1980s Church RestorationHome / Plumtree Church / 1980s Church Restoration

Between 1984 and 1990, Plumtree church's beautiful Bodley decoration was restored to pristine condition.  This painstaking work was overseen by a Fabric Committee under the chairmanship of Philip Johnson, churchwarden.

Philip subsequently recorded an account of the restoration, which is reproduced below:


The story of the wonderful interior decoration of St Mary's, Plumtree, as part of the major restoration that was carried out between 1871 and 1875, under the direction of the famous Victorian Church Architect, G F Bodley, is well documented and there is nothing more I can add.

However, as Churchwarden and Chairman of the Fabric Committee, I was very much involved with the repainting and re-gilding of Bodley's work, plus the reordering of the sanctuary between 1984 and 1990. As I was so closely involved, I feel that I should record a few details of this major project for the archives.

Over the years, the plastered walls had been regularly decorated, and in the 1950s the chancel was re-plastered and decorated, but Bodley's decorative ceilings, screens and reredos etc. had not been touched for over a hundred years and were beginning to deteriorate badly. The gilding had survived the best, but all the colours had faded so badly that in some cases it was impossible to tell what colour they had been. The south aisle ceiling was the worst, being a dull brown all over, no doubt due to the smoke and heat of the oil lamps and/or candles that must have been used for lighting before the installation of electricity in the early thirties.

Accordingly, in the early eighties our then Rector, the Reverend Stephen Oliver, decided that restoration was essential before any further deterioration took place. Obviously expert advice and guidance would be needed for such a task and therefore Mr Ronald Sims of College Street, York, a well-known church architect and expert on Bodley's work was appointed as our church architect in 1981.

His first task was to carry out the quinquennial inspection that was due, with special attention given to all Bodley's decorative work. His inspection was very detailed and thorough, giving us much to think about and requiring us to sort out our priorities.

Stephen was anxious to make a start on the decorative work, but first, some replacement stones and pointing were urgently needed on the north clerestory. Fortunately, due to past good care and maintenance, this was the only urgent work needed on the fabric. It was decided to proceed with this and also accept the quotation from Hesp & Jones, a York firm of specialist decorators, for the south aisle ceiling and the seven wrought iron chandeliers. Work started on this interior work in early 1984.

As previously described, the state of the south aisle ceiling was such that it was impossible to tell what colour each individual panel had been. As it was our intention to restore the church to exactly as it was in 1875, this was a bit of a problem. However, luck was on our side, as the original colour was still to be found in pristine condition behind the cast lead stars when they were removed for re-gilding.

With regard to the chandeliers, Stephen appealed for seven donations to cover the cost of their refurbishment. Within three weeks, the money had been given or promised.

It did not seem long before this work was completed and met with approval all round. So much so, that the PCC and all concerned were anxious to press on with further work as soon as funds allowed.

Accordingly, in September/October of the same year (1984) work started on the nave and north aisle ceilings, north aisle and chancel screens. Initially, the north aisle screen was only cleaned, with the stencilling and gold leaf being touched up where necessary, at a cost of £386 plus fees and VAT. This, however, was not really successful and the screen was completely refurbished in July 1986.

To enable Hesp & Jones to work on the nave ceiling, the whole of the nave was filled with birdcage scaffolding with a platform some seven feet below the ceiling. This allowed the decorators access to the whole of the ceiling and the architect to make a thorough examination of all the roof timbers. A coat of wood preservative was applied before decorating commenced. While the scaffolding was in place, services continued as usual, with the congregation sitting among the scaffold poles and temporary lighting slung overhead.

After all this activity, we had a pause until July 1985, when the pulpit ornaments, the south aisle reredos, the inside of the west door and clock face were painted and re-gilded. At the same time, the walls of the nave and north and south aisles were decorated and the Commandments and Lord's Prayer boards on the west wall of the nave cleaned and rewritten. A benefactor living in the village met the cost of refurbishing the pulpit, south aisle reredos and the two panels.

