GALLERY: Revival of St Mary’s Church revealed in exclusive tour

Just over a year after fire swept through St Mary’s, Westry, a group of 15 people took an exclusive tour of the church that has begun a remarkable rise from the ashes. Led by rebuild contractor Bowman and Sons the party, which included the East Anglian Chapter of the Institute of Clerks of Works and the Construction Inspectorate, climbed to the top of the church’s spire to look at the progress so far. Reporter ROB SETCHELL and photographer BRIAN PURDY joined the tour.

“IT’S not until you come in that you realise what total devastation is,” says the Rev Anthony Chandler as we duck under beams of scaffolding to enter the nave of his beloved 130-year-old church.

He could only watch as St Mary’s was engulfed in flames last March – but he has continued to keep a close eye on the remarkable renovation project which is now well under way.

A group of us shuffle inside led by Steve Ankin, the masonry director for rebuild contractor Bowman and Sons. Mr Ankin has 23 years of masonry experience and has worked on buildings including Westminster Abbey.

Describing St Mary’s as “a work in progress”, he reminds us to keep our hard hats on.

Reminders of last year’s arson attack are everywhere. Soot still lines the walls and the floor is covered in crumbled brickwork.

But the signs of revival are taking shape. The windows have been cut back to the glass line and fresh Stoke Round stones sit proudly on the new chancel arch. The original patterns will be carved into them when everything is in place.

Most Read

The sheer precision is astounding. Everything is marked to the millimetre and sits exactly where it should. Seven masons are currently working on the site, alongside three joiners and two slaters.

We pass the point where the fire started. Once home to the church organ, the space is now occupied by crumbling fragments of brick and stone.

The brickwork behind where the altar had stood is badly cracked. Mr Ankin says that stainless steel ties will be used to hold it together and resin will be injected into the walls to fill any cavities.

Most of the bricks survived the blaze but as many as 1,000 new ones are needed to complete the rebuild.

PLASTIC sheets covering up the scaffolding rattle in the wind as we climb the ladder to the second level.

The intricate web of scaffolding, which took almost eight weeks to construct, is, in itself, a masterpiece.

Jutting out from the side of the church, and suspended 20ft above the ground, is a walkway which is home to dozens of new stones.

Each stone takes about five hours to shape and about 500 will be used in the rebuild. Next week, they will be used to kick-start the reconstruction of the organ chamber and the vestry.

Climbing to a third level of scaffolding, we pass the charred remains of St Mary’s stained glass windows. They were destroyed in the fire, which reached temperatures of about 900C.

As the blaze swept through the church, its spire acted like a chimney. Although it had partly fallen in, Mr Ankin tells us it was lucky it did not totally collapse.

The spire is now propped up with 15-tonne supports, with the church bell still encased within.

AS we reach the peak of St Mary’s, towering 80ft over Westry, it becomes clear how much progress has been made ... and how much more is still to come.

Architect Shona McKay has worked tirelessly drawing detailed plans with just a ruin to work with.

All the stones in the spire have been replaced and a new lightning conductor has been installed to protect the building if lightning strikes.

It will be many months before the scaffolding and corrugated iron roof are removed and a new church rises from the ashes. But the renovation is beginning to accelerate.

“We are now moving forward,” says the Rev Chandler as I return my hard hat.

• DEPUTY Lord Lieutenant of Cambridgeshire and former Mayor of March Freddie Grounds MBE was among those left awe-struck by the stunning craftmanship on show at St Mary’s.

After scaling the church with the rest of the touring party, the 69-year-old said: “These craftsmen are very talented people. You think about an academic or a university vice-chancellor, they are brilliant academically but the people who are carving these stones are equally talented in a totally different way. The great skills that these men have brought together here is wonderful.

“Out of every tragedy there can be some benefit. We are going to benefit with the most marvellous, purpose built church.”

• AS St Mary’s prepares to enter a new era, it is clear that the rebuild has the wholehearted support of the community.

Colin Baker lives opposite the church. Three generations of his family have been married there. He was one of the first on the scene when the fire started last March.

“I’m very pleased that it’s being re-done,” he said. “We will have a church for the future, a church for the 21st century and for the community.

“My parents were married there, I got married there and so did my daughter. It was like a bereavement to lose it and I’m still getting to grips with that but now we are taking steps forward.”

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter