Friday, 2 November 2018

Getting your kit off in a Nottinghamshire church: why attitudes have to change

So a couple of weeks ago the local mums of East Markham got their kit off. The ladies of the village were to be found hanging around in the fields, wandering through local orchards, and even propping up the bar in the local pub - all in what can best be described as 'a state of undress'. And why were the good ladies of this Nottinghamshire village getting all 'cheeky' in the church? Is this a normal activity for the locals? The answer is that they were putting together a charity naked calendar.

You've all seen the sort of thing, made famous by the blockbuster film 'Calendar Girls'. Where local ladies come together to produce a photographic calendar, largely featuring them and little else (particularly noticeable is the lack of clothing), to raise money for a good cause. It is to be praised. It is to be considered most commendable. A local community coming together to raise money to help good causes. However, what makes this particular calendar so different is that it is designed to raise money for a cause that didn't even exist a month ago.

On the night of October 5th the church of St John the Baptist in East Markham was only one of the latest churches to be targeted by criminals intent on stripping the lead from the roof. Over four tons of lead was stolen that night, netting the thieves approximately £3500 in scrap value - at best. However, their crime has had a far higher cost for the parish itself, with repairs estimated at upwards of £50,000.

Damage to East Markham church roof. Image copyright: Tom Freemantle

Sadly, the villagers of East Markham aren't alone in having suffered at the hands of these vile little shits. This year has been a slightly busier year than average for metal theft from churches. Not massively so, but slightly busier. A quick trawl of the news feeds produced stories about lead theft at the following churches:-

Gamlingay,Houghton ConquestLindsayWilloughby WaterleysSudbury (Derbs)WilsfordSwarbyKelbySt James, BristolSt George Colegate, NorwichBarton upon HumberPewseyMeltonTwyfordTilton on the hillWhitwell (Leic)GlastonBorough on the hillEmpinghamEdith Weston

This isn't a comprehensive list, just what turned up on a quick Google search - it also only covers the LAST SIX MONTHS. The damage has been estimated in the millions of pounds in last six months - and yet the criminal gangs have likely only netted a tiny fraction of that value illegally selling on the lead as scrap. Approximately 5% - 10% of the costs of the damage they cause. Not exactly the most cost effective of criminal enterprises. Let's face it, they'd make far more cash repairing church roofs than stealing the lead from them.

However, it isn't all about the money. Believe it or not, church roofs tend to be fairly fragile objects. They may have elaborately carved angels supporting massive timbers and hemmer-beams, but above that is nothing more than a few thin boards and a sheet of lead. Once the lead is removed the boards, and all the time opened gaps between them, are exposed to the elements - as is everything within the church below. One good downpour can cause further tens of thousands of pounds worth of damage. More importantly, some of the damage can be beyond something that you can put an actual price on. Medieval wall paintings can be literally washed from the walls. Pigments that have survived in the parish church for centuries, with bright images of saints glaring down upon generations of the congregation, can be lost forever in a few good rain storms. Angels weeping real tears as their colours pool on the floor beneath them. And that is not even to mention the early graffiti often to be found on this lead - some of which can date back to the seventeenth century. This is not a victimless crime.

There are ways to protect churches from this crime - or at least limit the likelihood of it taking place. Roof alarms are seen as an effective method. However, even they rely upon someone being able, and willing, to turn out in the middle of the night to answer an alarm, with the potential for meeting a gang of metal thieves at the church. Something of an alarming prospect in itself for many of our more elderly churchwardens. In addition, it isn't much use having an alarm if the nearest company operative charged with answering any alarm call is actually several hours away from the site. And the thieves are getting wise to the alarms these days. A number of alarmed churches have had their rood lead stolen, with the alarm sensors carefully removed before the lead was stripped.

Other methods tend to be only seen as a deterrent that becomes effective only AFTER the lead has been stolen. Things such as CCTV recording, or marking the lead with 'smart water', may both help eventually convict the culprits and recover the stolen lead (which largely cannot be re-used), but they don't stop the crime happening in the first place. All a very sad state of affairs.

You cannot help but feel sorry for these communities, and the massive financial challenges that they suddenly find themselves facing, but to a certain extent many of these crimes are simply ones that should never have taken place.

The current advice being given out by heritage organisations such as Historic England is that if a church suffers a lead theft then the lead roof must be repaired 'like for like'. Where lead was taken, lead must be used to replace the missing roof. To some extent there is a good conservation argument behind this advice. Lead is hard wearing, has a long lifespan, and has been used as a church roofing material for many, many centuries. Conservation principles advise that all replacements should be as close to the original material as possible.

The problem with this approach, reiterated again by Historic England earlier this year, is that you simply make the church a further target for the lead thieves. Not only do you put valuable material back on the roof, but you do so for thieves that are actually experienced in stripping lead from that particular church. You may as well just leave the cash in the church porch. Indeed, it might even be cheaper in the long run. Harpley church in Norfolk, was attacked three times in four years. Icklingham in Suffolk - twice in four years. Dunton Bassett in Leicestershire - three times in five years. The list goes on and on.

The thing is that there are other materials that can be used to cover church roofs - ranging from various types of polymer coating, to cheaper metal alternatives - all of which have about zero scrap value to any potential thieves, and look pretty much like the lead roof that they are replacing. If used to replace a stolen lead roof they simply don't make further attacks worthwhile. There is no cash in it for the scumbag lead thieves. The question has to be, do such alternatives actually deter further theft? The answer is an unequivocal yes. Cowlinge church in Suffolk was attacked by thieves a few years ago, who managed to strip much of the lead from the south aisle roof. After a long debate with the authorities the church managed to secure agreement that the replacement roof would be lead-free, and tens of thousands of pounds was eventually spent repairing the damaged roof. Earlier this year thieves returned once again to this remote church, and again targeted the south aisle roof. They began to remove the roofing material from one corner, but upon discovering it wasn't actually lead, they fled the scene. Admittedly the aisle roof was damaged, but this time only to the tune of a few thousand pounds, rather than the tens of thousands of pounds worth of damage that had been caused previously. Lead-free roofs work.

Medieval Latin text graffiti from Cowlinge church, Suffolk

The problem is that the heritage organisations really don't like these roof coverings being used. Despite looking like a lead roof, they aren't the real thing, and their use reduces the historic aesthetic and significance of the building. A number of organisations and diocese are coming around to realising that the use of lead-free roofing materials does actually provide a long term solution for many churches. However, Historic England are less convinced. Whilst they 'recognise that in certain circumstances following theft like-for-like replacement would not be prudent', they still argue that lead should be retained wherever it is deemed practical.

Well times change, and everyone who spends a good deal of time in churches knows that they too are buildings of change and evolution. They have to be. As most heritage professionals and church archaeologists already accept, these buildings may be a fantastic resource for studying the past, but they also need a future. That future can only really be secured by the communities to which they belong. People like the naked mums of East Markham. And to do that these buildings need people inside their walls, they need facilities to make those people welcome, and most of all, they need a bloody roof.

If you would like to support the East Markham appeal, or buy a calendar of the East Markham mums in the nip, more details can be found here

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