How 260 Bedfordians raised £300k to reopen their local church

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On Sunday 29th September, the Bishop of Bedford will reopen part of a church in Bletsoe which most people thought was closed for ever.

Forty years ago, the roof of St Mary’s church, Bletsoe leaked so badly that the village and its vicar bricked up part of the building and left it to the spiders.

For all that time, it was just used for storage and the only ever saw the light of day when someone fetched a mower or a wheelbarrow which was stored in there.

It seemed unlikely that the mediaeval chancel and Victorian vestry would ever be brought back to life.

However, thanks to a major fundraising campaign by the Friends of St  Mary’s support group, a scheme was hatched to renovate both the chancel and vestry to give the village a new space for events and meetings while the church had a space for activities and services.

The project included commissioning a spectacular totally clear glass screen, re-plastering walls, restoring the stained glass windows, insulating roofs and creating new floors.

And with the help of seventy five local residents’ donations, grants from over twenty bodies – particularly the Beds & Herts Historic Churches Trust – and a Heritage Lottery Fund grant of £53,400, over £300,000 has been raised in five years to make it happen.

The Heritage Lottery grant required the group to undertake a number of community projects which have been recorded by media students at Sharnbrook Academy.

Bletsoe residents were part of the archaeological recording of the restoration, charting all the discoveries unearthed when digging trenches in the churchyard going down to levels last seen in the 1700s.

They also helped uncover and re-erect gravestones going back two hundred years.

Throughout the project, there have been regular guided tours of the work in progress and the final results will be displayed in a brand new Village Archive which will be launched by the end of the year.

The restoration has taken over twenty months and, at this year’s Harvest Festival at 4pm on Sunday 29 September, the Bishop of Bedford will rededicate the space to the sound of Bletsoe village handbells and Sharnbrook Community Choir while the kitchen is christened by providing tea and cakes to the assembled throng.

Members of the public are invited to celebrate the future of an ancient mediaeval building, once again at the heart of its community.


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