The Old Church Trust – recent history

Since the creation of the Trust, fund-raising has continued and significant sums have been raised, invested and spent on restoration and improvement.  Principal repairs and improvements have been stonework restoration, glazing restoration and renewal (the north and south windows are of handmade glass), uncovering the important wall paintings, new electric heating and lighting, provision of water supply and drainage for a kitchenette and a lavatory in old outbuildings. Trust members also meet regularly to clean and maintain the buildings.

Below is part of a talk given by John Glanfield, RIBA, President of The Lee Old Church Trust, to the AGM of the Trust in 1996. He recalls both the serious business and the fun side of the Trust’s work over the previous 20 years.

“Now with money in the Trust, the second phase of rescue got underway. The roof was completely retiled, the ceiling insulated and plastered, the crown post roof structure overhauled. The years from 1979-1983 saw attention to electrical wiring, new gas heating and inner doors to enclose the hot air blower, removal of rotting dado paneling, the floor sanded and a start made on revealing the wall paintings.

What can befall an old place can never be foretold. In 1985 the entire east wall and window stonework started to disintegrate, let’s face it, alarmingly. The cause or causes are conjectural, I have my ideas. The roof tends to thrust the walls over, viz massive buttressing, now some 200 years old. Foundations in the modern senses are absent, graves dug too close to walls, disturbing subsoil. Droughts dry out external ground leaving subsoil under the building damper, causing clay shrinkage and uneven movement. Heads were put together, experienced in this field. A massive repair was made to the window stonework and the 3 foot thick wall, which consists of a loose rubble core faced with flints and local chalky stone called ‘clunch’, plastered in and outside.  These old walls were set and bonded in soft lime mortar, still the authentic way. Such buildings tolerate much vagary but there is a limit. To consolidate the masonry enormous amounts of cement grout were poured into the core of the wall which was sagging and bulging. Stainless steel rods driven through and plates, corseted the wall and were plastered over. In good conservation practice nothing is visible at the end and people then say “What’s been done for the money?”

Then a dramatic storm we all remember devastated the churchyard. George Dines, the master mason, a Highland Scot with extra Celtic perception, found himself without electricity chiseling away by lantern and sensed masons who had worked on the church before him were standing around watching. He looked around in alarm and said “I’m only continuing the work you did, I’m not destroying the place.” He came back to us for a strong cup of tea both shaken and stirred! This instances the need for a contingency fund for unforeseen emergencies in ancient building, so as to avoid crisis. Well, by 1986 this was behind us but even now, last year’s drought effects are seen, the south east part took a minor lurch outwards as cracking demonstrates. These cracks will have to be monitored in case action becomes necessary.

In the years 1987-1990 more improvements were made. Spotlights were donated in memory of a former resident. The rotting wood blocks abutting the walls were exchanged for a Portland stone margin. Then following a chance meeting at the garden centre, donors enabled the reglazing of side windows with hand-made glass and the inscription commemorating the Appeal. Cost – going on £1000 – and what a difference it makes. The original 13th century glass may have been of horn or a greased waxy stuff; glass had only been in general use 40 years before the church was built; although the Greeks had discovered the fusion of sand and alkali such as soda as early as 350 BC. The glaziers for the worked turned up in snow. Their names Bowman and Archer.

The triple lancet east window (the Puritan window) was intended for Little Hampden church who didn’t want it, so the Liberty family brought them here for us. The priceless 13th century crucifixion at the very top is some of the earliest stained glass that we have in this country and the roundels below are a century later. Originally painted and burnt in, they were restored, cleaned and protected 8 years ago.

The blacksmiths at Looseley Row rescued ancient iron bars from ruin by backing them up with wrought iron in the window near to the porch.

