Body and Soul
Loyd Grossman on heritage, community and 40 years of The Churches Conservation Trust

Loyd Grossman on church pew
Loyd Grossman, Chairman of The Churches Conservation Trust

Originally from New England, Loyd Grossman moved to the UK in the mid-seventies. After completing an MSc at the London School of Economics, he established a career in journalism and broadcasting. Perhaps best known for his involvement in the television programmes Through the Keyhole and Masterchef and, more recently, for the famous line of sauces that bears his name, he has also been an energetic promoter of a wide range of charities. He has been especially active in the support of museums, galleries, libraries and architectural heritage, and has been a commissioner of English Heritage (1997-2003) and of the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England (1999-2003). In July 2007, he was appointed chairman of The Churches Conservation Trust.

Due to celebrate its 40th anniversary next year, The Churches Conservation Trust is a national charity which conserves historically or architecturally significant Church of England churches that are no longer used for regular parish worship. It promotes the public use and enjoyment of these churches as educational and community resources. The trust receives much-needed core funding from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Church Commissioners. However, apart from a one-off increase in 2008, the grant has been frozen since 2001, while each year the number of churches in its care increases and the cost of specialised conservation and community work escalates. You can find out more about the trust on its website, www.visitchurches.org.uk.

HC: Perhaps you could start by telling us a little about your personal interest in heritage and conservation.
LG:
Well, I was born in Boston and I grew up there and in a very beautiful colonial fishing town just up the coast called Marblehead, so I was fortunate enough to be raised in a beautiful historic environment. Boston has incredible architecture and Marblehead has some of the best late 17th and 18th century architecture in coastal New England, as does its neighbouring town, Salem. I never had to be formally taught that old buildings have a tremendous value to everyone’s life, it was just something I was surrounded by. In an environment that’s so beautiful and so interesting, you immediately come to value what they now call ‘the built heritage’… we just used to call it ‘old buildings’! So that’s really how I got involved in heritage conservation, I felt so privileged to have a childhood in that environment that I realised how important and enriching it was to make the historic environment part of people’s everyday lives.

Being in Boston in particular was a great environment because it has one of the earliest examples of how historic buildings can be used for regeneration. That was Quincy Market, where they took the early 19th century marketplace and used its restoration as a focus to regenerate a whole area of the city. It was done by a really visionary architect called Ben Thompson, who subsequently became hugely influential worldwide.

So I just felt determined that I’d like everyone who wants to, to be able to enjoy the benefits of beautiful and interesting old buildings. So I never really approached it from an academic angle, it was always something that I thought was a terrific part of life.

HC: Is there a particular period or style of church architecture that especially fires your interest?
LG: Probably because I’m a Yank, I like the really old stuff – I mean, I really love Norman churches but on the other hand some of the most beautiful churches in the trust’s portfolio are late Victorian. I have a very open mind about that; I love the work of [George Edmund] Street and [Alfred] Waterhouse and those people just as much as I love the work of the anonymous Norman stonemasons.

HC: What first piqued your interest in the work of The Churches Conservation Trust?
LG: I became quite involved in museums and galleries and heritage ‘stuff’ beginning in the mid-nineties, and I found out specifically about The Churches Conservation Trust when Liz Forgan was appointed chair and very kindly began sending me the annual reports.

As someone who is an immigrant, one of the things that struck me most about England was the number and the significance and, of course, the beauty of its parish churches. What’s more symbolic of England than the parish church? It’s everything: the history, the community and the spirit of the nation. From the time I moved here in 1975, visiting parish churches was something I always did because their variety is quite extraordinary and wherever you are you’re not that far from a parish church.

The Church of England has got 12,000 listed buildings under its belt. That is quite an extraordinary achievement; there is almost nothing in the world to equal our national collection of parish churches.

