Architects support appeal to breathe new life into an ancient building
When it comes to conserving and adapting buildings, no one does it more sympathetically than award-winning Inkpen Downie Chartered Architects, who are supporting a new appeal to raise £200,000 to buy and develop an ancient Colchester church.
The Colchester architects, who have worked on several churches around south east England, were winners of the RICS Building Conservation and Project of the Year Award for the East of England for an extension to Clare Priory, so understandably, they became excited when they heard about the St Martin’s Orthodox Church Appeal to buy St Martin’s Church in West Stockwell Street, and were keen to get involved in the fund raising.
They were interested to hear that the Orthodox congregation has outgrown their current place of worship at St Helen’s Chapel in Maidenburgh Street, Colchester, after 18 years. It has given them the opportunity to purchase St Martin’s Church, after initially making an enquiry to buy it 25 years ago.
Inkpen Downie are now among the supporters wanting to raise £200,000 to pay for the building, security, heating installations and other facilities. They are hoping local Essex businesses will support the Appeal.
The Parish Priest since 1996, Father Alexander Haig, says a total of £65,000 has already been received towards the target. “We’re all feeling excited at the prospect of buying St Martin’s church. The present congregation love worshipping at St Helen’s which is probably one the oldest places of worship in use in Britain, but we shan’t grow anymore unless we get bigger premises,” he said.
“The purchase will mean a whole new chapter in the life of the parish because we are very constricted by our lack of space and lack of facilities at St Helen’s. There is light and heat but no water or toilet facilities or side room.”
In 2017, buckets of water had to be taken into and out of St Helen’s Chapel for 15 baptisms.
“We will be pleased to restore St Martin’s to its sacred purpose. As Colchester is the oldest town on record, restoring such an ancient church seems very appropriate.”
Father Haig added: "Now it depends on us – and God.”
For those who know Colchester, the church is well known for its serene atmosphere as a sacred place and is sometimes referred to as “one of the lost treasures of Colchester.” The site of St Martin’s is thought to have been a place of worship since Anglo Saxon era, or even Roman times. It has been restored and extended on a number of occasions over the centuries.
Made of flint rubble and Roman brick, St Martin’s Church was the parish church for the area in the town now known as the Dutch Quarter. The Parish of St Martin’s was merged with a neighbouring parish in 1953 and afterwards the building was used by Colchester Theatre Group for 30 years. More recently it has been closed to the public. It is named after St Martin the Merciful who became the Bishop of Tours and was known for his preaching of the Orthodox Faith, healings and acts of kindness. St Helen’s Chapel has an equally exciting history as its foundations are on a Roman theatre and it was restored by the Normans in 1076.
St Martin’s is currently looked after by the Churches Conservation Trust (CCT) which has said the Orthodox Church must raise 80 per cent of the money before they will fully commit to selling St Martin’s to them. The Orthodox Church want St Martin’s to be a place of peace and worship and an attraction for tourists and pilgrims.
Ben Downie, a director of Inkpen Downie, who has certification as an Architect Accredited in Building Conservation (AABC) in recognition of his expertise in working with historic buildings, said, “I am excited that my company is in a position to be able to assist the Orthodox Church in their efforts to revitalise a beautiful building. It has challenges, as any historic building does, but I am confident that it will, once again, become a focal point of the town - as it has been since the days of the Siege when it was used as a refuge.”
“As an established architect within a heritage town, I have been involved in a variety of project over the years. Being aware of different buildings and their needs is a part of my nature. I've been in the town for over 30 years, initially alongside my father and have seen buildings evolve and, in some cases, degrade over time. Experience shows that a project like this depends on grant funding or finance supplied by a number of committed individuals. In the early stages the project will require a degree of visualisation in order to excite and commit potential funds and benefactors. Inkpen Downie are prepared to articulate that vision for the early part of the project. Of course, we hope that we will then be involved in the latter stages when the work goes ahead.”
Inkpen Downie will be able to assist the Orthodox Church, initially in achieving planning permission and listed building consent. Mr Downie has the expertise as an AABC architect to provide advice on the highlights and pitfalls of such a project and intends to guide them through the process smoothly.
If the appeal succeeds, the Orthodox Church plans to continue to use St Helen’s Chapel to extend its work bringing together people of all ages and many nationalities, as many students attending the University of Essex have made it their place of worship.
In previous years more than 400 students signed a petition in favour of obtaining St Martin’s and families of former students have sent many gifts, to be found in St Helen’s, as a sign of appreciation for the church’s involvement in the spiritual well-being of their children during their studies.
Renowned iconographer Aidan Hart has also expressed a desire to be involved in St Martin’s restoration.
The Antiochian Orthodox Archbishop, Silouan Oner, is overjoyed at the Colchester congregation’s courage at launching the appeal. He said: “I want to encourage you to grasp the opportunity that St Martin’s provides, not just for our generation, but for our children and indeed for our children’s children.”
There is a Facebook page and website giving full details about the appeal and how to donate. Visit: https://orthodoxcolchesterappeal.org.uk/a-wonderful-opportunity/
To donate cash or cheques, visit the Maidenburgh Street chapel directly and to make Bank transfers, call 01206 530 530 or email the appeal treasurer, Nick Taylor, at email@example.com.