Save Blandford’s church!
Crispin Goodall expresses his deep concern about the state of the church of St Peter and St Paul
Published in February ’10
The school reunion and into the bar for pre-dinner drinks. So far so good: friends, meetings and renewing of acquaintances, much slapping of backs, hugs and even the occasional air kiss. Then through the throng steps someone who greets you in a manner that suggests you ought to know him. The penny drops and the shock hits home that this person, who was one of the fittest and best-looking people at school, does not look well and that time has been particularly cruel.
That is how I felt when I stepped inside the parish church of St Peter and St Paul, Blandford Forum, about two years ago. A friend of mine, Chris Edmondson, now Bishop of Bolton, was invited to preach at Blandford and a small gang of us, both friends and family, turned up to support and hear him. It was the first time I had set foot inside the building since my father had retired as Rector of Blandford in 1972. The sermon was great, as was lunch afterwards, but I had been disturbed during the service by how tatty and unloved the inside of the church appeared to have become. The beautiful duck-egg blue of the ceiling was not blue any more and looked rather like the ceiling in a smoker’s pub. Worse was the invasion of damp all over the nave but especially on the north side. All in all, it was a depressing experience.
I went home and, after some thought, wrote to ask if I could offer a concert to help raise funds for the church fabric, although I appreciated that it would be drop in the ocean. The music society with which I sing is based in Poole and has a good reputation. Having been schooled in Blandford and being the Canon’s son, I reckoned I could help market the concert and put a reasonable number of ‘bums on seats’. I even offered to sponsor the Church’s costs for the evening, just in case everything went pear-shaped. I received a reply effectively saying, ‘Thanks but no thanks.’ I did not mind this too much, until I discovered that, first, I was not the only one who was offering help and had been turned away and, second, the press was on the phone.
My father was Canon Geoffrey Goodall. The church’s website has him down in the list of incumbents as Herbert Geoffrey Goodall, but he hated the name Herbert so he was better known as Canon H Geoffrey Goodall – and occasionally as the ‘Red Canon’ because he drove around in a red Vauxhall Viva. We arrived as a family in 1959 and, because the Rectory (now the Old Rectory) was in such poor shape, we lived in the ‘Old House’ by courtesy of the Doddington family until our new home was ready.
It was during the period of his incumbency that the Victorian galleries were removed and the organ was taken from the chancel and returned to its original siting at the west end, thus restoring the church almost to its original Georgian layout.
During this time, I did what clergymen’s sons tend to do: sing in the church choir, go to school, start a rock band with my brother and entertain our friends – up to thirty at a time – at band practice in the Rectory. I suppose my parents consoled themselves with the thought that it was keeping us (and half of Blandford’s youth) out of mischief, but it certainly cost them a fortune in milk and coffee. I only mention this to indicate that at that age I had no real interest in what was going on inside the church, but it must have registered in my mind that the changes were beautiful, otherwise I would not be writing this now. Even in the early 1970s, I was aware that there were difficulties with the fabric of the church. I was told that part of the problem was that when the Victorians restored the church, they had used acidic mortar and this was eating away at the stonework. This may or may not be true; the church’s guidebook does not mention it, but it does refer to the soft Dorset sandstone being in poor condition.
So what is going on? Why is the symbol of Blandford, one of the finest Georgian churches outside London, being allowed to fall into disrepair? The re-building of the Parish Rooms is at present the reason for nothing being done about the church, the logic being that ‘People are more important than buildings.’ I can just about accept this, but the fact remains that with the sale of Leslie House (the old Curate’s House), the finance for the Parish Rooms (completion of which was recently delayed by a further six weeks, to the end of February) was effectively in place. So why has the church been left with nothing more than a ‘strategy’ to protect it from the predation of the elements?
Given the rate of deterioration, it is reasonable to hazard a guess that every year’s delay is costing an extra £50,000 on average; this is based on the estimate of £2 million to pay for the last forty years of neglect. So the delay over the past five years has cost a further £250,000. We are left wondering why the powers are quite so helpless, unable to do more than one thing at a time, or even to think outside the box.
Here we have a beautiful building, crying out to be used, that is locked for 75 per cent of the time, and we wonder why it is vandalised. It’s not as if the pews are sacrosanct; the front few rows have already been removed to provide a performance area at the east end of the nave. If the Victorians were able, in their time, to install galleries in order to cope with demand, surely it is not beyond our wit in this day and age to take out pews in order to cope with a different sort of demand?
The Dorset Historic Churches Trust has been concerned for some five years at the poor condition of St Peter and St Paul. The Trust has offered financial help and advice on a number of occasions, but these offers have not been taken up as the Rector and the Parochial Church Council have allocated priority to the completion of the new Parish Rooms. The Trust remains concerned about the deteriorating condition of the church and says that it stands ready to offer advice and financial support whenever requested to help by the Rector and PCC. It points out that the likely costs of the considerable repair work now required will require major grant-aid from many sources including English Heritage and the National Churches Trust.
After articles appeared in the press about the state of the building, the church authorities issued a defence. Part of this defence was the statement that the church ‘has been a source of concern for many decades’ – they might well have added ‘…but no one has done anything about it.’
In deciding that the Parish Rooms took priority, the church claims to have a growing congregation. It has sold the Old Rectory, and think for a minute what an asset that could have been if it had been used with a bit of imagination for church offices and accommodation. The Rector would still be ‘living over the shop’ and possibly there would be less vandalism; the Rectory would still be providing a meeting space and a home for (say) the senior members of the church youth club, and it would be adjacent to the Parish Rooms. As mentioned, Leslie House has also been sold. If the church was a business, I would say it was failing and selling off its assets to make ends meet.
In their statement the PCC says it has ‘recently reaffirmed the strategy agreed in 2005’. Just read that sentence again! And it ends with: ‘It is hoped that the issuing of this statement will enable there to be confidence that the PCC of St Peter and St Paul is taking seriously the matter of their responsibility for the future of the Church building and that concerns such as have been expressed will be addressed at the appropriate time according to the strategy which the PCC have agreed.’
In response, I would say that cant is not what is required; leadership is. In addition, I would bring to the PCC’s attention what town and planning laws have to say about distressed listed buildings, of which St Peter and St Paul is one. The officers of North Dorset DC paraphrase it thus: ‘Once the notice has been served on the owner, there may be a satisfactory response with an undertaking by the owner that the works will be carried out. If, however, no satisfactory response is forthcoming, the authority (or English Heritage as appropriate) can then proceed to carry out the necessary works itself (section 54). If the owner explains that the works will be carried out “in due course”, that would not be satisfactory. In the absence of any firm proposals, and given that the works are by definition urgent, the authority would probably be justified in proceeding.’
This story has only just begun.
1. Blandford Museum
4. Colin Hoare
5. Blandford Museum
6. Ken Ayres