St Mary's Church, Ickworth restoration: Fred looks after the family

St Mary's Church, Ickworth restoration: Fred looks after the family

When St Mary’s church, which sits on what’s left of the Hervey estate at Horringer, near Bury St Edmund’s, Suffolk, looked like becoming a ruin, the 8th Marquess of Bristol set about raising money to restore the building where most of his ancestors are buried.

A hyped story in a Sunday glossy magazine featuring Lady Victoria Hervey, pronounced Harvey, a landed family with roots stretching across Suffolk from the 15th century, reveals that her ancestors had a scandalous history. Thankfully her full brother, Frederick, the 8th Marquess of Bristol, has a much more business-like and commercial head on his shoulders. Having seen his family squander a king’s ransom on excessive lifestyle, Frederick set about founding the Ickworth Church Conservation Trust aimed at saving the decaying building, which was literally falling around his ancestor’s ears.

With the vast family 30,000 acre estate, stretching as far as Lincolnshire sold to pay crippling debts, and the famous Rotunda (Ickworth) house given to the National Trust, who now have the burden of keeping the grand house watertight, all that was left in the Hervey family hands was the forlorn and crumbling St Mary’s Church, which sits snugly like an isolated island less than a ten minute walk from the main house.

A 13th century nave, chancel walls, and wall paintings suggest when the present church was built, although it is known that a place of worship has been on the site since the time of the Doomsday Book. During the 1770s the 3rd Earl added the brick tower, the family vault, and handsome marble pavement made from over-large memorial stones. Then in the 1830s the 1st Marquess installed the Flemish stained glass roundels in the east window, and had the walls rendered. Eighty years later the 4th Marquess was even more ambitious using architect A.C. Bloomfield, who was also working on nearby Ickworth House, to have the family underground chamber moved to the south vault, replace the plaster ceiling with a more robust and crafted wooden one, and painting a stunning wooden ceiling over the family gallery. It was while conservation work was being carried out that large medieval wall paintings were discovered.

Ickworth Church was used regularly as a place of worship by the Hervey family until 1984, and although now redundant it is still consecrated and used for occasional services. A reflection of the times reveals that the Rotunda servants were allowed to worship in the church with the family. Sitting on benches high up on a mezzanine floor at the back of the church, they were instructed to not look at the Marquess and his family during the service. A ‘squint’, a small offset hole on the west wall near the alter, allowed the unwanted and unwashed, who were not allowed in the church, to listen to the services.

Over the next 20 years or so the church became home to bats, and water seeped into the church through the leaky roof damaging wall paintings, wood and plasterwork, doing particularly heavy damage to the entrance to the family gallery. It was at this point that the current Marquess of Bristol, who inherited the title without wealth, realised that the church would eventually crumble and crash down on his family, unless he raised the money for urgent repairs. He argued a case that Ickworth Church was part of the history of the estate, and something that visitors to the main house could also enjoy along with the parkland. He probably forgot to mention that his family were also buried below the floor and that someday he would want somewhere to rest his bones! That was seven years ago and now the prospects of his family look a lot more secure.

Both English Heritage and the Heritage Lottery Fund saw merit in saving the church and Frederick was given the go ahead to begin a restoration project that would cost 1.2 million, most of it carried out by E.A.Valiant and Sons of Bury St Edmunds, the company that did much of the magnificent building and restoration work at St Edmundsbury Cathedral in the town.

Looking at the church, now given a new lease of life, it is hard to see where the money has been spent. John Porter, the Ickworth Church co-ordinator, explains: “The church had to be completely covered in plastic sheeting supported by scaffolding so that all the old roof slates could be taken off, the wooden scissor and brace roof beams checked, with all the lead sections and flashings being replaced by the Norwich, Norfolk-based Anglia Lead Roofing Company.

“The work carried out takes the church back to how it would have looked in 1910, but it took craftsmen around a year to create what you see today. Water damage was the biggest problem, the stairwell to the family gallery suffering particularly badly along with rotten floors. The ruined carpets were taken out and copies made, the pulpit was raised, and it took a team of specialists two months to restore the ancient wall paintings, the best one being seen to the right of the alter. Almost unique to the church is the huge slate or marble floor stones which are now set in the wall,” explains John.

One thing that intrigues a lot of visitors is the wall plaque in the family gallery, which lists all the nobility lying beneath their feet. “Virtually the whole family are in the vault,” says John, “and many visitors ask if they can go down and have a look. We are going to arrange a number of tours in the future based on demand.”

Visitors enjoying a walk around the restored church may not realise what’s been renovated or restored, which includes the internal walls, which have new render, the Flemish roundels, which have been repaired and the round window on the east wall restored. Over 400 hours were spent restoring the altar front, much of the work overseen by Cambridge-based Freeland Rees Roberts. Also restored were the 18th century chancel boards showing the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s prayer.

Much of the churchyard wall had to be sympathetically removed, new foundations dug and the wall reinstated using the original bricks, along with a new gate, a replica of the original. Topping out the church was the reinstatement of the gilded ball and dove, the original having thought to be stolen.
Today St Mary’s Church, Ickworth sits in peaceful harmony with the house. Frederick, the 8th Marquess can be justly proud of his achievements, which is more than can be said of his ancestors!

For more on Ickworth House and St Mary’s church go to:

Mel Russ