Church interior
St Mary’s, Redgrave, Suffolk: view across the nave from the south aisle showing the 14th-century piers, 15th-century roof and clerestory windows, and 18th-century hatchments. (Photo: CCT/Steve Cole)

HC: Could you tell us a little about your role as chairman of The Churches Conservation Trust and the ethos that, for you, underpins it?
LG: Well, we have an incredible professional staff and thanks to them and their expertise our conservation work gets talked about by people from all over the world. We are all incredibly proud of the standard of the work we produce. I think our churches are beautifully and intelligently looked after. And the job of the chair and the other trustees is to lead the organisation strategically, to make sure it is adequately funded, and then also just to look after the basic principles of corporate governance, which all boards and trustees look after. Essentially, the chair, in collaboration with the executive, tries to steer the organisation in a way that will bring great public benefit.

HC: Given that we have so many historically and architecturally significant buildings, why do you feel that historic churches are worth conserving? Why are they a special case?
LG:
I think they’re a special case because almost without exception the parish church is the most significant building in any neighbourhood and looking at our parish churches you see the whole history of England imprinted on them, inside and out. They’re not just fine examples of architecture, they symbolise a sort of aspiration. They were always meant to be very big, bold, vivid representations of human hopes and I think that’s of value to everyone, not just to people who would consider themselves members of the Church of England. I think anyone can be inspired by parish churches.

That spiritual element is very important for the trust. I mean, our churches are no longer in regular use but they are all consecrated buildings and that lends them a special quality. We try very hard to keep in mind that that consecrated quality has a lot to offer people, so it’s not just about the fabric, it’s about the spirit of the place.

HC: That’s interesting, I’ve just been reading Sir Roy Strong’s A Little History of the English Country Church, and he talks near the end of the book about the way churches historically combined secular functions and spaces with sacred and spiritual ones. Is that something we need to be getting back to?
LG:
Yes, I was really very, very much behind Roy’s recent campaigning, because in order to keep these buildings going they have to return to being useful centres of local life. I’m increasingly convinced that, looking at heritage in general, this is not restricted to parish churches: we have to look at supporting the heritage in a completely different way.

One of the iron rules of historic buildings is that the longer they’re around the more they fall down and the more expensive they become to maintain. So rather than having endless emergency surgery, what we really need is to create situations in which historic buildings are used, because when buildings are used they are conserved.

There will always be a certain number of iconic trophy buildings that have to be preserved at any cost, but most architecturally and historically important buildings need to be used in order to survive. Also, when they’re not used they become much less interesting. There’s nothing worse than going into a building that’s been completely museum-ified, which has had the life taken out of it.

We need to find a way in which we can be sure that the bulk of our historic environment is used, because if it’s used it’s loved and if it’s loved people feel ownership, and then the funding and the sustainability flow from that.

HC: Can the trust help churches regain their status as symbolic centres of local life and community?
LG: Yes, I think one of the outstanding examples of that is a very big urban church called All Souls in Bolton, which, like many inner city churches, was built for a very big Victorian congregation. Subsequently, the demographics of the whole area have changed and All Souls finds itself the most prominent building in a predominantly Muslim neighbourhood. So here we have a big beautiful unused church and it’s a building that is slowly declining because it’s not being used and the local population has no special affinity with it. So we got together and began talking to local community groups and encouraging a joint solution to the question of what to do with the church. The trust and the community groups came up with a fabulous scheme of turning it into a multi-purpose community centre which would both preserve the fabric of the church and also make sure that the people who lived around it used it and felt a sense of pride and ownership in it. After a lot of negotiating, begging and creativity, we are thrilled to have got £3.5 million pounds for All Souls, Bolton from the Heritage Lottery Fund and it will be re-opening as a lively, vibrant community centre for the local Muslim community while still retaining its status as a consecrated Church of England church and a very important Victorian building in an interesting neighbourhood. So that’s a very creative solution to a very common difficulty.

The big city centre churches are very problematical because they’re so big. There’s another All Souls, in Halifax, a vast Gilbert Scott church, a major landmark in Halifax. We’ve had to look at the simple-sounding but very complex issues there, like how do we make sure the roof doesn’t leak? That’s a big and expensive exercise. We have to make sure that that building, which is so prominent and so well loved in Halifax, is in good shape.

