Why Norfolk’s most treasured church buildings must open their doors to new community activities in order to survive

Church of Sweden delegates visit Norfolk churches to learn about how best to preserve and make use o

Church of Sweden delegates visit Norfolk churches to learn about how best to preserve and make use of historic religious buildings. From left to right, Matthew McKeague, director of regeneration at the Churches Conservation Trust (CCT), Anna-Karin Engstrom, director of property, cultural heritage and facilities at the Church of Sweden, and Markus Dahlberg, head of the Church of Sweden's heritage unit. Picture: ANDREW PAPWORTH - Credit: Archant

Diminishing numbers of churchgoers mean parishes must open their doors to new community activities if they want their most historic and treasured religious buildings to survive.

St Nicholas' Chapel in King's Lynn. Picture: MATTHEW USHER

St Nicholas' Chapel in King's Lynn. Picture: MATTHEW USHER

That was the message of Norfolk church groups to their opposite numbers in Sweden, after delegates from the Scandanavian country toured the county to learn how best to preserve their oldest and best-loved places of worship.

Religious sites in the Scandanavian country face similar conservation challenges to those in the United Kingdom (UK), including how to attract new visitors and fundraise for essential improvements.

Markus Dahlberg, the Church of Sweden's head of heritage, said: 'The picture is quite similar in the UK and Sweden. Churches were not built in the areas that people live today - people have moved to the cities and the parishes are often very small.'

As a result a team from the Church of Sweden visited churches across East Anglia to see how the Churches Conservation Trust (CCT) - a national charity which works to protect churches at risk - has helped elderly churches survive in this country.

St Nicholas' Chapel in King's Lynn. Picture: MATTHEW USHER

St Nicholas' Chapel in King's Lynn. Picture: MATTHEW USHER

MORE: Swedish delegation to visit Norfolk to learn more about preserving historic churchesMatthew McKeague, director of regeneration at CCT, said one of the keys to success is not only using churches for worship but a wider range of community activities.

That not only ensures the churches are more widely used but helps ensure residents take more of an interest in the fabric of historic sites, he said.

'Sweden has a fascinating array of churches but faces similar challenges to ourselves,' said Mr McKeague.

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'We've maybe become focused on them only being used for worship but that's not historically how they've been used.

'These buildings have always been used for a whole variety of things and maybe we've lost some of that.

'We want to be bringing back that tradition of multi-purpose churches, because that's how they become relevant to modern communities.

'If we encourage people to use them in many different ways, they'll become part of the community furniture.'

After starting their tour in Cambridge, the 16 delegates travelled to King's Lynn to see the 600-year-old St Nicholas' Chapel.

MORE: King's Lynn's marvellous St Nicholas' Chapel and the riddle of Robinson CrusoThe St Ann's Street building was given an extensive 18-month refurbishment following a campaign by the CCT and residents, who won a Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) grant to provide heating and new lighting, toilets, a kitchenette, extensive re-roofing, solar panels, a sound system and interpretation material.

The Friends of St Nicholas' Chapel group was also able to raise more money with the help of the HLF to restore and re-fit the Chapel bells.

But it has also become an example to other churches about how buildings can be used for many activities, as St Nicholas' Chapel hosts activities such as concerts, heritage workshops and Halloween trails.

MORE: Appeal to restore organ at St Nicholas' Chapel in King's Lynn'There are so many grade one listed churches in the region and you're seeing quite a lot of interesting, different uses,' said Mr McKeague.

'Lots of ideas are being tested here.'

The day after their visit to West Norfolk, the Swedish delegates saw three Norfolk churches - All Saints' Church in Little Witchingham, St Michael's Church in Booton and St John's Church in Maddermarket, Norwich.

They finished with a visit Church of St Mary at the Quay, in Ipswich, on Thursday, September 14.

The tour was part of an ongoing partnership which sees regular information-sharing between the CCT and The Church of Sweden.

The CCT cares for 352 historic churches across England, including more than 50 in East Anglia.

How do you think we can ensure the survival of our most historic church buildings? Write, giving your full contact details, to andrew.papworth@archant.co.uk

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