The Future of Birch Church

Historic and Architectural Quality of the Church

Located over the site of a Saxon church, St Peter's was designed by a well-known Victorian church architect, Samuel Sanders Teulon. It was built in 1850 by Charles Gray Round, a local landowner, and is thus not particularly old.

Writing to the Church Commissioners on 18th January 2013, David Balcombe of the Colchester and North East Essex Building Preservation Trust said: "The value of St Peter's Church as a historical monument is not in question". Alistair Day, Colchester Borough Council's Planning Officer, in his letter of 24th January 2013 to the Commissioners, wrote: "The Church of St Peter is a nationally important building by (an) important architect and is listed Grade II for its special architectural or historic interest".

Professional opinions suggest that neither the church as a whole, nor the tower and spire, are of such historical or architectural importance as Messrs Balcombe and Day would appear to claim.

Opinion of the Advisory Board for Redundant Churches

Some years ago the Church Commissioners sought a professional opinion on the architectural and historic importance of the building from the Advisory Board for Redundant Churches. Extracts of the Board's letter of 20th July 1998 to the Commissioners are as follows (with my underlining).

Birch, St. Peter (Diocese of Chelmsford)

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As the author The Churches of S. S. Teulon (1982), Matthew Saunders' views (letter of 22 March 1984) are of considerable interest, particularly as his letter gives a fuller account of the building than appears in his earlier handbook. Like The Ecclesiologist, which described the church as being of "average character", Saunders considered Birch to be a "tame work by a nationally celebrated maverick" which is of "scholarly interest only". This description applies to the church as a whole and, like Pevsner, almost the only remark passed by Saunders on the tower and spire is that it rises to 110' in height.

As an entity, the Board did not consider the tower and spire to be of notable historic interest; either in the context of mid nineteenth-century ecclesiastical architecture nationally, or in the context of Teulon's career and output as an architect. Likewise, while the church is of some archaeological interest to the nineteenth century development of Birch, it was not considered to be of significant local or national importance.

The same assessment applies to the architectural quality of the tower and spire. Again, Saunders judges Birch (as a whole) to be a building of "completely conventional but handsome design", and the epithet which Saunders applies to Benhilton could equally be applied to Birch: it is a "design to which no-one could take exception". It was the Board's view that the tower and spire were neither distinctive in terms of their interest and quality, nor of such national importance to merit preservation "in the interest of the Nation and the Church of England".

As to the value of the church as a feature in the landscape, the CCC rightly notes that the "church stands in an elevated position on the crest of a ridge from which it can be seen for some distance". There can be no question but that the tower and spire make a signal contribution to the landscape value of the church, and must be regarded as significant.

In summary, the overall importance of the tower and spire of Birch - as opposed to the church as a whole - rests almost entirely on its value as a feature in the landscape. As part of a larger structure, the Board did not consider the tower and spire to be distinctive, nor indeed distinguishable from the quality and interest of the church as a whole.

In an earlier letter to the Church Commissioners, dated 5 June 1998, the Advisory Board for Redundant Churches had written:

Your request for the Board's advice on a proposal to vest the tower of St Peter, Birch, in the Churches Conservation Trust, was considered by the Board at its meeting on the 3rd June.

Having reviewed the case the Board advised against vesting the tower in the CCT on the grounds that it was not considered to be of vesting standard in its own right.

While recognising the value of the church as a feature in the landscape, the Board remains of the view that the church as an entity is not of the standard worthy of vesting in the Churches Conservation Trust. As regards vesting the tower alone, I am directed to say that the Board does not consider it acceptable to use the CCT as an expedient to alleviate the financial problems of potential end users, particularly when neither the church nor the part proposed for vesting is considered to be of vesting standard.

(Note: The Advisory Board for Redundant Churches advised the Church Commissioners on the historic and archaeological interest and architectural quality of Anglican churches proposed for redundancy under the provision of the Pastoral Measure, 1983. This work is now undertaken by the Church of England's Statutory Advisory Committee (the SAC).)

Opinion of Warwick Rodwell

In 1977 the church specialist Warwick Rodwell described the present building as follows:

A large, solid Victorian church erected on the site of the medieval one, which was demolished in 1849. It comprised a nave, chancel, bell-turret and S porch; said to be Norman, and a sketch of 1849 shows round-headed and C14 windows.

The site is of interest for its prominent position, but grave-digging of C19-20 must have destroyed much of the archaeology of the churchyard. The foundations of the C19 church are likely to be massive and have probably destroyed most of the medieval church. Internal excavation is the only hope, although not a great one, for the recovery of information.

