In early March (2020) we heard the fantastic news that the National Lottery Heritage Fund had decided to award us the funding for the Delivery Phase of our project to repair the medieval nave roof and clerestory windows of St Leonard’s Church in Flamstead, and involve the community in an exciting programme of activities and interpretation to share this fantastic building with new audiences. At the same time, the world was waking up to the potential seriousness of the Covid-19 infection which was inexorably spreading outwards from Wuhan and beginning to infect more than just small numbers of people in the US and Europe. As March progressed and we completed the paperwork to achieve permission to start, it became obvious that this was not just another SARS, but was going to have an impact on all our lives. Instead of attending the NLHF in Cambridge for the startup meeting, we held it via an online link – probably one of the first NLHF sessions to be conducted that way.

UK lockdown commenced on 23rd March, and our formal Permission to Start letter from NLHF arrived on the 27th. Gulp! We shared the problems facing communities up and down the country as people struggled to establish how they could obtain food and basic supplies in the early days of lockdown. All focus was on how people could protect their families and loved ones, and whether they could continue to work – as well as the obvious fears of getting infected. On top of this we were trying to work out the best course of action regarding the heritage project. NLHF were very understanding and supportive, undertaking immediately to be flexible over timings and the delivery of the plan.

In preparation for the Capital Works to repair the roof, our Architect, Structural Engineer and Quantity Surveyor were finalising the specification ready to tender for builders – but we had to consider whether builders would be able to work at all, and if the scaffold could accommodate social distancing if so. Also what has been the impact of lockdown on the supply chain? We do not want to get into a situation where we build the huge scaffold and start the work, only to find it has to stop part-way through.

We do not want to put people at risk, or to divert attention from what everyone needs to focus on – staying safe and coping with the restrictions at the very least; or dealing with the fear and possible heartbreak if a loved one falls ill. Equally, we know that the structural problems with the 900-year-old building aren’t getting any better, having been given a clear indication by our structural engineers in 2017 that the failing roof timbers needed to be repaired within 3-4 years. We also know that the longer the damp penetrates the leaking windows, the more the priceless medieval wall paintings could degrade.

We decided to do what we can via online meetings and village email bulletins, and to progress sensitively with the project once people had got over the initial shock of lockdown and how to cope with the basics. To enable the project to stay within budget, we prepared a letter to all our professionals explaining that we would use their services as originally planned unless restrictions made this impossible, in which case we would formally advise them of the need to pause effort and cost until we were able to restart the project. All our professionals fully understood the need for this and agreed to those conditions. As a result, we have been able to move forward with the preparations for the capital works tendering, as well as finalise the Faculty, and to get some volunteers started on aspects of the Activity and Interpretation plans which can be done in isolation or over video links.

Here are some images of we’ve managed to do so far…

We’ve prepared a series of laminated placards as illustrated, to show the range of areas in which people could get involved during the delivery phase. We were just about to call a public meeting to invite folk to come and meet ‘pod leaders’ to have a chat and find out more, when lockdown happened and the meeting had to be scrubbed. We still have the placards, and they’ll reappear hopefully one day soon!


We organised the final bat survey required prior to applying to Natural England for a bat licence in order to carry out the capital works. Thankfully it showed that we do not have a maternity colony. Here you can see some socially-distanced inspection of bat droppings!


It’s all high-tech these days: working with plan of where the droppings have been found, ultrasound detectors can pick up the characteristic frequencies of different species of bats.


Meanwhile acoustic sensors are also used outside the building at sunset to establish the points at which the bats fly in and out so these can be restored after the works on the roof, and to confirm the range of species using the building.


Our ecology group now has around 8 members! They’ve dusted down a survey of God’s Acre – an additional burial ground not far from the churchyard, ready to update the survey as part of creating a Churchyard Management plan.


This is one of a collection of vintage postcards owned by a parishioner, showing Flamstead Churchyard in the early 20th century. We’re preparing to scan archives of such images ready to make them available online for all to see and enjoy – which will then spark living memories which we’ll capture in recordings.


An outline of our “Christ in Majesty” wall painting from the East end of the nave, produced using computer graphics enhancement and edge-analysis of a photograph taken from the new mezzanine floor in the bell tower. This will be used to prepare a template for a new wall-hanging showing how the painting may have originally looked in full colour.

Behind the scenes

Working with the St Albans Diocese, we’ve completed the process necessary for obtaining permission to undertake the repairs, and are pleased to report that a Faculty (formal notice of permission) has now been granted. That’s a great step forward, and means that we can proceed as soon as it’s safe to do so. We’ve been planning the best approach for the pre-works wall-painting survey: after considering all options we’ve decided to do a photographic survey from a tower scaffold under the guidance of the wall painting conservator.

In preparation for the post-Covid future in which we can invite more visitors, we’ve finalised the role-summary of the Community Engagement Manager post ready to advertise this once we’re able to conduct proper face-to-face interviews. And in readiness for the production of Interpretation displays we’ve put out a call to the local community for suggestions of three significant events from UK and world history for each century the church has been standing. The top three for each century will feature on a series of panels showing how the timeline of the church building can act as a mnemonic for a wider history. Young people have participated in submitting ideas, and as a result local young artist has also decided to paint a picture of the church which hopefully will encourage more folk to try.

In preparation for the production of exhibition materials and interpretation displays, we’ve made contact again with the suppliers who were interested in the production of Interpretation material. And a call has gone out for local people interested in crafts such as woodworking who might be interested to assist in building models to show how an arch is made, how the church building has evolved, and how organ pipes work. It’s exciting stuff!

Once the lockdown has eased, we can arrange training for volunteers – Matthew Champion is standing by to show people how to conduct the photographic graffiti survey, which will be a first for St Leonard’s.

It’s not been plain sailing by any means, and things are taking longer than anticipated, but we’re doing what we can when we can. We’ll update further when there’s more to report.