Saturday, 27 July 2013

STOP PRESS: The Angel Awards

A couple of days ago, heading home at the end of the afternoon, I dropped in on St Alkmund’s Church, drawn in by its wide open doors and the tiny flames of candles burning before the altar.  Immediately inside the porch, mounted on an A-board, I read: Welcome beloved of the Lord, who made you the unique being that you are, and desires even more than you do that you realize your full potential – a human being fully alive, physically, mentally and spiritually.

I liked that. It warmed the cockles of my heart - not that they needed much help on such a warm day.  I also liked the white gauze bows at the ends of the pews. They were for a wedding, I later learned, but they made the church look out of Swan Lake. 

I stood at the back, staring up the aisle towards the altar. I’d only meant to stick my head in through the door, but I couldn’t tear myself away. Sunlight poured through tall windows of clear glass, lighting up the ornate gold work on the dove-grey organ.  I took a photograph of it. I walked up the aisle and took a photograph of candles in a sand-box.  I photographed a plinth of flowers before the altar and the painted window behind it. I turned around and photographed the pews, the aisle and the west window of the church through which sunlight was pouring. I felt as if I’d stepped out of ordinary life into a place where time, well, was just different.  Just as I was thinking this, up popped Resident Priest, Richard Hayes.

Richard is an enthusiastic man at the best of times. Even so, by his own standards, he was fizzing with enthusiasm that afternoon. Had I heard the news, he wanted to know.  No, of course I hadn’t.  It wasn’t until Saturday [ie. today] that it would be announced.  He grinned at me.  When Richard grins, his whole face lights up.

So here we are on Saturday, and the news is out that St Alkmund’s Church had been short-listed for English Heritage’s prestigious Angel Awards. Co-sponsored by the Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation, and supported by the Daily Telegraph, these exist to celebrate the efforts of local people to save historic buildings and places, and are presented every year in the Palace Theatre in London.  The judging panel is chaired by Andrew Lloyd Webber himself, and this year’s judges are English Heritage Chief Executive, Simon Thurley, Bettany Hughes, Charles Moore of the Telegraph and the Bishop of London, Reved Richard Chartres.

No wonder Richard was smiling when I saw him the other day. The categories of award are Best Craftsmanship Employed on a Heritage Rescue; Best Rescue of an Historic Industrial Building or Site; Best Rescue of Repair of a Place of Worship; Best Rescue of Any Other Type of Historic Building or Place; and The Favourite, as Voted for by English Heritage Members and Telegraph Subscribers. No prizes for guessing which category St Alkmund’s was in for. 

The criteria for winning involves not only buildings being at risk and in need of rescuing, but communities cherishing and working tirelessly for their restoration. Stories of overcoming setbacks and challenges are welcomed.  The future uses of such buildings are a consideration, as is the legacy created by their restoration. Finally the judges are interested in the vision of those involved in the restoration work, and their sense of inspiration and imagination.  

By the time I’d read all this, I realized that for St Alkmund’s to have made the Angel Awards short-list was indeed a feather in its cap.  However, should it win, the feather will be in Shrewsbury’s cap too. 

St Alkmund’s is an integral part of Shrewsbury’s town centre life. Surrounded by a beautiful churchyard, fine old trees and equally fine old [in many cases] half-timbered houses, it’s at the heart of the shopping and business district of the town, where a church of St Alkmund's has been situated on the site since around 900AD [the church celebrated its 1100th anniversary last year].    

Since the year 2000, work has being going on to re-roof St Alkmund’s, install photo-voltaic panels, re-glaze windows with handmade, clear glass [as they would have been in the late 18th century], re-decorate walls, restore the painted East Window, install a kitchen and toilets and generally bring the entire building into a good state of repair.  This has been a massive project for St Alkmund's congregation to undertake. The churchyard has been subtly but very successfully improved.  It’s one of Shrewsbury’s most tranquil outdoor open spaces. The church is now available for worship, lectures, concerts, drama and quiet reflection, being open daily for most of the year.

The other day, it was that sense of quiet reflection that caught my attention simply by walking past and glancing through the open door.   Maybe it’s something to do with the quality of the light.  St Alkmund’s isn’t a shadowy church with gothic nooks and crannies. Its newly-repaired windows flood the building with sunlight, creating a lovely airy space for peaceful introspection. In addition, as a town centre church, St Alkmund’s offers spiritual support to anyone wanting to develop their life of prayer. 

That’s what it says on its website, anyway.  Short courses lasting not more than a few weeks, or just a day, or even an afternoon, are available.  The chance to become a Friend of St Alkmund’s is also available, joining in the work of preserving and maintaining the fabric of this important town church.  

Certainly St Alkmund’s is the church to watch as the finals of the Angel Awards approach.  October 21st is the big date. Before then English Heritage will be making a film about the church to  show at what their website calls ‘the glittering Awards Ceremony to be held at the Palace Theatre in London’. 

So, a lot to be excited about.  No wonder Richard Hayes was grinning when I bumped into him the other day.  We made our farewells and I headed home, leaving behind long shafts of sunlight, candles and one happy priest.

PS. It would be wrong of me to write all this without mentioning a few of St Alkmund’s sponsors during this long period of restoration. Grants have been forthcoming from English Heritage, the National Churches Fund, the Leche Trust, the Georgian Group and many local Shropshire charities, including the Shropshire Historic Churches Trust.  

Awards have been forthcoming too.  In 2005, St Alkmunds won the John Betjeman Award of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, on account of the repair of its Coalbrookdale iron-framed windows, and in 2010 the Georgian Group gave St Alkmund’s its annual Award for the repair of a Georgian church. 

In addition, the Friends of St Alkmund’s and its PCC have worked tirelessly.  They too deserve a collective, quiet grin.


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