September 30, 2020

Medieval Tower of Brompton Regis Church

Photo by Dale Cherry

Church Tower Restoration Project

A Norman tower restored and Anglo-Saxon history revealed at Brompton Regis

The church tower at Brompton Regis is precisely 800 years old, having been completed by the monks of nearby Barlynch Abbey in 1220. It is the oldest surviving part of the church, the nave and other areas having been rebuilt or added in later times.

Accumulated green mould before restoration

After absorbing the Exmoor rain through eight centuries, the tower was saturated. Well-meaning but misguided attempts over the years to patch it up and cure the chronic dampness had been ineffective or indeed counterproductive, and by 2015 the effects inside the church had become acute, with peeling plaster, foul-smelling and dripping green mould on the internal walls and tower arch, and puddles on the floor in periods of heavy rain. The increasingly damp atmosphere risked damaging the church’s outstanding and historically important T.C.Lewis organ, and was not welcoming to the congregation and to visitors.

Having completed the restoration of the organ in 2014, the PCC decided that big thinking and decisive action on the tower were needed. A fundraising campaign was initiated, together with the necessary architectural and structural analyses and planning applications involving the Diocese of Bath and Wells, Historic England and other authorities. Those processes took time and were sometimes frustrating, but eventually everything came together.

The vital funding breakthrough was made when the Heritage Lottery Fund pledged £161,000 to the project. The church was able to draw on £35,000 of legacy reserves, and then in addition to local money-raising events and individual donations a number of other charitable organisations came on board with significant sums: the National Churches Trust, Somerset Churches Trust, Allchurches Trust, the Laity Stoate Foundation, the Garfield Weston Foundation, the H.B.Allen Trust, Emmanuel College, Cambridge (our patron), and two others which wished to remain anonymous. With all this funding in place, a cash-poor church in a small Exmoor village was able to press ahead with a major repair and conservation project, to rescue an important part of the community’s heritage and secure the building for future generations.

After an investigation and development phase lasting a year, a specialist building conservation company, Carrek Ltd of Bristol, was commissioned to carry out the restoration project. They worked with skill and passion over a period of two years up to the final internal coat of limewash in the summer of 2020. They began by drilling a multitude of holes and flushing out the soggy mess (originally rubble infill) between the twin stone walls, before injecting 9.5 tons of grout into all the cavities. The Exmoor weather was characteristically uncooperative, and sometimes they had to pause for lengthy periods to allow the grout and the subsequent layers of external lime mortar and internal lime plaster to dry and stabilise. Cracked and crumbling stonework was replaced with locally sourced matching stone. The walls were repointed and the tower roof was renewed. A new drainage system which circulates air underground was installed where chronically wet earth had been compacted against the base of the west and south walls of the tower for 800 years.

The church’s recently formed new team of bellringers have had to be very patient, but have continued to develop their skills at Exton, Huish Champflower and Skilgate. The village has been looking forward to the resumption of ringing in September 2020, with the mortar in the walls fully dried and settled.

The digging-out for the new drainage system at the base of the tower brought two historical discoveries. A significant number of human remains were found, including those of several children. All had been laid facing the church. It became clear as the dig progressed that the Norman structure had been built directly on top of an older Anglo-Saxon burial ground with no attempt to remove the bodies first, and we can only speculate on the spirit in which that was done. The remains were reburied in a brief but moving ceremony led by the Revd. Andrew Thomas.

It has always been assumed without direct evidence that a wooden church would have stood at the centre of the village in the time of Gytha; she was the mother of King Harold and held the manor (hence the name Brompton Regis or Kingsbrompton) at the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066. She was evidently a formidable lady who successfully resisted William the Conqueror’s order to move out and was allowed to stay until her death. The archaeologist on site for the digging-out found stones of a different character at the south-west corner of the present nave, together with ancient wood fragments, and concluded that we were looking at the footings of that earlier Anglo-Saxon church. Copies of his report have been deposited with Somerset Archive and the National Park.

The tower now looks splendid. The final cost looks set to be around £280,000, but this kind of project is feasible even for a small rural community if there is a will to do the hard graft in securing substantial charitable trust funding in addition to local support. The VAT paid is recoverable through the Listed Places of Worship grant scheme, and wonderfully unpredictable things can happen: the most recent donation came from a gentleman in Sussex who had seen the project on this website and can trace his ancestry back to one of the Abbots of Barlynch whose monks built the original stone church and tower in the early 13th century. He wishes to remain anonymous, but his name does feature in the local Brendon Hills geography. With some late costs to cover, the fund is still open!

William Rees  (Brompton Regis PCC treasurer)