With the restoration of the nave, aisles and furnishings completed by 1985, the major task of the re-ordering of the sanctuary, decoration of the chancel and organ case had to be considered and the architect's plans approved. Due to our financial position by that time, a funding campaign scheduled for 1986 was most fortuitous, and we were able to use this last, and most expensive, phase of the restoration as the focal point of the campaign. No one, of course, could guess at the time, that work would not start until January 1990, some four and a half years later. This delay did, however, enable our capital to grow, with the benefit of the high rates of interest that were available at that time and of which our Treasurer took full advantage. Again, our next funding campaign in 1991 could not have been better timed to replenish our capital after the expense we had just had.

The delay also gave us plenty of time for meetings with Mr Sims, discuss his plans in detail, not be rushed into anything and to keep control of the mounting estimated cost. For instance, the whole of the sanctuary area was dug out to a depth of eight to nine inches, a damp proof membrane laid, followed by a four inch concrete sub floor and then a two inch bedding for the new paviors. In addition, Mr Sims also proposed to remove temporarily the choir stalls and desks and do the same with the choir area. While this would have been ideal, we turned this proposal down, agreeing that the state of the floor in the choir area was not bad enough to warrant the cost and disruption it would cause. The alternative of replacing worn and shaling paviors where necessary has proved quite adequate and at a fraction of the cost of repaving the whole floor.

The reason for the delay was that Ebor Stone and Hesp & Jones, our preferred contractors, were both engaged in a major cathedral project for Mr Sims, but as they had quoted the lowest price for the work in the chancel we were prepared to wait, taking full advantage of the interest rates available at that time, as I have said.

Another problem we had to solve was to try and improve the heating in the chancel, the coldest part of the church. We replaced the old cast iron radiator under the East window with a larger, more modem steel radiator, which was claimed to be more efficient. A new radiator was installed against the north wall using large diameter pipes between the two. Unfortunately, these modifications have not solved the problem entirely and the chancel is still cold in severe weather, but it is a vast improvement.

A summary of the work to be carried out in early 1990 is given in an article I wrote for the December/January 1989 issue of the Parish Magazine No 56 [1].

In spite of the cost and the time the restoration was taking, our faith remained undiminished and everyone was giving the project 100% support. However, when the estimated costs of the final phase of the restoration and quinquennial work became known, a few people expressed their concern to me about how much of our resources we had spent and were now proposing to spend on this one project.

The same worry had been at the back of my mind for some time, but having started the project and budgeted for it in two funding campaigns, we had to see it through. Even our Rector, the Reverend John Stafford, voiced his fears to me that we could not afford to accept the final quotations.

To put my own and other’ minds at rest, I had a word with the Archdeacon when the opportunity arose. Much to my relief, he was most encouraging, saying that we must carry on and complete the restoration at all costs, it being our duty and responsibility to maintain and preserve our parish church for future generations. One must not forget the Lord's part in all this. He had answered our prayers, sustained our faith and brought us to this final phase. With God's help, we knew we could complete the task.

Accordingly, in January 1990, the chancel was stripped of everything except the choir stalls and desks. The altar was brought forward and placed in the nave directly in front of the screen, the congregation standing in the aisle and in the front two pews for Communion.

The chancel was screened off by a large plastic sheet hung across the chancel arch to protect the nave and newly decorated screen from dust and dirt. The organ case was sheeted down with access to the vestry by the north aisle door only.

By late January, Ebor Stone moved into start the work in the sanctuary and chancel as previously described, plus £1,500 worth of external pointing around the church.

Ebor Stone finished in good time for Hesp & Jones to start work after Easter as planned. The altar still had to remain in the nave for the Easter Services. This time, it was the chancel that was filled with birdcage scaffolding, but unseen behind the plastic sheet across the chancel arch.

