Man who 'put everything' into saving Norfolk church dies aged 91
- Credit: Archant
A forlorn, forgotten and derelict Norfolk church was saved from almost certain ruin by retired engineer Bob Davey, who has died aged 91.
He restored St Mary the Virgin, Houghton-on-the-Hill, near Swaffham – and by chance, discovered some of the most important late Saxon wall paintings in western Europe.
On the south wall, another painting thought to be about 1,000 years old, may be Britain’s earliest example of The Wheel of Fortune.
The extraordinary story of this remote hilltop church owes more than a little to chance too.
His late wife, Gloria, had been walking with her Women’s Institute in June 1992 when the group stopped for a rest. In the dense undergrowth, she saw some gravestones and scrambled into the ruined church.
There she found symbols of Satanic worship – a pagan altar, the number 666 scratched on the wall and a goat-headed image on another.
She told her husband, who was a churchwarden at North Pickenham. Horrified that the church was used by devil-worshippers, he took action next day, cutting down the ivy and trees, which had hidden the church from view.
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Gradually, the consecrated church was cleared. It was a formidable challenge. The roof had fallen in and the tower had a serious crack.
Later, with help from the local Territorial Army in 1996, they sent the Satanists packing although he received death threats and even an attempt was made to run him down.
For the next 25 years, he worked without taking holidays to restore the church to its former glory. He repaired walls and propped up the tower with second-hand timber. Even the original font was returned – it had been used for bulbs in the rector’s garden.
St Mary’s, which may date from the 7th century when St Felix brought Christianity to the Kingdom of the East Angles from around 630AD, had been badly damaged during the First World War by a bomb dropped by a Zeppelin.
But a chance discovery was to make headlines around the world and attract international film crews. While patching a wall in 1996, a lump of plaster fell. “The first thing I saw was the head of an angel,” he said.
As investigations revealed, Victorian plaster had covered many wall decorations including 16th century painted texts from Queen Elizabeth I’s reign. Underneath were wall paintings from the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries.
But to the amazement of the country’s heritage organisations, they found late Saxon wall-paintings, probably the earliest known in western Europe.
Cambridge conservator Tobit Curteis worked on the wall paintings in 2006. The north wall depicts the creation of Eve, and Noah’s Ark - all part of Old Testament stories, probably 1,000 years old.
In 1998, Houghton-on-the-Hill church – jointly with the Windsor Castle restoration – won a building conservation award from the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. In that year, Mr Davey was made MBE.
The Prince of Wales and the late Princess Margaret have visited the remote church.
Born on April 25, 1929 in west Sussex, Mr Davey spent most of his working life as an agricultural engineer in his native county. Later he worked for Southern Water before moving to North Pickenham in 1987 to start an antiques business in Swaffham. Later, he devoted all his energies to church restoration.
Now occasional services are held again. The last Baptism had been in 1933 and wedding in 1925. But decades later, on September 13, 1998 a Communion Service was held.
Mr Davey died on March 4. His wife predeceased. Donations, if desired, for Friends of St Mary's Church, Houghton-on-the-Hill, may be made online via www.tfs.co.uk/obituary. Chapmans and Thornalley Funeral Services, Lynn Road, Swaffham, PE37 7AY. Website details - www.saintmaryschurch.org.uk