St Catherine's Church, Towersey, Oxfordshire
Conservation and transformation project
At the heart of the small village of Towersey in Oxfordshire, St Catherine’s church presents an almost ‘chocolate-box’ image of an English church. The honey-coloured limestone building is first glimpsed at the end of an avenue of tall lime trees. There is a pleasing simplicity to its square tower and plain tiled roofs. Similarly, inside, the plan is simple and the lofty interior is plainly decorated. The oldest parts of the church date from the 13th century and on the north side, 14th century oak doors have their original forged strap hinges and ancient locks intact. The windows are very fine, some with elaborate tracery and others that are much older with simple lancets.
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St Catherine’s church is at the hub of this small community. Alongside the Sunday services, other social gatherings take place throughout the week, such as ‘Café Church’ for pensioners, children’s craft activities, concerts and visiting guest speakers. With the church thriving as an active centre for the village, it was becoming increasingly important to address the suitability of the facilities in the building. The church had no WC meaning that the building’s users were required to walk approximately 75 metres to the village hall. Equally, there was no kitchen or water supply, so when social gatherings took place all the food, drink, crockery and cutlery needed to be carried by the event organisers to and from the church. Finally, there was no secure changing or storage area for use by the clergy in the church. A modest facility was needed so that they could change in privacy and lock away any personal belongings.
Like many churches, St Catherine’s was looking to make the space within the building more flexible in use. The pews at the southwest end of the church were rarely used, uncomfortable and unable to be moved to suit the various activities taking place.
This much-needed church re-ordering project would enable a wider range of activities and improve accessibility for all people. The intention was to encourage more people to attend the church, whilst preserving the heritage value of the Grade II listed building. A WC, servery and secure vestry were at the heart of the project, alongside repairs to the interior and exterior of the church, including roof repairs, stonework repairs to the tower, window repairs and repointing.
Stone Edge was contracted to undertake the work at St Catherine’s in 2018. This sensitive re-ordering project, with the aim of preserving the simplicity of the building, needed to be approached with a lightness of touch and respect for the heritage. Working in close partnership with the architect, Sherry Bates, Stone Edge’s masons, lime plasterers and joiners demonstrated a clear understanding of the objectives alongside their traditional skills.
Inside, a new accessible WC was installed, along with a servery, storage cupboards, re-routing of the electrical cables, removal of pews in the southwest of the name, lowering of the associated pew platform, reuse and adaptation of those pews in the south porch, new notice boards in the south porch, adaptations to lighting and new heating. The WC and servery were to replace makeshift storage at the west end of the nave. The design of this element of the scheme was particularly ingenious – and successful.
The new facilities are concealed by much needed storage cupboards, conceived as a symmetrical screen, framing the west window. Viewed from the front, these appear as oil-oak moulding, derived from medieval linenfold carving. This piece of craftsmanship, is identified with the church’s current congregation who raised funds for its construction. It is a beautiful feature, which preserves the west window as the focal point of the end of the nave and does not detract from the simplicity of the church interior.
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The work to the exterior of the building, included sensitive conservation repairs to the delicate metalwork of the windows. At last, they could be opened, to let fresh air in to the church. Stone replacements and repairs were carried out, with pointing in lime mortar. The tower now has a new lead roof, ensuring it will be watertight for at least another century.
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This project, with its pleasing lightness of touch in a beautiful setting, was a pleasure for our team to be involved with.