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National Lottery Heritage Fund Award

On a crisp morning in January 2017, we found ourselves climbing a 100 year old oak ladder, nearly 6 metres long, to gain access to the bell tower of St Michael’s church in Amberley. Climbing through the bell chamber itself, we found ourselves on the roof of the tower with a commanding 360° view across Amberley Mount, Amberley Village, Amberley Wildbrooks and Amberley Castle, where we could see Father Christmas’s legs still sticking out of one of the ancient chimneys. It was one of those crisp winter mornings with fantastic visibility and the view was awe-inspiring. So, why were we here?

Three months previously we had applied successfully to the National Lottery Heritage Fund (HF) for National Lottery funding to help preserve the church’s 13th century tower, which has serious structural problems. Before agreeing to full funding, the HF releases a smaller amount of money to enable further investigations to be undertaken, and members of Amberley Parochial Church Council’s Building Fund Committee, together with our architect Simon Dyson, were here to accompany Robert Williams of Historic England on an inspection of the tower, from top to bottom. Buildings like St Michael’s evolve over the centuries; changes made to the tower structure, well intentioned and based on what was thought to be best practice at the time, were not always beneficial for the long term. In particular, cement pointing in the 20th century trapped water in the wall cavities; the walls need lime mortar so they can breathe. Openings which helped to provide ventilation were bricked up. Some repairs were ingenious: when the ends of oak beams in the ringing chamber ceiling started to rot, a spare iron rail from the Amberley chalk works railway was used to underpin the beams and remains there still. Over time these old repairs, together with the effects of 900 years of weathering, have caused a build-up of moisture which has badly affected the external and internal walls of the tower, including putting at risk a medieval painted consecration cross. (Its wall paintings are prized features of St Michael’s church.) These issues, plus other structural problems identified in quinquennial surveys up to 2015, presented a huge challenge for Amberley PCC. How were they suddenly to find an estimated £200,000 for repairs? To raise the necessary funds the PCC set up the Building Fund Committee, a separate team of volunteers, not all regular church-goers but all having a strong belief in the community‘s responsibility to maintain their local heritage buildings for future generations.

£200,000 is an enormous sum for a small village to raise, particularly when villagers also raise money for many other charities. While setting a target of £50,000 to be raised from fundraising events including concerts and talks, the Building Fund Committee looked to organisations which provide grants for heritage repairs. First and foremost among these organisations is the National Lottery Heritage Fund. An initial HF development phase grant of £10,553 has now led to a ‘delivery’ phase grant of £109,300 to carry out the repairs authorised following the development phase. Together with grants totalling £15,000 from the Headley Trust, the Sussex Historic Churches Trust, and funds raised from over twenty events held so far, and donations, we are close to our original 2015 target of £200,000.

Inevitably, the cost of the repairs since we first started fundraising three years ago has gone up, partly due to inflation, but also due to an increase in the scope of work not necessarily covered by the HF grant. The total expected cost of the work is now nearly £230,000 and although we have made good progress, we still need to raise further funds to reach the new target. We are extremely grateful for the support so far from Amberley residents and visitors, which we hope will continue in the future, and we are extremely grateful for the generous support of the Heritage Fund.

One condition of the HF grant is that we promote and enhance the visitor experience. Amberley attracts more than 10,000 visitors each year, many of whom visit the church. So we developed the church website to include a virtual tour of the church, including areas not accessible to the public, and also an audio guide to the church. Wifi has been installed in the church to facilitate to these. Another HF condition was that more people and a wider range of people were given opportunities to engage with the heritage of the church. This is also encouraged by the Church of England and fits well with the PCC’s policy of making the church more central to village life. So we will continue to find new ways of using this historic building.