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HAPPY STORIES

1. St Barnabas Vicarage, Walthamstow

Back in 2007, before my predecessor as Parish Priest here at Walthamstow St Barnabas even announced his resignation, albeit with him approaching his 70th birthday, a Diocesan official asked if he wouldn't mind another minister coming to view the Vicarage. The minister in question had just been appointed to a full-time responsibility in a specialist ministry. It was not even being suggested that he would be "house for duty", simply that he would live in the house. The assumption seemed to be that future ministry to the parish would be provided by a non-resident priest. Naturally, my predecessor, the PCC and the Area Dean (who happened to be me), were, as we say in East London, "a bit miffed".

Following my predecessor's retirement and representation to the Bishop, a meeting of the PCC - attended by the Bishop, Archdeacon and Area Dean - heard the Bishop's proposal that the parish be provided with a "house for duty" priest. The Area Dean suggested that the Deanery might be able to consider any reduction in stipendiary provision at St Barnabas in the context of a wider deanery plan and, after further consultation in the parish and deanery, it was agreed that the parish would be provided with a new priest on half a stipend. There was one applicant, the Area Dean, and the Bishop was kind enough, after some negotiation, to allocate another half-stipend to deanery work, enabling me to take up the position as Parish Priest of what my predecessor would often call, "the best parish in the Church of England".

St Barnabas is a relatively small for an urban parish with some seven thousand souls living in a neighbourhood of thirty streets. The church is somewhat tucked away in the middle of the neighbourhood but has the massive advantage of being an architectural gem designed by W.D. Caroe. Built in 1903, it was provided with seats for 700 people. The church is in excellent physical condition and has a lively multi-cultural congregation, with between 60-80 people attending most Sundays. Occasionally the church is full for weddings and other events. It represents a Christian presence in an area with a large proportion of people from other faiths. The congregation is well connected into the local community and its hall used as a hub for neighbourhood activities.

The Vicarage, built in 1904, was also designed by W.D. Caroe, its front door facing the church entrance at a distance of no more than twenty feet. Nevertheless, the house has provided privacy to me, my wife and five children since we moved here in 2009. The front porch includes access to a separate wash room and to the spacious Vicar's study, regularly used for church and community meetings. It is an immensely practical house, with a decent sized drawing room, a dining room, a pantry, a kitchen and utility rooms (with access to a fairly private garden). The first floor has four bedrooms and a small study; the top floor houses two bedrooms and a family room. Compared to our previous Vicarage (built in 1960) it has needed very little maintenance from the Diocese. We occasionally use the drawing and dining rooms for meetings, and it was a particular joy to host the Save our Parsonages AGM here in 2012.

There are downsides. The house is in excellent condition but lacks heating on the top floor. It is the existence of the top floor which, according to the Diocesan Houses' Committee, renders the Vicarage too big and therefore "unsuitable". At the same time, the Diocese refuses to pay for the installation of heating on the top floor which it renders "superfluous". However, my two older sons (16 and 13), whose bedrooms are on the top floor, are hardy types and do not complain. We all feel immensely privileged to be living here, not only because we love the house but because we love the congregation and neighbourhood too. It is also fabulous to be in a house with a sense of history. Last year, we were contacted by a seventy year old who had lived here as the then vicar's daughter and left when she was ten (in 1946). She and her brother were the last children to have lived in this house and she has now become a friend to our family: a lovely connection. She had loaned me her father's biretta for me to use during my year as Chaplain to the Mayor of Waltham Forest.

Only four parsonages older than St Barnabas' survive in Walthamstow: the old rectory for Walthamstow St Mary, now part of Walthamstow School for Girls; the old vicarage for Walthamstow St Stephen, now the Waltham Forest Registry Office; the old vicarage for Walthamstow St Saviour, now the residence and offices of the Bishop of Barking; and the vicarage for Walthamstow St Michael, now accommodating a new incumbent who also has five children!

During the vacancy, before I applied to come to St Barnabas, I hosted an inter-faith meeting in the Vicarage after which a clergy colleague remarked, "pity the poor sod who will move into there!" The reality is that this an ideal house in which to live and minister. Described in The Old Rectory as having "the atmosphere of a working parsonage", this house, lovingly restored to many of its original features by my predecessor and his partner, is an excellent house for my family and for the parish. We can well understand why my predecessor stayed here for over thirty years!

