Bishop’s Cleeve Church. For immediate release. Oak stairs. March 2015.
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Richard III was not needing re-interment when the oak staircase in the local Church of Saint Michael and All Angels was built.
While the Wars of the Roses were fought between the Plantagenets, and the Battle of Tewkesbury took place in 1471, and eventually Richard III was defeated at Bosworth, an unknown joiner in Bishop’s Cleeve was quietly constructing the remarkable staircase in St Michael’s church tower. Now a major refurbishment is necessary for this national treasure.
Imagination is helped by a description of treads made of solid pieces of oak, taken from trees which were probably growing from 1300 or earlier. The balustrade was made with painted panels installed, though sadly these decorated panels are lost. The handrail on the balustrade was a continuous piece of elm, still intact, possibly the whole length of the trunk of an elm tree. The underneath of the stairs was covered in with lovingly carved linen fold panels. We still have this wonderful artefact, rising steeply from the floor to the next level of the tower. It is of national importance and is probably unique.
Over the years, the structure has suffered a little, and there is evidence of earlier repairs. The stairs are still in regular use, to access the church tower, for flag raising, clock maintenance, bell-ringing, cleaning and repairs. The central tower itself fell down in 1696, collapsing into the chancel. Amazingly, the oak staircase, safe in the North transept, was not damaged. The tower was rebuilt in 1700 and the original stairs have continued to serve their purpose.
Lex Jenkins, aged 11, a member of St Michael’s, says the stairs are, “Extremely old and felt unusually sturdy for something so ancient!"
All the bell-ringers feel very privileged going up and down the staircase.
Brian Chappell, a bell-ringer for more than 40 years, says, “I enjoy a great feeling of wonder when using the ancient stairs, which are so rare and special, built so long ago, still good today.”
By 2009, it was found that, although the stairs themselves were still sound, the balustrade to the left was slightly loose. Therefore, specialist repair and conservation is necessary.
Approximately £50,000 has been raised for this project. Gloucestershire Environmental Trust heads the list of contributors. Significant amounts were given by Church Buildings Council, Garfield Weston Foundation, Gloucestershire Historic Churches Trust, Wolfson Trust, Idlewild Trust, Alan Evans Trust, Veneziana Fund, Allchurches Trust, Jill Franklin Trust and Langfield Trust. The rest was raised by fundraising efforts and personal donations.
No money from St Michael’s own fund has been diverted to the restoration. This leaves the church free to concentrate its resources on its mission and development.
St Michael’s is a gracious building of Cotswold stone, constructed around 1170 using Norman techniques and technology. Each succeeding century has left its mark of importance and witness. In the 21st century, it hosts a vibrant, active and growing community under the leadership of the Rector, the Rev Malc Allen, with the Team Vicar, the Rev Richard Reakes. Worship is diverse. The ethos is welcoming. The Mission Statement is to exist for people to discover the love of God, sharing life in his family as followers of Jesus. Youth Work is a major focus of activity. Understanding and supporting people in their daily lives is central to its teaching. The church is committed to caring for the vulnerable.
With such a busy and dedicated church life, it can be difficult to find the resources needed to maintain an ancient building and preserve its heritage for future generations. The needs of the building must be balanced against the needs of the people that the church serves. So St Michael’s is immensely grateful to all the Trusts and donors who have made this restoration work possible.
Archdeacon Robert of Cheltenham says, “St Michael's parish is to be congratulated for demonstrating that conservation and mission are not mutually exclusive! This is an excellent example of the church working in partnership with the community and heritage and environmental bodies to ensure the conservation of the church while continuing through its activities and outreach to serve the community today.”
Hugh Harrison has been chosen to take charge of the work, which is scheduled to begin 13th April 2015. His other timber conservation projects have included work in Derby Cathedral, Bristol Cathedral, Peterborough Cathedral, Chesterfield Museum, the House of Lords, 9 Southgate in Gloucester, St Mary’s in Temple Guiting and many others. Hugh says, “The stairs to the belfry may be the oldest oak staircase in the country. They combine the ancient solid steps made from triangular shaped pieces of wood with high class panelling of circa 1480 which forms the handrail on the side of the stairs. Many examples of the solid treads are known, as is panelling of this date, but rarely together. When one adds the linen fold panelling to the underside of the stairs one realises how important the churchwardens of the time considered this addition to the church to be. Cameron Stewart from Exeter who will be carrying out the work with his son Danny, was amazed when he saw the stairs. With 35 years’ experience in working on church woodwork, Cameron has seen plenty of unusual examples of ancient craftsmanship.”
The complete conservation report by Hugh Harrison can be found on St Michael’s website:
Churchwarden Nigel Bennett says, “The restoration of the stairs is a classic examle of continuity from yesterday to today and for tomorrow. We are the people who have the responsibility to preserve what we inherited and make it available for those who follow us.”
The rector, the Rev Malc Allen says, “Part of the joy of being Rector here in Bishop's Cleeve is that we have a fantastic building and a body of wonderful people who care for it.”
End of Press release. Ann Jessop 20 03 2015
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