Church brought back to life

TWO decades ago its future looked bleak.After more than seven hundred years as a place of worship, historic St Michael's Church in the tiny hamlet of Rushmere was being threatened with redundancy - the once-resplendent building a victim of time and neglect.

TWO decades ago its future looked bleak.

After more than seven hundred years as a place of worship, historic St Michael's Church in the tiny hamlet of Rushmere was being threatened with redundancy - the once-resplendent building a victim of time and neglect.

But now the Grade One listed medieval church - which is mentioned in the Domesday Book - stands proud and tall again after being renovated and restored to its former glory, all thanks to a valiant community effort.

Situated between Lowestoft and Beccles, the 14th Century church is steeped in history - from a medieval wall painting inside the building to a unique thatched roof, which marks it out as only one of a handful in the region.

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That counted for little, however, when in the late 1980s its future was placed in doubt after years of disuse.

With the roof and a lot of the interior removed, concerns were raised that the church would be abandoned and eventually fall into ruin, and things were so dire that discussions even took place with a view to declaring it derelict.

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But locals were galvanised into action, and a small group of hardy parishioners set out to save the church.

In 1992, a village meeting was organised and with the aim of restoring the church and the Rushmere Restoration Fund was spawned.

Shortly afterwards Rushmere Parochial Church Council (PCC) was formed, and a programme of fundraising and building works were drawn up - as the village, with a population of just 60, sought to bring St Michael's back to life.

"It is a very, very old building, which was virtually redundant," said Lucy Budgen, PCC secretary and treasurer. "The roof was unsafe and it was a case of the parish deciding if they wanted to let it go to ruin or not. They didn't, so we took it on."

Since then, countless hours have been put into transforming the picturesque church and reviving it from centuries of neglect.

New reeds were brought in to re-thatch the roof, internal walls were repaired and re-plastered, old flooring was replaced, damaged pews were renovated, and outside new church gates and a flagpole were installed.

More than �35,000 has been spent restoring the medieval church - boosted by a host of fund-raising events including cricket matches, flower festivals and special suppers. Locals' efforts have been aided by donations and grants including �9,000 from the Norfolk Churches Trust and �7,500 from the Suffolk Historic Churches, among others.

Builder Chris Supple, who lives in the village, got together with parishioners to carry out the work, which has grown in pace in the past five years. "Everyone in the village has helped out and nothing has been too much trouble for anyone - it has been a real community based effort and it is what the church is all about," Mrs Budgen told The Journal.

There was plenty of parish pride in the air last October as a service of thanksgiving was organised to celebrate the completion of the work. But disaster struck when it was discovered that the ridge of the thatched roof was leaking.

"The leak was getting pretty bad and although the main roof was ok, the ridge had worn through,' Mrs Budgen explained. 'We decided we couldn't afford to rest on our laurels and that immediate repairs were needed."

Although all the PCC's funds had been spent on the renovations, the villagers' were answered as The Norfolk Churches Trust and the Suffolk Historic Churches came to the rescue once more, and help was also kindly given by Waste Recycling Group PLC (WREN), which donated half the money needed to shore up the leaking roof.

"The ridge of the roof was repaired and the thatch was restructured by Gary Stokes, the thatcher from Rockland St Mary," Mrs Budgen said. "We are just about there now and we are very proud of it all."

With up to six services a year now taking place - including a candelit Tenebrae service on April 1 to mark Easter - the church also hosted two local weddings last year. There is also a burial ground in the churchyard.

"It has been quite a labour of love,' Mrs Budgen said. 'We are such a small community in a very rural setting, and the church has a big say in what happens locally…We've still got lots we want to do but to be honest I never thought we would get this far."

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