St Mary’s Church – Slow Collapse Or Future Renewal?

The Hadleigh Old School arts venue is currently closed, but before the latest lockdown came into force, they took possession of this stunning picture below commissioned to highlight the architectural importance and uniqueness of the Deanery Tower. They support the renewal campaign for St Mary’s Church, Hadleigh and this month they want to explain why it is so important to the future of our community.

Father Jo Delfgou, the Rector of Hadleigh, Layham and Shelley and Dean of Bocking, is leading the renewal campaign for St Mary’s. He said: “This is about the future of the church building. The choice is to leave it alone to slowly collapse or act dramatically now to ensure its use for future generations.”

St Mary’s Church, Hadleigh was recognised as one of England’s Major Parish Churches in 2016. Its last major restoration and re-ordering took place 150 years ago. Andy Scott of St Mary’s Renewal Committee has written a statement of need that focuses on the urgent health and safety issues as well as plans for the future. To understand the present-day challenges, it is useful to understand how the building has evolved over the centuries.


Hadleigh Tower by Gerard Stamp, original watercolour painting 2020. © Permission granted for use in publicity and fundraising for St Mary’s Church and Deanery Tower.

Construction of the present church began circa 1200, replacing a smaller church to the south of the current building. Some flints/artefacts may date back to King Guthrum’s burial place of 889. The interior has been reordered frequently to evolve to the needs of the ecclesiastical and social conventions of the time. For example, for most of its life, the congregation stood when attending services or queuing to pay their tithes: wall pews, box pews and Victorian pews were three styles of seating used before the present-day chairs.

The plans for renewal aim to make the building work flexibly for people in the 21st century, whether they be worshippers, meetings large and small, concert-goers, those in need of a moment of prayer or contemplation and visitors to the town.

Churchwarden James Wilding has highlighted several key needs under consideration:

Restoration of major public access via the West Door

This major entrance, facing the Deanery Tower, would allow large groups like wedding processions to enter. The church is the fifth largest in Suffolk and has the potential to have one of the biggest single spaces. The nave and aisles provide a space of 500 square metres, the largest such space in Hadleigh for hosting major functions of a community nature. Historically the south door allowed visitors to appreciate the grandeur of this Grade I listed building. After the Second World War, the space under the bell town was first requisitioned for a boiler and then latterly, makeshift toilets, which will be relocated.

Return of the organ to its original place at the west end of the Nave

Hadleigh’s organ is more than 300 years old and considered one of the most important in the world (York University). It will be restored and placed where it was acoustically designed to be. The organ currently blocks a space that was once used for intimate services and teaching. A balcony could also be reinstalled as the door to access it still exists in the bell tower. It is currently glazed with fragments of stained glass and two letterbox style panes that allow bellringers to take cues from the priest.

Repair of the South Porch and creation of level access

Reglazing vandalised windows, reinstating metal gates and removing temporary ramps, thus allowing ease of use for wheelchairs and equipment such as catering supplies or exhibition materials.

A new energy-efficient heating system

We all know the church can be very cold and the radiant gas system (hanging down) is causing damage to the lead roof. Given the immense height of the multi-roofed building, underfloor heating would both save running costs and keep the congregation warm. Floor decay is an urgent safety issue to address too.

St Mary’s Church renewal committee and volunteers have already raised funds to start urgent repairs to the sacristy and upper choir room (vestry) but here are a great many other needs including toilets and environmental improvements.

As Father Jos states: “It is our great desire to emphasise its amazing architecture and ensure its significance and ethereal beauty is preserved whilst enabling its utility.”

When regulations allow (check notices in the South Porch), please visit the church to see for yourself. There is a timeline display of the many changing shapes and features of the building including an interior view of 1629 which exists as a mural inside the Deanery Tower. A copy of the Gainsborough painting depicts a second south entrance and sundial, both demolished in 1855.

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