Churches Preservation Trust's birthday

THE Duke of Grafton is not only one of the leading lights behind the Suffolk Historic Churches Trust, but also a key figure with its national body the Historic Churches Preservation Trust – which had its 50th anniversary last week.

THE Duke of Grafton is not only one of the leading lights behind the Suffolk Historic Churches Trust, but also a key figure with its national body the Historic Churches Preservation Trust – which had its 50th anniversary last week. In a rare interview for the EADT, on the weekend of the charity's annual sponsored bike ride, the Duke of Grafton talks of about the increasing need for Suffolk Historic Churches Trust and why he helped found the organisation 30 years ago.

I have always been very concerned about our churches. The post war years were a time of recovery and reconstruction, there were so many demands on public money. There were so many aspects of our lives that would never be the same – our heritage of old buildings for instance. Was that all to be lost?

There had been no money spent on them in the war years and the parishes, so many of them with wonderful churches – some very big and a small population to look after them – were in great difficulty. They couldn't go on without some form of national help – especially in this part of the country.

Nationally, the Historic Churches Preservation Trust was set up – it celebrates its 50th anniversary this year – and I was involved with that as a trustee from the early days.

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What many people don't realise is that in France, the cathedrals and churches all went into public ownership. That did not happen here and I think that the churches in this country are, on the whole, in much better condition. There have been redundancies and closures since the war but I don't believe we have lost any of the most important church buildings.

I believe that our churches are now in a better physical state than they've ever been mainly because the government was eventually persuaded to weigh in with public money and the Historic Buildings Council, on which I sat for about 50 years, was allowed to give monetary grants to churches.

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I still think it is a quite extraordinary achievement because when the Historic Buildings Council was formed in 1953 it was not intended that any of this money should go to ecclesiastical buildings and it took ten years of lobbying to get permission for this to happen.

They now have a considerable sum a year. These were all slow steps and cathedrals too were able to receive state money.

We, of course, always realised that we had to raise more ourselves and after an exhibition in Westminster Abbey we decided that we would form a Suffolk Trust – and now almost every county in the country has one.

In the late sixties and early seventies the problem was made much worse by inflation – the people responsible for looking after our churches were getting desperate. The cost of essential repairs for these churches was going up.

We needed to know exactly how serious the problem was and Canon John Fitch, of Brandon, wrote a document setting it all out and telling us what might happen to the churches in Suffolk if more money wasn't raised.

It was a very valuable piece of work which we followed very closely and set the Suffolk Historic Churches Trust going - the deed was signed in December 1973 and launched a few months later at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds.

Both nationally and locally the ability of trusts to give grants for essential repairs and maintenance cannot be underestimated. We didn't at first know how we would raise more, much needed, money but we thought the first task was to put the case to the public to see if they would respond which of course they did.

We had some very knowledgeable supporters including Lord Clark, who made the Civilisation television series. He was a Suffolk man, lived in east Suffolk – he knew the problems well.

And in the early days, to help us get off the ground, the Suffolk Preservation Society were kind to us and gave us office space at Little Hall, Lavenham. (Our modest office is now in Long Melford)

The Bike Ride which came along a few years after we were founded was a real brainwave. It was the idea of Judith Foord, who now lives in Aldeburgh. She literally had a dream one night about a sponsored bike ride. In the morning she told her husband that she'd had an idea for fundraising and it was that people should get themselves sponsored and ride their bikes from church to church.

The Trust immediately snapped it up - we were the first county in the country to have it and now it's a nationwide event, run by the County Trusts.

It was a brilliant idea, taken up by the whole country. The first time we ran it raised £52,000 – which was wonderful – and it's gone on from strength to strength. One of the other benefits is that all the cyclists have a chance to look at these lovely churches, many not well known beyond their own locality, and its very healthy exercise too.

It's a chance for people to find out about churches – there are always opportunities for learning things. There is a lovely little church here in the grounds of Euston Hall - a medieval church which was rebuilt about 1670 by an unknown architect.

That builder and the builder of this house have never been known but recently I had a letter from an American from Williamsberg University, West Virginia, saying that he has found out the architect was a woman - Lady Elizabeth Wilbraham, a Shropshire woman.

She designed the house at Weston and the church and then designed or redesigned some very distinguished buildings - including us here at Euston where, according to this new information she rebuilt the church and built the house. The argument is that she feared her name getting out because she was a woman and I have asked to see what evidence there is for this.

But you cannot imagine how pleased I am to see what the Suffolk Historic Churches Trust has achieved by giving out more than £3million. More than 60 Suffolk churches and chapels a year benefit by it.

I have been frightfully lucky to work with the Suffolk trust and the national body the Historic Buildings Council / English Heritage on which I sat for 49 years – in fact until last week.

The changes I have seen in our attitudes is immense. Nowadays everyone is familiar with and supports the idea of conservation - 50 years ago it was not much considered.

I was Chairman of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, a body started off by William Morris in 1877 to stop the destructive restoration of mediaeval buildings by Victorian architects. It had had struggled hard to save churches but there was then no money for it. But things have changed and I'm glad to say that these days conservation is a popular word.

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