Birch is a monument to senseless Victorian ecclesiastical vandalism; the replacement church is of little merit in its own class.

Comments on Proposal to Preserve the Tower and Spire

At the Church Commissioners' meeting on 24th April (2013), Mr Balcombe presented a plan for preserving "only the tower and western end of the nave through the creation of a single residential dwelling" (see Statement para. 29). This was perhaps prompted by earlier suggested proposals of the Victorian Society and the Ancient Monuments Society. Relevant to such proposals for preserving the tower, spire and west wall of the church are comments contained in a letter of 5 February 2013, from the Senior Advisor of the Statutory Advisory Committee (SAC) to the Church Commissioners.

BIRCH, ST PETER (Chelmsford)

I refer to the Draft Pastoral (Church Buildings Disposal) Scheme issued for the closed church of St. Peter, Birch (Chelmsford), which was referred to the Statutory Advisory Committee at a meeting held on 23 January 2013.

In noting the provisions of the scheme and the Advisory Board's final advice of 1993, the Committee received an oral report on a recent member level site visit to consider the implications of retaining the NW tower and W front as features of value in the landscape and village scene. While it was understood that such a proposal had been suggested as a compromise position on the part of the Victorian Society and Ancient Monuments Society, the following comments are non-statutory and do not constitute a representation for or against the Scheme.

Setting aside the matter of cost, though the NW tower and W front form a single composition, whereas the NW tower is in principle a self-supporting structure, the W walls of the nave and S aisle are part of the nave which, if demolished, would leave the facade without any substantive means of support other than the tower. While it is not for the SAC to suggest how the facade walls might be supported, it was observed that not only could buttressing the W facade adversely affect its architectural quality, but it also had potential for high impacts on the archaeology of the site - notably the remains of the medieval church, its burials and churchyard. It was also observed that even if the facade could be preserved without unacceptable damage to the archaeology of the site, provision would be required for its future preservation, maintenance and repair.

Notes on Condition of the Fabric

In the opinion survey leaflet distributed by the Building Preservation Trust in late January (2014), the Trust stated it had commissioned a structural survey of the church which "was found to be in very reasonable condition".

The structural survey did not find the building 'to be in very reasonable condition'. In his letter of 22nd July 2013 to the Trust, Mr Morton (who carried out this survey) explained that the inspection was 'visual only' and he said, inter alia, "Overall the structural condition of the spire is not unreasonable, with there being no signs of any major instability". Saying the structural condition of a building 'is not unreasonable' is not the same as saying the building is 'in very reasonable condition'.

It is worth noting that the section headed 'Summary of building condition', on page 8 of the Trust's own viability study, starts with the words: "The building is in a very poor condition … "

For a fuller understanding of the condition of the building it is worth studying the Condition Survey produced by Purcell Miller Tritton LLP in January 2012. The document can be downloaded from the Trust's website in PDF format (Appendix i). The report contains some telling photographs as well as text. The report concludes with estimated costs of repairs, based on 2010 building costs. These are in excess of £1.24 million, excluding VAT and professional costs. That does not suggest the building was in 'very reasonable condition' even two years ago, let alone now.

There were major problems with the church's fabric as far back as 1959/60. In his booklet "The Churches - Old and New - of Birch, and Layer Breton" Tom Millatt, a former headmaster of Birch School, wrote about St Peter's saying:

"For over a century the church had withstood fair weather and foul, and in the process stonework had eroded badly, and an architect's inspection in 1959 revealed many faults needing attention. The work of replacing the decayed stonework, of repair and renovation to the rainwater pipes and gutters, and other needful work was put in hand, and then suddenly on the night of January 19th, 1960 the spire was struck by lightning in a freak storm, causing damage to the electric lighting system, and subjecting the whole building to a considerable shock. Detailed examination after the erection of scaffolding showed serious damage to the upper part of the spire, and revealed that the lightning conductor was faulty. The inspection also revealed considerable erosion and crumbling away of much of the stonework, both inside and outside the spire."

By the early 1980s the church was again in need of considerable restoration and various efforts, including a flower festival, were made in 1985 to raise funds for this purpose. However it became clear the fabric of the building was in such poor condition that the cost of restoration was well beyond the resources of the local community. For safety reasons, such as falling masonry, the church was closed for worship in about 1987, although not formally closed for worship until 1990.