The C15 village church of St Petrock in a remote part of Exmoor was well looked after by generations of loyal supporters but to really re-focus the community on the beautiful historic building in the heart of a small village and make it accessible with facilities to all worshippers, villagers and tourists was a particular project requiring commitment and enthusiasm of a high order.
An early meeting with Exmoor National Park, the DAC, Historic England and the Parish Council with the PCC in 2017 clarified the scale of the task. Early thoughts about the site for a toilet were problematic as everyone had views about suitability. Inside or outside, soakaway or mains cutting through an ancient graveyard, fully disabled access or partial (access along a tarmacked incline with steps up and down, and up again from the porch to the church, ensured a genuinely difficult decision) All had to be considered in an Options Survey. We had to be certain the village approved of the plan, so the PCC consulted and listened to ensure local support. Our architect made drawings to illustrate we had considered all possibilities and the DAC reviewed and questioned our logic.
To install a small discreet servery became part of the plan. If we could welcome people into the church we could also offer a hot drink which had not been sourced from the single outside water tap. A funeral was held in 2017 where the grieving widow made a donation to start a fund to provide basic facilities in the church. The die was cast.
The church was open every day, it held regular weekly services, it was well used by the local church school, active bell ringers practised weekly, a gardening club met regularly and a new History Group was planned, all running alongside frequent festivals and assorted fund raising ventures in the church. With a small, ageing but loyal congregation it was absolutely clear that a loo and a cup of tea was the way forward to make sure everyone could feel welcome and the church would continue to be relevant.
Fundraising happened next and once we had an idea of the scale of the costs, some £46,000, after gulping, we set too. By requiring a connection to the main sewer from the agreed toilet location in a reconfigured vestry, the costs were always going to be high as a deep trench was necessary. It took almost a year to get planning permission from ENP and a DAC Faculty. Permission was essential as grant awarding bodies wanted to know the permissions were already in place. Everything had to happen in a certain order and as a PCC we were not in a position to start anything before securing full funding.
All fundraising starts locally and as a foundation it demonstrates that your community supports you. A blizzard of more activities than normal ensued: an Italian evening sponsored by Carluccios’, calendars were prepared, Male Voice Choirs performed, garden parties with raffles and cream teas galore were held. Letters were written to our villagers, to small local charities, and groups such as our bellringers who already had charitable activities underway to support church tower work, but who were willing to support a wider church project. In fact, their view was that facilities would make our church more attractive to visiting bell-ringing groups. We made presentations to the Parish Council who responded generously. Local groups came to the village and we made presentations to them, and benefitted from the collection afterwards. Local pubs and hotels donated meals which we could raffle.
All this to raise money in addition to the bedrock fundraising to pay the regular bills. Our Treasurer was careful to put monies into a ring-fenced account for this development project and not jeopardise the current account and existing responsibilities. We learnt quickly that no charity has the same application form, each must be tailored and treated quite distinctly, and we learnt that dates of meetings could vary tremendously and then the time to hearing back could be quite some way away. This was all quite stressful when people were constantly asking ‘When are you going to start the work?’
We were doing well, and concentrating on small local accruals before we approached the larger regional and national charities, when we had a meeting with an advisor from Bath and Wells in St Petrock’s who pointed out the possible contradiction of us appealing for funds to instal a toilet and servery when we actually had a leaking south aisle roof. A year later, having secured a grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, the PCC was able to deal with a huge variety of associated heritage activities whilst not losing sight of the original project, so fundraising continued for that too.
Here is where the Somerset Churches Trust came in. With excellent support, a site assessor, and a very helpful and accessible Grants Secretary, an application was made towards the end of 2018 and St Petrock’s was awarded a vital generous sum of £3000. What this crucially meant was that we could now, with conviction and regional support, approach the National Churches Trust for a Cornerstone Grant which we duly did. By July 2019 they had supported our vision with a £10,000 grant. We were now very close and finally closed the funding gap later that year so work could commence spring 2020.
All in all, the PCC applied to 15 funding bodies and were successful, ultimately with 10 applications. The important point in all this is that each application required so much time and energy from volunteers that one really did have to be convinced that the project frankly was worth all the effort. Otherwise, what would be the point? And we were convinced that the goal of a decent accessible toilet, and the ability to be hospitable for whatever activity is organised in the church, was fundamentally the only way forward. Not only could we then promote the existing activities in a much more civilised manner, but we could radically extend the offering to our community and to our visitors in a beautiful ancient building which will aid self-sufficiency through more regular use and support.
In March 2020 work started and a digger cut the trench through the old graveyard to connect to the main sewer. A week later all work halted as the Covid 19 lockdown started. Once it was possible to resume work in a socially distanced way in July there were still inevitable delays, but by September the accessible toilet was in situ, along with a beautiful discreet oak servery, and all the associated works were completed to our satisfaction.
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