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Repair work begins on medieval church in England

Four years after St Leonard’s Church in the southern English village of Flamstead was threatened with closure on safety grounds, carpenters have started to fashion new oak timbers to repair and replace failing beams and rafters in its 15th-century medieval nave roof.

The main ridge beams, running along the length of the roof like a spine, are so badly decayed that they will have to be replaced. Damaged rafters will have new ends grafted on so they can be jointed strongly to the ridge-like ribs to support the roof. A number of the king posts, which transfer the weight to the massive and largely undamaged cross-beams, are also being remade. The roof could indeed have collapsed had emergency supports not been installed in 2017 to buy time while the million-pound budget was raised.

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“It’s fantastic to see the repair work starting after so much hard work by the team to raise awareness and bid for what seemed like a daunting amount of money,” said local resident Andrew Lambourne, who led the fundraising and bidding process. “When the roof was stripped the decay looked really serious, but the carpenters take it in their stride and I can now visualise how it’s all going to fit back together again. At the same time the stonemasons have created replacements for the badly eroded windows which were hidden beneath fibreglass covers in the 1960s.”

Photo courtesy Andrew Lambourne

Located in Hertfordshire, St Leonard’s Church is a Grade I listed building representing 900 years of social history. The oldest parts of the current building date back to the 1120s. It contains an important series of medieval wall paintings, Tudor inscriptions, medieval graffiti, and memorials including one to the Head of the Household to Queen Elizabeth the First. Five of its six bells were cast in 1664, and its tombs include Thomas Pickford, a local farmer who serviced the horses for the Pickfords removals firm, and Thomas Frisby, a lawyer who worked for the Earls of Warwick in the 14th century.

The building has survived a number of near-disasters while being modified and extended over the years, but in February 2017 the Parish was told that the medieval roof timbers were suffering from severe decay, the roof was in danger of collapse, and the church would have to be closed on safety grounds unless a million pounds could be raised within 3-4 years to repair it.

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Local resident Andrew Lambourne volunteered to spearhead the fundraising, and with the help of villagers formed the Flamstead Heritage Project to save the building for the community. During three years of solid work, he oversaw the preparation of a bid to the National Lottery Heritage Fund for three-quarters of a million pounds, and also raised over a quarter of a million in matched funding from local people, organisations, and funds and trusts which support heritage buildings.

Support was overwhelming, and in March 2020 the project was awarded funding by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. Contractors Universal Stone were appointed in September 2020, and it took some months to erect scaffolds both inside and outside the building. The copper roof and the boards beneath it, dating from 1961, were removed in January and February, giving access to the medieval boards and roof timbers beneath. These date from when the clerestory was raised in the 15th century, and though some repairs had been conducted in 1791 the majority of the original timbers remain.

“We’re so grateful to National Lottery players and all the people and organisations who have made it possible to save this wonderful building,” adds Andrew. “Our project is not just about repair – it’s about making sure the heritage is properly looked after in the future. That means sharing it with many more people and putting it on the map as a fascinating heritage venue for anyone to enjoy and learn more about.”

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Photo courtesy Andrew Lambourne

Because the church is Grade I listed, conservation repair requires every beam and rafter to be assessed to see what can be retained, with repairs grafted on by skilled craftspeople before reinstalling the timbers so they stay in the building as a historical record. Temporary supports installed in 2017 will then be removed, and when the work is complete people will see the medieval structure as it looked when the nave roof was built in the 15th century, and later repaired in 1791.

The aim is to finish the work to the roof – and to replace degraded stone windows – so that the building can re-open in September of this year. To learn more, please visit the Flamstead Heritage website.

Top Image: Photo courtesy Andrew Lambourne

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