Society’s makes largest single grant to save tower at Essex church

A critical first phase to save the round tower of an Essex church involved removal of tonnes of bird muck.

It has revealed, as the architect feared, several massive internal cracks in the tower of South Ockendon’s church. Now, St Nicholas of Myra needs to raise about £240,000 to repair the grade 1 listed church, which may date from the 10th century.

The Round Tower Churches Society responded swiftly by making the largest single grant of £7,500 towards the cost of scaffolding to prevent imminent collapse of the tower.

With the scaffolding erected in September, it was then possible to make the tower bird-proof, which was achieved in late October. At the same time, a specialist team tackled the “hellish” task of removing tonnes of bird guano. This became the immediate priority because until all the material had been removed from the tower, it was impossible to gain access for visual inspection by the architect.

It took more than five days to remove the years of accumulated muck from the lower two stages of the tower, below the bell chamber. This whole operation has cost about £20,000. One estimate indicated a likely cost closer to £40,000 because of the volume of material, which had to be taken out of the tower.

The architect, Margaret Davies, of MRDA Architects, of London, originally outlined a phased programme in 2022 for the extensive work on the church but after a site visit on August 3 with a specialist from Historic England, the tower became the immediate priority. With the guano removed, repair priorities can now be identified.

It is also likely that the tower may have sustained damage over the decades, partly from a lightning strike and also from bomb blasts during the second world war. However, later repairs have actually caused some of the problems. In her report, she noted that original flintwork has been patched with a coarse lime and sand mortar and cut stone has been inserted and set in hard cement mortar. Further, the top of the tower has been re-built with hard cement mortar, probably in the 1950s or 1960s, with machine-made bricks, again in hard cement.

Each crenelation has a full height crack on one side and the flint finish to the external face has been bedded in hard cement mortar. As the weather may be too cold for repairs to be carried out using lime mortar, it may only be possible to undertake “holding works” to safeguard the fabric. It may be necessary to “cocoon” the tower to contain any further fabric loss and to defer the main repairs until next spring.

In summary, almost every aspect of the church from nave and chancel roof as well as south aisle needs repairs. St Nicholas also has a fine memorial to a former Lord Mayor of London, Sir Richard Saltonstall – in the Saltonstall Chapel, and work is need to the steel sheet covering.

In the past three months, the PCC has been fund-raising but with a relatively small congregation, it has been very hard. Fund-raising events including a recent quiz night added £285 and a brass band concert £200. The local guild of showmen also supported the September fair and raised funds of around £2,000.

Photograph: Taken on December 4, 2023 and submitted by Nick Wiggin, it shows the scale of the scaffolding and the urgent need for funding to carry out repairs.