Big challenges ahead for our English heritage – but could Norfolk show the way forward?

Tough times have sent many more people looking to the past and enjoying the history and heritage all around them.

But in a country struggling to pay its bills, finding the money to preserve important historic buildings for future generations is going to require a radical new plan.

It is a challenging time, according to the King's Lynn-based chief executive of English Heritage, but he says a quick look at a county like Norfolk gives him cause for optimism.

Simon Thurley was speaking at the annual Sharrington Lecture – a talk held each year in the north Norfolk village's small church which attracts big-name speakers.

The historian, who owns the historic Clifton House, in King's Lynn, told the audience of around 100 people that history and heritage were enjoying a surge in popularity.

Dr Thurley said: 'There are periods where history and heritage have supported a society whose confidence has been shaken – the 1940s, the 1980s, and now, without a doubt, the 2010s. Economic bust means heritage boom.

'People are looking to the tried and tested – history and heritage are on their way back.'

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But at a time when we seem to want to immerse ourselves in this country's rich history, the money to help restore the many buildings people want to visit on their stay-cations is quickly drying up.

The National Trust and English Heritage have just had their best-ever two years in terms of visitor numbers.

But the last time there was a heritage boom in the UK, according to Dr Thurley, was the 1980s when the government was keen to throw money into preserving history.

That was when English Heritage was first set up.

Now, the organisation has just seen a �51m cut in its state funding.

As the coalition government looks to reduce the country's spending deficit, Dr Thurley said it aimed to 'cut loose' English Heritage and other groups looking after the UK culture.

He said: 'The cuts are a very genuine response to an economic climate. Don't expect the money to come back.

'We have to work very hard to find new ways and new models of operating. It's exciting but it's also very scary. We don't know what the answer is.'

But, as the heritage expert stood in All Saints Church in Sharrington, near Holt, he said he felt optimistic about the future of our historic buildings – despite the challenges ahead of him.

The church, which was once again packed for the annual lecture which last year welcomed the Archbishop of Canterbury as the speaker, has recently undergone a major restoration.

Dr Thurley believes it will ultimately be up to the heritage-loving public to ensure our many historic buildings are preserved for the future through a Big Society-style approach – just like they have in Sharrington.

He said: 'They've managed to restore this whole church – they've raised a lot of money. I think the church provides a model for the future – a lot of people care enough about something and it's saved.

'Big Society is true, it exists. This church proves it's true. I'm not saying I support the political concept, but the fact that people care passionately enough about something to save it, shows it does exist.'

In Norfolk, the picture is a particularly challenging one with more medieval churches than anywhere else in Europe and a wealth of other historically important buildings.

But Dr Thurley said the signs were positive that a sense of ownership among communities could overcome a reduction in grants.

'It is more challenging here – but Bishop Graham, amazingly, hasn't had to close a single church in more than 10 years. Norfolk has done amazingly well, much better than many other counties,' he said.

Following the Sharrington Lecture, which was organised by Anne Sloman, the Rt Rev Graham James, Bishop of Norwich, said Norfolk was lucky to have such supportive communities.

But the test would be whether they could maintain that support in the future.

He said: 'The truth of it is that the vast majority of Norfolk churches are in better condition than they have been centuries. That's because local people love them, and care for them.

'The challenge for us is to make sure there is a new generation of people who feel they own these buildings, who will support them, fundraise for them, make sure they are the centre of the community.'