The Trust’s largest undertaking has been the wall paintings. This saga began with a report by Professor Clive Rouse in 1963. The uncovering of traces of the giant St Christopher (bearing the Christ Child) by removal of the Plaistowe Hatchment from the north wall started it all. You see the hatchment is now over the door. Six further reports recorded progress by the conservator Ann Ballantyne, all in stages as funds allowed and completing by 1989. The paintings, including the Consecration Cross, range from 14 century onwards. All that can be done, has now been done in the light of modern techniques. The main scenes are the Weighing of Souls on the West Wall where earlier painting of the scene exists underneath, also the George and Dragon Legend is on the West Wall. As to the Christopher, he was  a Canaanite – originally named Reprobus. He was 12 cubits high and “of fearful aspect”, the stories are lyrical. Asleep in his hut a child’s voice cried “Christopher come out and carry me across the river. Wonder not that you bear not only all the world but He who created the world”. Many churches show this legend facing you on entering. Ann found working in winter very cold as she and her assistant scraped and pricked and brushed and filled with infinite care. She and Margaret got well acquainted.  Margaret’s wooly combs from the North Canada years on the Indian Reservation she bequeathed to the conservator, and then – there was baby-sitting. Ann’s children were very young. “Laura Ashley at the Lee” was uncovered, it’s all the roses you see. Denzil Walker’s artistic bats were the fruit of much research. To complete all, a working party lime washed the walls four times in areas delineated by Ann. During mixing the lime in an iron bath tub Margaret’s engagement ring was lost, despite a parish search including metal detector – no luck.  It’s probably under the storage huts. 

This was not quite the end.  By the late 1980’s the porch doors were donated by Audley Humphreys, the monuments were cleaned and repaired, the West door stonework conserved and the boundary wall undertaken. A big improvement was making the kitchenette and toilet with water supply and drainage.

As to interior decoration fortunately through the centuries only lime wash has been applied. Ghastly mistakes have been made elsewhere – over painting with emulsion, oil or cement etc and obliterating heritage art work.

Over and above all this, in the way of additions and improvements, much of which being by voluntary contribution we record:

  • wooden and stacking chairs, 
  • an acoustic grand piano followed by the clavinova with its quilted cover, 
  • the silk frontal designed by Margaret – Alice Stewart Liberty and made here, 
  • altar linen.
  • brass candlesticks, 
  • altar rails re-fixed 
  • new removable oak font cover with oak from Hawthorn Farm, 
  • steps to the priest’s door, 
  • new tables, carpeting, spot lighting, a brass lantern, 
  • a standard lamp and the artwork kneelers.
  • The commandment Boards renovated.

This amounts to quite a deal of tender loving care.

An important aspect is the Records. Now deposited with the Archives including nationally, county and our own, we saw in 1993 an accurate set of drawings made of the building by Nuremberg architectural students as a thesis. The Germanic precision is admirable and stands the church in good stead forever, whatever the future holds. It took the Czech, Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, to record in written detail every noteworthy building in this country. It took the Germans to do this in graphic detail for us here, they were led by an English student from Lee Common, Sharon Hawken. Then, NADFAS made a written record of our two churches with their contents. No building can be better recorded than is the Old Church now.

Finances: Apart from countless contributions including visitors from all over the world, as the visitors books show, several family trusts have donated, some regularly, very substantial sums in three and four figures.
Seven authorities have granted to the Trust, namely: Chiltern District Council; Bucks Historic Churches Trust; The Historic Churches Preservation Trust; The Society of Antiquaries; Bucks Villages Enterprises; The Glaziers Company. These official grants have exceeded £3000 in total.

Not only money but volunteer labour plays a part. Over the past five years, 16 people  have given their time and skill to the building and the garden around the walls. This represents well over 200 hours labour. The working party in spring and autumn is a cheery Saturday morning for anyone interested to help with cleaning, decorating, odd jobs , gardening. We value the care of the churchyard by Nigel and Mary Dwight over the years. It’s a large undertaking now shouldered by our churchwarden, Bill Pearce.

As I see it, to attempt to list names contributing to the Old Church would be invidious, impossible. Looking through the records it’s the sheer number of folk who have, and do now put love into this old place, that’s what impresses one. They say ancient buildings are impregnated by the human spirit. If the Trust measures 20 years, small wonder there’s a ‘feeling’ here after almost 800 years.

A considerable part of what has gone on here these 20 years has been, let’s face it, FUN, and I include committee meetings. As to events; to try and list these now at six each year, will only delay the wine. It is a cultural venue with shows ranging from Latin mediaeval musical mystery plays, to Dowsers discovering lay lines which converge on this very altar table, through to the National Film and TV school mounting a costume musical drama – (I shan’t forget that one in a hurry) – Beowulf, acted in Anglo Saxon by Julian Glover – amazing!

Alternative use of the church is now quite extensive. As well as the treasured 8 am monthly communion on the 1st Sunday, there’s the children’s church, PCC meetings, summer cream teas, Quiet Days, Lighthouse, Carnivals and chamber music. You name it, and they are all as we say appropriate. The Old Church is an institution, long may it remain so, in the name of Jesus Christ.”

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