Thursday, June 27, 2013
Stretton Sugwas, Herefordshire
Open all hours?
At about 4.15 pm I pulled into the lay-by at the entrance to the churchyard at Stretton Sugwas, made for the south door, turned the handle, and pushed. I always give a church door a good push – they're mostly heavy and need a bit of encouragement to open, unless some clever character has fitted a counterweight on the inside, in which case I heave at the door and fall rapidly inwards. But generally, I shove, and the door opens, slowly. This time, though, there was no movement. The church was locked. In the churchyard I found a friendly parishioner tending a grave. She told me that the church was usually open until 4 pm, but otherwise was kept locked. There had been thefts. You couldn't be too careful.
When I tell people I do a lot of church-visiting, they often ask how many churches are locked. It seems that people assume that most churches are locked these days, the crime rate being what it is. They're surprised when I tell them that, although some places of worship are kept under lock and key, many churches are left open during the daytime so that worshippers and church-crawlers can come and go as they please.
I'm rather surprised myself, especially as I'm currently reading the most recent issue of Conservation Bulletin, a twice-yearly publication produced by English Heritage that disseminates ideas and news about the historic environment. Most issues are on a specific theme, and this summer's theme is heritage crime. When it comes to churches, there are around 70 incidents per year in which valuable items (monuments, metalware, artworks, and so on) are stolen from churches. The churches themselves are fighting back, with more secure displays in churches, and more careful recording and photographing of items, to aid recovery if they go missing.
Faced with the risk of theft, churches have few alternatives. Some churches are kept permanently locked. Some post a notice indicating the location of the key holder, so that visitors can collect a key. Some enlist volunteers to sit in the church. Some are kept open unattended during the day.
For churches, though, the biggest crime wave in recent years has been nothing to do with locked or unlocked doors: it is metal theft – especially the removal of lead from church roofs. The figures are staggering. The church of England has some 16,000 churches, of which 76 per cent are listed; when one adds the smaller numbers of Catholic, nonconformist, and other places of worship the total is still larger. In 2011 one in seven of all England's listed churches suffered from metal theft. This figure has now been greatly reduced, for a variety of reasons – a decline in scrap metal prices; legislation regulating the scrap metal business; and security measures (such as the forensic marking of materials and the installation of roof alarms) taken by the churches themselves.
As I admired the lovely medieval timber-framed tower at Stretton Sugwas (cousin to many other timber-framed towers in the west of England), and tried to conjure up in mind's eye the bit of Norman carving inside that I was not going to see that day, I consoled myself with the fact that at least the churches – with the help of government, technology, and the rest – are now organized enough to keep the metal thieves at bay.
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My information on churches and recent heritage crime comes mainly from Dr David Knight, 'Sacrilege? Heritage crime and the Church of England', Conservation Bulletin, Issue 70, Summer 2013, pages 24–26