Volunteers rally to save Erpingham church

Churchwardens Helen Burrell and Colin Willis put protective sheeting over Erpingham church organ rea

Churchwardens Helen Burrell and Colin Willis put protective sheeting over Erpingham church organ ready for the start of a major restoration project. Picture: KAREN BETHELL - Credit: Archant

When St Mary's Church at Erpingham was turned down for a £240,000 Heritage Lottery grant for vital repairs, parish priest Rev Canon Paul Thomas came up with the idea of using people power to get the work done instead.

And, thanks to his efforts, and those of a specially-formed committee, a 40-strong army of local people is now set to start work on restoring the medieval, Grade One listed building to its former glory.

Mr Thomas, who is priest in charge of the Scarrowbeck benefice, covering six north Norfolk churches, decided to ask villagers for help after he was told that other churches had more urgent need of Lottery support.

After overseeing similar projects at his previous churches in Essex and Yorkshire, he knew that, by doing the work themselves, local folk could not only save tens of thousands in labour costs, but also start the work sooner and encourage a sense of 'community ownership'.

'I think people want to own their local church,' he explained. 'Even if they don't regularly come to worship, it is their church and I think it is nice for people to be able to point to parts of the building they have been responsible for.'

Work is set to start at the end of the month, when, after the organ, pews and other fixed artefacts have been covered with protective sheeting by a team of volunteers, crumbling plaster will be stripped from the walls.

Local builder Chris Bishop will then begin replastering the church interior with lime putty plaster, before it is refinished using conservation grade paint costing around £100 per litre.

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Outside the church, Erpingham-based contractor Alan Witham will be laying drainage pipes to provide St Mary's with a water supply in preparation for the installation of a kitchenette and toilet.

Working to a seven-week schedule drawn up by Mr Thomas with the help of church fabric officer and choirmaster Stephen Burrell, volunteers will then work with local builders to complete other jobs, including painting and cleaning.

Costing just £10,650 in materials - rather than the £50,650 quoted by contractors - the first phase of the scheme will be paid for from church funds.

Individual sponsors for new chairs and display boards have also been found, with Mr Thomas and his team hoping applications for £75,000 of funding for the kitchenette, toilet and a new porch will be successful.

Mr Thomas, who was made an OBE in 2012, is also planning to reapply to the Heritage Lottery Fund for a grant to cover the cost of repairing the crumbling church windows and, if funds allow, extend the car park by laying gravel.

St Mary's, which last year hosted a Medieval spectacular commemorating the life of Norfolk hero Sir Thomas Erpingham, who built the church tower in the 15th century, is set to reopen in mid-May, with the whole project due to be completed by January 21017.

'When everything is done, it will be an absolute picture,' Mr Thomas said. 'And it is a great reflection of the local community that we will have done so much of the work ourselves; I feel very proud of everyone.'