PHOTO GALLERY: Hidden Norfolk and Suffolk churches set for Easter opening

Hidden off a country lane, St George's Church has received more use from bats than humans over the last 21 years.

But conservation ambassadors are dusting away the cobwebs and dirt, and giving the medieval building a spruce up as they prepare to welcome its first visitors of the year.

Dwindling congregation numbers at the parish church in Shimpling, near Diss, resulted in the Diocese of Norwich abandoning St George's as a place of worship in 1990.

But visitors will get a rare chance to take a look inside the historic church this weekend as part of a project to open Churches Conservation Trust properties to the public over the Easter period.

The church, with its Norman round tower, 15th century font and medieval glass, is one of a handful of redundant ecclesiastial buildings across Norfolk and Suffolk that will be reopened this week.

Volunteers at Shimpling will be unlocking its doors on Good Friday, Saturday and Easter Sunday as part of an initiative to keep the church's heritage alive.

Former church warden Maurice Philpot, who helps to ensure that St George's remains in good condition and open to the public on special occasions, said it was important to remind people that the building was still accessible.

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'Each church has its own stories to tell. They are all individual in their own right and they all have something to tell. It is very important that they are available for people to come and see and appreciate this part of our heritage.

'It is glorious, particularly in September when in the evening the sun shines through the west window and all the way down the church, and reflects up the oak roof,' he said.

Despite being abandoned by the diocese, the church still has permission to hold six religious services a year and stages bank holiday open days.

Volunteers will be on hand to talk about the history of their beloved church and will remember Shimpling's long-serving rector Jeffery Watson Millard, who died in 1914, and was in position for 60 years. The village graveyard is also the resting place of sculptor Ivor Roberts-Jones who made the statue of Winston Churchill in 1971, which stands in Parliament Square in London.

Owen Thompson, development officer for the Churches Conservation Trust, said that just because they were classed as redundant by the diocese did not mean they were forgotten.

'The trust looks after the fabric of the building and maintains the building, but we cannot do it without the support of locals who put on the events and do the cleaning and day to day stuff. We do receive a government grant, but we rely very heavily on public donations as well, even more so given our grant is being cut quite drastically.

'We can not take on every abandoned church. They have to have something a little bit special about them and we are keen to see them used for community use,' he said.

The Churches Conservation Trust, which is responsible for 40 historic buildings in Norfolk and Suffolk that are no longer in use for regular worship, will also be staging open days at the 13th century St Andrew's Church, in Frenze, near Diss, and St Mary's in Bungay, over the Easter weekend.

For more information, visit www.visitchurches.org.uk

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