St Peter & St Paul

Bassingbourn

This large grade I, fourteenth-century village church currently lacks even basic facilities – no WC, kitchen or even running water. The scheme comprises a catering kitchen within the base of the tower; a large meeting room at the west end with folding glass doors opening into the nave; entrance and creche spaces in the south aisle; and WCs and vestry to the north. Two stairs lead to a gallery over the meeting room providing additional seating and dramatic views of the church, with three smaller glazed rooms to south, west and north. A new lighting scheme is proposed, along with underfloor heating. The architectural language is unashamedly modern and not to everyone’s taste, but the design attempts to reconcile the needs of the worshipping community with the historic nature of its building.

Architects visualisation of St Peter & St Paul Church Bassingbourn
St Paul and St Peter Bassingbourn architects 3d visualisation

Because of local opposition, a consistory court was held within the building over two days in May 2018; this resulted in approval of most aspects of the scheme. At the root of the disagreement that led to the court hearing is the question of what a church building ‘is good for’, what it ‘should be’. Much of the discussion within the witness statements and in the hearing itself was at the level of practical detail, but behind that detail lie important theological and heritage questions; the responses to those questions animated the sharply different positions of the respective parties.

Because of local opposition, a consistory court was held within the building over two days in May 2018; this resulted in approval of most aspects of the scheme. At the root of the disagreement that led to the court hearing is the question of what a church building ‘is good for’, what it ‘should be’. Much of the discussion within the witness statements and in the hearing itself was at the level of practical detail, but behind that detail lie important theological and heritage questions; the responses to those questions animated the sharply different positions of the respective parties.

Architects cutaway floor plan of St Peter and St Paul Church Bassingbourn

The experience of the Court was bruising – those opposing the scheme attempted to rubbish the reputation of the architect, and at one point the proposals were likened to the destruction of Palmyra by ISIS! – but also were educational and invigorating in equal measure. We have never had one of our schemes attacked in this way before but trust the experience will make us better architects.

More importantly, it was a privilege to stand next to our clients in the line of fire and help them argue for the changes they see as vital for the future of their church. Heritage does not lie primarily in the physical fabric, but in the relationship between that fabric and the people that animate it; that is what is implied in the evocative term ‘living building’. In the long term, the disengagement of a community from its church building is as disastrous for the physical fabric as it is for the community.

The comprehensive and very readable judgment is available from the Ecclesiastical Law Association website; this both vindicates the approach taken, and also contains an excellent section on the history of pews in churches (pp. 39–42).

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