A new scheme will help return heritage churches to their age-old role at the centre of communities. TONY HENDERSON reports.
Plans to find wider community uses for historic churches in the North East have won lottery funding backing.
The Inspired Futures project could see heritage churches take on new roles while still retaining their religious purpose.
An initiative of Inspired North East – a support scheme set up by the Church of England Dioceses of Newcastle and Durham – it will demonstrate new ways for working with historic places of worship and channelling resources to where they are needed.
A development grant of £40,500 has been awarded by the Heritage Lottery Fund to help Inspired North East progress its plans to apply for a £250,000 bid later this year.
Historic church buildings can be vulnerable in terms of physical condition, suitability for modern use and the skills and capacity of volunteers to manage changes.
But there can be significant opportunities for improvement and change which are currently not being realised due to lack of resources.
The project will work with 18 churches across the region, all of which have elected to take part and are open to exploring new possibilities.
“They all face challenges of one sort of another, from small congregations to the cost of looking after the buildings or doing conservation work,” said Andrew Duff of Inspired North East.
“But there is the potential to widen the use of the church through projects such as art activities, health and well-being schemes, heritage ventures, educational use, children’s clubs or as post offices.
“It can help preserve church heritage with benefits to the community tailored for local needs.”
A team approach will involve professionals and local volunteers working with the targeted churches to share project planning know-how and develop activities, skills and plans for the future.
Enabling more diverse use of these church buildings alongside their traditional worship role will lead to more stable and sustainable futures, with more users contributing towards upkeep, maintenance and running costs.
Workshops and events will raise public awareness of the heritage interest and community potential of the churches.
Audits of accessibility, conservation repair and improvement needs and volunteer involvement will be carried out.
The potential for new community uses, improved heritage access and interpretation will be explored, and new heritage activities will be piloted.
The church buildings covered by the project have been a focal point for their local communities for generations – some for over 800 years.
Peter Robinson, Archdeacon of Lindisfarne and chairman of the project group, said: “We’re very grateful that the Heritage Lottery Fund has given us this support.
“These historic churches are of great significance within their local communities. We hope that the Inspired Futures project will pave the way towards improved facilities, inject new life and engage wider local use, and make these valued places sustainable for future generations.”
Ivor Crowther, head of Heritage Lottery Fund North East, said: “Places of worship are among our most historic buildings, with so many stories of architectural, social and community heritage behind them.
“We’re pleased to offer our initial support to this project which will begin to put plans in place for the future of a number of places of worship in the North East.”
Inspired North East was set up in 2010 involving Newcastle Diocese, Durham Diocese and part-funded at that time by English Heritage.
It works with local congregations to help achieve a sustainable future for church buildings as living places of worship, used and enjoyed by local communities, welcoming to visitors, and unique heritage assets. Over four years Inspired North East has supported around 200 churches across the North East with advice on areas such as grants for repairs, planning of new projects, and enhancing the visitor welcome.
Some churches have received more in-depth help to plan re-ordering and community activity projects to help improve future prospects for church buildings.
The 18 churches involved in the new project are:
* St Thomas’s Haymarket, Newcastle, Listed Grade II star: Built in 1825-30 to the design of John Dobson, it serves as Newcastle’s Civic Church, a venue for concerts, care for vulnerable people and Fair Trade outlet. Repairs are needed to roof and drainage, and investment to develop new facilities and open the building up to a range of uses suited to its city centre location, role as a place of worship and accessible community heritage asset.
* Church of Our Lady, Seaton Delaval. Listed Grade I, dating from at least the early 12th Century.
Originally a private chapel to the neighbouring Seaton Delaval Hall, it draws people from across the region and beyond to visit.
It is currently on the English Heritage register of Places of Worship at Risk due to structural problems which are currently subject to investigation and phased remedial action.
The Friends of Our Lady provides a channel for community engagement, fundraising and volunteers who help look after the church. There is potential to build on tourism interest.
*St Cuthbert’s Haydon Bridge, Northumberland. Listed Grade II star: It is on English Heritage’s Register of Places of Worship at Risk due to leaking roof and structural problems affecting the north gable wall of the church.
It also needs investment to improve heating and lighting and to provide toilet and kitchen facilities. The acoustics at St Cuthbert’s are very good for music and choral singing, and there is potential to increase visitor activity linked to local interest around Haydon including nearby Hadrian’s Wall.
* St Chad’s, Bensham, Gateshead, Listed Grade II star: Dating from 1902, one of the largest and most ambitious churches by William Searle Hicks in the late Gothic style.
Notable for the quality of its furnishings and fittings of that time, including much carved woodwork and delightful stained glass windows.
Re-ordered about 25 years ago to create space for a community project but which has since outgrown the space, and the facilities are now underused and in need of refurbishment. Re-roofing is also needed.
The church wants to develop a more flexible space while preserving its Arts and Crafts heritage.
Bensham as a community is undergoing significant change as older substandard housing is redeveloped – the church wants to be ready to serve this new community.
*St Cuthbert’s Church, Darlington, Listed Grade I: The most complete example of its date and style in Durham Diocese. The church is currently subject of a major roof repair project.
However, lack of facilities in the building limits efforts to develop and expand its use. Located at the foot of the Market Place, the location of the church makes it suitable for major civic services, memorials and celebrations.
The congregation would like to be able to provide a venue for community, arts and civic events, and develop activities engaging people in the heritage of the building.
Other churches also involved:
Northumberland: St Cuthbert’s Elsdon, Grade I; St Mary & St Michael’s Doddington, Grade I; St Michael’s Alnham, Grade I.
Christ Church Shieldfield, and St Margaret’s, Scotswood, Newcastle; St Andrew’s, Auckland; St Cuthbert’s Billingham; St Edmund, Sedgefield; St Michaels Heighington; St Thomas, Stockton; St Augustine’s Alston; St John, Darlington: St Oswald’s Hartlepool.