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Decision on destroyed church's future will take months and 'costs will be absolutely sky high'

PUBLISHED: 18:13 05 September 2019 | UPDATED: 18:23 05 September 2019

The 12th Century St Mary the Virgin Church in Wimbotsham, near Downham Market, has been gutted by a fire. Picture: Geoff Robinson Photography

The 12th Century St Mary the Virgin Church in Wimbotsham, near Downham Market, has been gutted by a fire. Picture: Geoff Robinson Photography

GEOFF ROBINSON PHOTOGRAPHY.

A church building expert has said it will take months before a decision is made on the future of a church that was gutted by fire.

St Mary's Church at Wimbotsham remains cordoned off the day after it was gutted by fire. Picture: Sarah HussainSt Mary's Church at Wimbotsham remains cordoned off the day after it was gutted by fire. Picture: Sarah Hussain

St Mary's Church in Wimbotsham was severely damaged by a fire yesterday that destroyed the roof and interior of the building.

More than 50 firefighters tackled the blaze at the medieval church, near Downham Market.

Geoffrey Hunter, church buildings expert from the Diocese of Ely, said: "The main body of the church and the tower has been completely gutted and the interior has been burnt out completely.

"The roof, pews, altar have gone, with the very east end of the church okay.

Fire destroys most of St Mary's Church in Wimbotsham.    Byline: Sonya Duncan
Copyright: Archant 2019Fire destroys most of St Mary's Church in Wimbotsham. Byline: Sonya Duncan Copyright: Archant 2019

"The vestry was not burnt out, and the church records and registers - the important historical documents that were held in the safe, have been saved.

MORE: Cause of Church blaze which destroyed 17th century altar is investigated.

"The church had a lot of work done to it in the later medieval periods and the roof also contained a lot of medieval material from the 15th century.

"The good news is the miraculous survival of the bells. There are three bells, two from the 14th century and one from the 15th century, which are all still up there.

Fire destroys most of St Mary's Church in Wimbotsham.    Byline: Sonya Duncan
Copyright: Archant 2019Fire destroys most of St Mary's Church in Wimbotsham. Byline: Sonya Duncan Copyright: Archant 2019

"We were able to get our bell advisor up there yesterday to survey the situation and we're coming up with a plan to save them. Once they have been safely removed it'll be safe to enter the building."

The bells will need to be taken down before a full inspection can be carried out, which is likely to be over the next couple of weeks.

Mr Hunter said: "It will need a crane to bring them down but if a crane cannot get in, they'll need to put scaffolding up.

"The bells will be put in storage in a warehouse and assessed for damage. We will then have to decide how to rebuild the church."

Picture from 2016 of the interior of St Mary the Virgin Church in Wimbotsham, near Downham Market, which has been gutted by a fire. Picture: Simon KnottPicture from 2016 of the interior of St Mary the Virgin Church in Wimbotsham, near Downham Market, which has been gutted by a fire. Picture: Simon Knott

The total weight of the bronze metal bells is thought to be around 800 kilos, with the largest bell weighing 350 kilos.

One of the bells has cracked from the heat of the fire and the pressure from the water used to put it out, which is said to be repairable.

The church buildings expert said: "Once the bells are out, the surveying for the reason of the fire can start, and we can come to a decision of what to do next, then planning will start."

Work to remove the bells could take weeks, with surveying thought to take at least a month.

Picture from 2016 of the interior of St Mary the Virgin Church in Wimbotsham, near Downham Market, which has been gutted by a fire. One of the wooden figures carved by James Rattee in 1853. Picture: Simon KnottPicture from 2016 of the interior of St Mary the Virgin Church in Wimbotsham, near Downham Market, which has been gutted by a fire. One of the wooden figures carved by James Rattee in 1853. Picture: Simon Knott

The Diocese of Ely, Historic England, and the people in Wimbotsham will collectively come up with a plan to decide what to do next.

Mr Hunter said: "The costs of the damage would be absolutely sky high.

"But the cultural value that is lost is far greater than the financial value.

"The good news for churches is that we have a very good insurance company, Ecclesiastical Insurance Group.

"To have something in place by Christmas would be optimistic I think, there's been churches that have burned down that have taken years to rebuild."

Weddings, funerals and christenings

There no weddings, funerals or christenings which will need to be cancelled, but one wedding was due to take place at the church in spring 2020.

The church is waiting to hear from the couple concerned about how they wish to proceed.

The Rev David Karoon, rector at St Mary's, said: "This terrible news has saddened the whole community, so many of whom would have celebrated very significant life moments here.

"We have a closely connected community, with the church so often central to life in our rural villages.

"The tight-knit congregation will continue to gather and pray in neighbouring churches, as we begin the process of understanding the full impact of the damage, and what steps we now take as a whole community to decide a way forward".

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