Carved stone effigies
The effigies of Nicholas Bacon and Anne Butts at St Mary’s, Redgrave, carved by Nicholas Stone in 1624. (Photo: CCT/Steve Cole)

I think there are now 341 churches in the care of the trust, ranging from the tiny medieval church in a field to these big urban churches, and every single one of them needs a different solution. There’s a very interesting one, a very beautiful late medieval church, St Mary’s at Redgrave in Suffolk, and a lot of the work we’re doing there has to do with kitchen sink stuff which is very basic but which is still incredibly important. Namely, if you want a church to be used by the community for, let’s say, theatre, exhibitions, band rehearsals or whatever, it’s got to have loos, it’s got to have a kitchen and we’ve got to figure out ways of doing that which are consistent with the listed status of the building, the consecrated status of the building, and the aesthetics of the building, and then pay for it and see that the job is done properly. So every single church under our care is completely different and requires a different solution to its problems.

HC: And I suppose no church is exempt from the problems associated with paying the bills: many of the big cathedrals and abbeys have had to look for new sources of revenue.
LG:
Yes, they have huge financial pressures on them. The cost of making sure a medieval building is in good shape is astronomical.

HC: Is it legitimate, do you think, for those buildings to charge entrance fees?
LG:
Well, I think the cathedrals have had to charge. When they started charging there was a sort of gasp of horror. But, you know, everything somehow has got to be paid for. It’s rather like when national museums stopped charging: the money still had to be found somewhere. There is no such thing as a free museum, it’s just a question of how it’s paid for.

So many of our cathedrals now have terrific catering, they have great bookshops, they’ve got good at that sort of thing, and as long as they can do that without altering the character of the building, the character of the experience, then that’s what they have to do in order to raise the money.

HC: Faith tourism is a very topical issue – in fact it’s something we’ll be exploring elsewhere in this edition of Historic Churches.
LG: It’s a growing thing. The financial pressures on historic buildings become bigger and bigger, which is why it’s incredibly important that the public should understand what their value is, because we do rely very heavily on the state and indeed it quite probably is the responsibility of the state to provide a very great deal of funding to the historic environment. But also there’s a sustainability issue which requires as much income generating as possible whilst maintaining the greatest amount of access.

Exterior of All Souls, Haley Hill, Halifax, West Yorkshire
Sir George Gilbert Scott’s All Souls, Haley Hill, Halifax, West Yorkshire (Photo: CCT/ Paul Barker)

HC: Is the trust projecting, and preparing for, a major increase in church redundancies?
LG:
Well, I think we’re aware of the fact that redundancies increase. For the first time, we have a full-time member of staff who is in a sort of preventive medicine role, discussing possible redundancies with the Church Commissioners before they happen and seeking remedies, because of course there’s a limit to the number of churches the trust can reasonably afford to look after. And a creative approach to possible redundancies before they become a fact is something that we are very, very keen on.

HC: What aspect of your work for the trust do you enjoy the most?
LG: Looking at the churches! I think that all trustees find this in common: inevitably the business of boards is about business, it’s about balance sheets and cash flow, because that’s what boards have to be incredibly attentive to. But the real thrill is remembering that all the housekeeping that we do is in aid of our goal, which is seeing that our beautiful churches are well looked after and available to as many people as possible. We have an annual trustees tour when we spend four days in a particular area and for our last tour we were in Yorkshire. It was fantastic because for four days all we did was look at beautiful, albeit sometimes problematical, parish churches. Also, it’s always a great pleasure working with people who know what they’re talking about.

HC: Finally, is there anything else you’d like to add: anything that I should have asked you that I haven’t?
LG:
I don’t think so, but I’d like to stress that next year’s a big year for us because it’s our 40th anniversary, and one of the things that most impresses me about the whole organisation – staff, trustees, friends and supporters – is that while we are very, very proud of what we’ve done and how well we’ve done it, we all have a great determination to do more and to keep trying to do it better. As I’ve said to other people, no one goes into church conservation to get rich and famous; we believe that historic churches are of immense, irreplaceable value to the nation and we’re determined to do everything we can for them.

HC: We wish you every success. Thank you very much for talking to us.

 

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This article is reproduced from Historic Churches, 2008

Author

LOYD GROSSMAN OBE FSA was talking to Historic Churches' Deputy Editor, DAVID BOULTING.

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