Father Steven Saxby - Parish Priest of St Barnabas, Walthamstow.

2013

 

2. By the river of Eden we sat down and rejoiced!

Three years ago, we moved from a 1980's, four-bedroom purpose built parsonage to our present home, the Rectory at Warwick Bridge. The house, which is just east of the ancient border city of Carlisle and on the banks of the beautiful River Eden, was built at the same time as the adjacent church building, both of which boast as their architect Mr John Dobson who is known for designing Newcastle Central Station.

We had spent just over three years living in Wetheral, a delightfully large property for a curacy, but despite the space it did have its drawbacks. The property, despite being modern was both dark and cold. At the time we couldn't see its limitations and upon being "elevated" to the role of Rector we were torn between staying put, or to move across the river.

The diocese gave us the option. The parsonage at Warwick Bridge is a Victorian (1846) six-bedroom house of substantial proportions and the prospect of moving in was a daunting one to say the least. How would we furnish it as relative newly-weds? How would we keep it warm?

Had the post of Rector not been advertised with the parsonage at Warwick Bridge there would have been no decision to make ... it had slipped through the net for it was on the diocesan "hit list". They felt duty bound to honour the parish profile and give us the decision whether we wanted to move in. Well, after much thought and prayer, a few burst pipes and new ceilings we decided to move - and are so glad we did!

Like most clergy families, we are concerned to keep our home warm. That has not proved an issue, much to the surprise of diocesan authorities. In comparison to the 1980's house we were in, the Rectory is light, bright and warmer and our gas and electricity bills are roughly the same, if a little cheaper. (So much for the old chestnut that traditional parsonages are a drain on resources.)

Indeed, we find that once the house is warm, it stays warm for longer thanks to its thick sandstone walls. It also helps that we have a wood burner, something we insisted on before moving in. This was duly installed in the main living room without altering any of the original features. It is a tremendous asset and after negotiations with the diocese, we were able to share the cost of this and are pleased that the diocese are working on a policy to enable other clergy in older properties to do the same. 

We love the fact that our house is big enough to host meetings, coffee mornings, suppers and other events basic things which are important and integral to parish life - parish rooms do the same thing, but nothing beats hospitality in a family home. (The diocesan line is that parsonages are simply places of work and residence for the parson and his family. They are not provided for entertainment purposes. Really? So much for Christian hospitality as part of ministry?) We have taken the attitude that God has blessed us with such a wonderful home that whilst we live here we want to use it as best we can in his service. 

As has already been said, we were led to believe that the house was on the diocesan "hit list". When we moved in we were told we would be the last couple to live in there, however this has been said to the previous two incumbents! Given the history, the geographically disparate nature to the centre of the parish (there is no real community feel) and the integral nature of parsonage and church on the one site it would be a disaster if the house were to go.

Recent informal conversations seem to indicate that the house is now safe for the time being. This is largely due to its location and the impact it has on church life. (It is immediately next to the church and its driveway allows parking for the Sunday services and access to the church and graveyard.)

Although the house is very big and some would argue unnecessarily so, it is a wonderful place which to live and work. Our eight-month old son seems to think so and we're looking forward to the day when he runs around and enjoys it too!

Revd David Craven - Rector of Holme Eden and Wetheral with Warwick,  Diocese of Carlisle

2013

 

3. Life in a Georgian rectory

Of course, not everyone wants to live in a nine bedroom Georgian rectory. We did and we loved it. Seven years ago we moved into Withyham Rectory (East Sussex), and we thoroughly enjoyed our time there until my retirement in April this year.

Strictly speaking, it was not a Georgian rectory. It had been built in the late seventeenth century on what is believed to have been the same site as its medieval predecessor. Sometime in the eighteenth century the handsome, but unpretentious house was aggrandised with a classical facade clamped on to its front elevation of nine bays, and its plain front door embellished with a grandiose canopied porch.

Nor did we have nine bedrooms. Thirty years ago the south wing was sealed off and leased as a separate dwelling. Still, we rubbed along happily enough in these reduced circumstances, making do with five bedrooms, one bathroom, two reception rooms, kitchen, study – and a Georgian plunge bath (more of that later).