To raise funds towards the cost of the ceiling, Roger Harrison, a member of the Fabric Committee, prepared a large plan of the ceiling which was placed at the back of the church and a price allocated to different parts so that people could pay for whichever part of the ceiling they wished. The costs were £150 for a large gold boss, £100 for a panel, £25 for a quarter panel and £50 for a small gold boss. This raised just over £5,000, not as much as I had hoped, but still a commendable effort.

After the scaffolding came down and the decorators had nearly finished, Hiltons started to install the new pipes and radiators. Edson's fitted the new altar side panels, the new oak gradine shelf on the south wall and replaced the vestry door by the organ which, for reasons unknown, had been removed many years ago. They also lowered the altar reredos by five inches to bring the attached gradine shelf level with the top of the altar and the top edge of the reredos below the bottom few inches of the East window and level with the stone sill.

When all was completed to the architect's satisfaction, the ladies moved in to clean and wash the new floor, followed by the men who put back all the furnishings so that it was as you see it today.

The following Sunday, the first Communion Service in the newly restored chancel was well attended and prayers of thanksgiving were said for the successful completion of our restoration project.

Finally, it was blessed by Patrick Harris, Bishop of Southwell, at our Harvest Evensong on Sunday 7th October 1990.

I would like to place on record the gratitude and thanks of our Rectors, the PCC and Fabric Committee members to all those who gave so generously for a specific item and supported our fund raising events, for example, garden parties and funding campaigns.

The Parish can indeed be proud of the fact that we paid for it all entirely from our own resources and by our own efforts without any outside help whatsoever from any Charities or Trusts.

At the same time, our quota was paid in full, all the usual expenses met and charitable appeals were responded to as and when we could.

St Mary the Virgin - Plumtree
Internal Restoration

I am sure you will be pleased to hear that at last, after many frustrating delays over the past four years, we are now going ahead with the minor re-ordering of the sanctuary and the redecoration of the whole of the chancel.

The programme is that the stonemasons (Ebor Stone) will start work after Christmas and we hope will be finished before Easter, so that Hesp &Jones can start the redecoration immediately after Easter. By late spring 1990 the whole of the chancel will be restored to its former glory and the internal restoration of St Mary's that started in 1984 will have been completed.

Ebor Stone will be extending the upper and lower sanctuary steps by nine and twenty four inches respectively. At the moment there is not a lot of room in front of the altar and these steps tend to be dangerous. At the same time, they will remove all the modem grey ceramic tiles (domestic and laid in the late fifties) in the sanctuary area and replace them on the upper level with new stone paving in small squares as favoured by G F Bodley. The sanctuary area will again be repaved with stone paving to match the choir area, this time set diagonally and incorporating a number of Victorian encaustic tiles set in two diamond patterns. To quote our architect "The tiles will echo the colour of the central carpet and are of the time of Bodley."

The masons will also be carrying out some of the quinquennial inspection work and be replacing the damaged and worn paviors in the choir area, by the font, in the aisles and west end of the nave where necessary. At the same time they will turn the step at the base of the font through 90° so that it will extend in a northerly direction and not westerly as at present. This will give easier access to the north aisle especially when chairs are in use.

Before the sanctuary area is repaved, the opportunity will be taken to improve the heating in this area for the benefit of clergy and choir. At the moment, this is the coldest part of the church. How this will be done has yet to be decided by our architect, as obviously radiators etc. will have to be as unobtrusive as possible.

The two hangings at each side of the altar will be removed and replaced by two wooden panels. These will be painted and stencilled with a Bodley design similar to the additions in the north aisle screen, but not necessarily the same pattern. The present hangings which were made to an original Bodley pattern will be altered so that they can hang at the backs of the three sedilia in the south wall of the sanctuary as would have been the case many years ago.

When all this work is completed, Hesp & Jones will commence the redecoration of the chancel ceiling, organ case, altar reredos, and dado panelling. When they have finished the chancel will be a glory to behold and, God willing, will last for another hundred years.

Philip Johnson

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