Challenge to fund repair of thatched roofs

By Kate Burden, senior fundraising officer with the Churches Conservation Trust.

The national charity, which cares for more than 350 churches in England, including a number with round towers, launched an appeal in April 2023 – Roofs at Risk. She describes the roof repairs at two south Norfolk churches.

St Margaret’s in Hales and St Gregory in Heckingham, are beautiful Grade I listed churches, situated just a mile apart. These two round tower churches are among the country’s finest examples of 12th century Norman construction, with breathtaking stonework and traditional thatched roofs.

Unfortunately, their thatched roofs were continually weakened by birds, pecking away at the thatch for their nests, revealing the roofs’ baseboards and generally weakening the structures.

In 2017, this led to urgently required repairs to ensure the prevention of rotten timbers and decay to the historic interiors by way of water ingress. The outcome would have been catastrophic for both churches, particularly St Margaret’s, which contains several beautiful medieval wall paintings.

Fortunately, CCT was able to raise over 50pc of the funds needed for St Margaret’s repair locally through open days, talks on traditional thatch roof coverings with practical demonstrations, appeals through local radio and media channels, and the support of grant-giving bodies including the Geoffrey Watling Charity.

As a result of these initiatives, an impressive £14,000 was raised out of the £26,000 needed to carry out these necessary repairs.

However, due to the rural location of these churches and the minimal number of communities they served at the time, CCT had exhausted local fundraising opportunities. To ensure this vital repair work was undertaken quickly, we, therefore, sought support internally, and optimised a legacy that was bequeathed to us in a will to support our charitable objectives, and to be directed to wherever the need was greatest. As a result of this act of generosity, we were able to act flexible and swiftly to this unforeseen and considerable expense, enabling us to contact our trusted contractor to remove the existing roof ridges and netting, and refix and repair the thatch using Norfolk reed. Soon, the two sites were reinstated back at the heart of their communities to be safely enjoyed by all.

Despite all this work the future of these churches is not secure as it is estimated that over the next 20 years, £50,000 will need to be spent on the maintenance of the roof at St Margaret’s alone. Nonetheless, through routine monitoring, consulting our dedicated heritage contractors and specialist advisors and the vital funds generated by our loyal supporters, we will be able to counteract any damage caused by nature and secure it for future generations.

In recent months, the thatch roof at All Saints, Icklingham, near Barton Mills, was again picked by birds to be used as nesting material elsewhere. In early July, the CCT commissioned minor repairs costing £2,000. However, whilst detailed inspections were being conducted, it was uncovered that more extension repairs will be needed costing in the region of £25,000. The roof at Icklingham, due to its exposed position, is also more prone to slip. A discreet galvanised wire netting will be installed to control this.

To support the work of the CCT, call 0800 206 1463 or appeal. Donations can be made to All Saints towards the repairs –

This feature was published in the CCT’s summer 2023 quarterly magazine, Pinnacle.

The Round Tower (March 2021) reported the re-thatching was reported. Gary Stokes, of Rockland St Mary, used Norfolk sedge grown at Hicklng and Barton for the ridges at Hales and Heckingham before Christmas 2020. The porch roof was re-thatched with reed grown at Haddiscoe Island.

Donations were also received from the All Churches Trust, Bacon Charitable Trust, Jill Franklin Charitable Trust and the Geoffrey Watling Charity.