Withyham Rectory

We treasured the rectory! And so did, and do, the parishioners, who are proud to call it theirs, and no amount of talk about its being benefice property can persuade them otherwise. The great hall, which occupies the ground floor of the central three bays of the house, was a useful venue for PCC meetings, Bible study, children’s choir practice, church social events, and an annual deanery chapter dinner. It was also our family dining hall for high days and holidays, such as Christmas, Easter and birthdays. At family celebrations the grandchildren had space to romp as the adults in mellow and indulgent mood enjoyed their port and cheese. Every Thursday evening in term-time the stately hall would echo with the voices of the children’s choir practising choruses for the family service and belting out action songs like Oranges and Lemon or The Farmer’s in his Den or even A Hunting we will Go.

Originally the hall had been very much a working space with its great beams exposed to view, roughly plastered walls, stone floor and an open fire-place, wide enough to take great branches of timber five foot long. It was here that local farmers came in muddy boots to pay their tithes, and it was here the rector conducted his secular business with his glebe manager and outdoor staff. Later, in the 18th century the rough walls were panelled and a false ceiling was suspended to hide the beams, bringing the great hall into the home life of the rectory. This process of domestication was carried on into the 20th century when the stone flags were replaced with parquet flooring and central heating radiators were installed; regrettable but necessary concessions to modern standards of comfort.

Rear Elevation

The living quarters were in the north wing, with the panelled (17th century linen-fold) drawing room at the front and double doors communicating with what used to be the dining room at the back. The doors could be folded back to make the two rooms one. Above them on the first floor there used to be a similar arrangement, creating a large double reception room, or library and upstairs drawing-room. The lay-out was changed, probably in the 20th century.

The kitchen quarters with servants’ hall, kitchen, pantry, scullery and well, occupied the ground floor of the south wing. Sleeping quarters for the rector and his family were on the first floor of the south wing and above the great hall. The servants slept in rooms in the spacious attic, or in a small 16th century building next door.

This original disposition of rooms was altered completely when the south wing was closed off and leased in the 20th century. The north wing now had to accommodate a new kitchen in what had been the dining room, and a bathroom and lavatory upstairs in what had been bedrooms. Until modern times there had been, of course, no indoor plumbing upstairs. We never discovered where the indoor privy had been before the nineteenth century, if, indeed, there had been one at all. A consequence of this re-arrangement was the loss to the rector and his wife of all those small ‘utility’ rooms and cupboards, now out of reach in the south wing. Despite living in such a spacious home, we had nowhere to put the vacuum cleaner, the broom, the brush and pan, and the ironing board! Still, that was a small price to pay.

So far I have not mentioned the study...and what a study! During my time in sundry parsonages and cathedral houses I have been lucky in having been provided with excellent studies, all with enough fitted shelves to accommodate an adequate working library. The one in Withyham rectory, however, exceeded all. With its built-in wall-cupboards, deep enough to conceal an overhead projector, screen, guillotine, archived documents and shoe-boxes full of old sermons, and its floor-to-ceiling shelving on three walls it was and is a study to die for. An additional and charming feature was the fireplace with its minton-tiled surround.

As you would expect, we had mice. They inhabited the numerous cavities between the floors and behind the panelling, and had done for generations. It was believed that within the 17th century structure of the present rectory there was concealed at least one former rectory, and possibly the one before that. In the 14th century the place had been lived in by monks, the living being a cell of the priory of Morteyn in Normandy. Inevitably, French mice concealed in the monks’ baggage would have settled here and interbred with the indigenous population of Withyham rectory. As each building was constructed around its predecessor the mice remained, taking advantage of more spacious accommodation. Ours was not the only post-reformation parsonage in England to be home to the descendants of pre-reformation mice, proud of their recusant ancestry and Norman blood, and doubtless still loyal the Bishop of Rome.

Finally, the most unusual feature of the rectory was the Georgian plunge bath, installed by a predecessor in the 18th century. This was a small subterranean stone-lined chamber, four foot square, access to which was by a short flight of steps descending beneath the main staircase. Still in place, but no longer in use, were two massive taps, one for cold water the other for hot. These would have been fed by pipes running beneath the ground to the water supply and the boiler in the south wing. The chamber would have been filled to a depth of four feet, enabling the rector to submerge himself during his daily ablutions. We never discovered which of the past rectors, or his wife, was the last to enjoy this luxury.

Adrian Leak

2013