cameron points out that, unlike the centuries old building, the pews are less than a hundred years old and would not have been there when the church was first built. “I also think not having them will accentuate the architecture of the building, especially if we can re-light the pillars. I think people will be surprised at how beautiful the space is if it is pared back.”

St Mary’s churchyard

The next 12 months will be spent getting full architectural drawings, surveys, consultations and planning permissions for the work. Then the actual building works can start. And the vision doesn’t stop there. Separate to the HLF project there are plans – that have been in the works for some time now – to turn the Welcome Centre into affordable housing with space for a children’s nursery. This project is also dependent on approval from the various bodies and finding a suitable development partner as the church can’t take on a capital project of that size on its own.

“We definitely don’t feel that it’s a money-making scheme but as a way of making sure the church has a sustainable future. And to ensure the future of the building itself. It’s historically interesting and locally listed but it hasn’t had a lot of investment for a number of years. We need to find ways of preserving it and making it do more for the community,” says Vanessa.

Both Vanessa and Cameron are very passionate about the ideas, and see them as a way for the church to be part of an ever-changing society.

“We have a possibility of not only dealing with our buildings that need work but serving our community. And we have a responsibility to do that,” says Vanessa. “I would like to have people walk past the church and feel fond of it, not just sentimental; that it’s made a connection with your life and your soul, whether that’s nourishing you spiritually or culturally. That it’s a place for everyone.”

Amen to that.

This article first appeared in the Autumn 2017 edition of “The Village” magazine.


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