05 June 2013

Can the villagers save the church in
Comberford for future generations?

Saint Mary’s and Saint George’s Church, Comberford (Photograph © James Broad and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence)

Patrick Comerford

Comberford Hall is still on the market with Paul Carr of Sutton Coldfield. But the estate agents’ website says the price has been reduced from £899,590, and they are now inviting offers in the region of £850,000.

They describe Comberford Hall as a gated, Grade II listed, Georgian three-storey family residence set in extensive grounds, with stabling, detached garaging and a lake, in an idyllic rural setting only two miles north of Tamworth.

For many generations, my family continued to regard Comberford as our ancestral home, despite some of the complicated details in the family tree. My great-grandfather, James Comerford, had a very interesting visit to Comberford and Tamworth at the end of the 19th or in the early 20th century, visiting the Peel family who lived there … he probably had his heart set on consolidating those family links. I first visited Comberford Hall and the village in 1970 and have been back many times since then.

When my mind and imagination go wild, I think of how nice it would be to buy back Comberford Hall, and even dream of using this grand old house as a retreat centre or as a centre for spirituality and the arts, with the village church close at hand, across the fields at the end of a public right-of-way footpath.

Comberford Hall … on the market for £850,000 (Photograph Paul Carr Estate Agents, Sutton Coldfield)

An old house adds character to a rural village, but few old houses like this have members of the original family still living in them.

On the other hand, the closure of the church, the post office or the local pub can be the harbinger of the death of a village … and the church should be the last place to condemn a village to death.

Comberford village, in Lichfield Rural District, is two or three miles north of Tamworth and about four or five miles east of Lichfield … as the crow flies. The village is without either a post office or a pub; now the Church of Saint Mary and Saint George, which has been at the heart of the village for over a century, may be facing closure, according to some villagers. Some of the villagers fear that the evening service next Sunday [9 June 2013] could be the last there.

The church is part of Wigginton parish; the other churches in parish are Saint Leonard’s, Wigginton, and Saint James’s, Spital. In the mediaeval period, Wigginton (or Wigginton and Comberford) was a prebendal parish, with the tithes and church rentals supporting the Prebendary of Wigginton and Comberford in Saint Editha’s Collegiate Church, Tamworth.

Until recently, the parish described itself on its website as being “on the traditional side of the Church. That said, we have embraced the new services of Common Worship very happily and also enjoy a mixture of traditional hymns and modern music. But we are Catholic in the best sense of that word, seeing ourselves as rooted in the Holy Eucharist, and the traditional vestments and the reserved sacrament.”

It is a description of a church that would have appealed to many members of the Comberford family in previous centuries. However, they would have worshipped in Saint Editha’s Church in Tamworth, where generations of the family are buried in the Comberford Chapel ... although the original Comberford Hall may also have been used for Roman Catholic Masses in the late 16th century and for Quaker meetings for a short time in the mid-17th century.

There are two other churches in Wigginton Parish. Saint Leonard’s, Wigginton, is a Grade 2 listed building, built in red brick and dating from 1777. The north aisle was added in 1830 and the chancel, using mixed stone, in 1861/1862. A fine stained glass window depicts the nativity, baptism and crucifixion of Christ. Windows in the chancel and the sanctuary are by the famous Victorian stained glass artist, CE Kempe.

Saint James’, Spital, is a Grade 2* Listed Building and one of the oldest buildings in Tamworth. The church dates from the 12th century, but may have been built on an earlier foundation, and the interior may date from the 16th century. Because the church may have served as a hospital at the time of the Black Death in 1349, it became known as “Spital Chapel.”

The church in Comberford is of a much later date, and was built on a site donated in May 1914 by Howard Francis Paget (1858-1935) of Elford Hall to the Lichfield Diocesan Trust for the erection of a mission church. Howard Paget’s father, the Revd Francis Edward Paget (1806-1882), was Rector of Elford, an early follower of the Oxford Movement, and the author of Tractarian fiction, including The Curate of Cumberworth (sic) (1859).

The Paget family’s interest in the area continued for generations. Howard Paget’s daughter, Charlotte Gabrielle Howard Paget, married Joseph Harold Hodgetts, and died in Lichfield in 1979. Their son, the late Harold Patrick Hodgetts, lived nearby at Model Farm in Elford, and Pat Hodgetts was proud that his grandparents had given the church to the village.

The church is of architectural interest as one of the churches designed by Andrew Capper. A well-known Gothic revival architect, Capper worked closely with George Edmund Street. He designed, refurbished or contributed to rebuilding other churches in the Diocese of Lichfield, including Saint Leonard’s Church, Dunston, South Staffordshire; Saint Cuthbert’s, Donington, a Grade II Listed Building; and, I think, Saint Mary’s, Dunstall. His work alone makes the village church in Comberford of interest to architectural and heritage groups.

The emblems of Saint Mary (white rose) and Saint George (red cross) recall the church in Comberford on a hassock in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The closure of the post office or the local pub is a bitter blow to a village. But if the village church stays open against all the odds, then it is ac living testimony to our faith in the villagers and to our faith in the Resurrection, affirming the people who live there and asserting that their value is not to be assessed in merely fiscal terms or by counting the financial contributions they make to the life of the wider Church.

I have visited Comberford many times since 1970 … following in the footsteps of many generations of my family

Some estimates say about 20 Church of England church buildings are closed for worship each year, and the villagers in Comberford are now worried that their church is now facing closure and joining this list.

Saint Mary’s and Saint George’s Church is on Manor Lane, but the parish does not own the surrounding land, and access to the church is along a public right of way. But still this church has been the focus and point of contact in Comberford village for years. The attractive interior decoration of the church and the rounded ceiling – both in wood – create a sense of peace and tranquility.

Although the attendance at the 9 a.m. Holy Communion on the fourth Sunday of the month varies between four and ten, the villagers and the wider community value its presence and outreach. Evening services at 6 p.m. on the second Sunday of the month, such as next Sunday’s, have taken a different theme each month; in the past, these have included Celtic spirituality. The church was full for last year’s carols by candlelight, with extra seating needed because the church was so full.

The church was full last year too for an event marking the Jubilee celebrations, including an exhibition on the village history, a cheese and wine reception and the launch of 43-page booklet on village memories and history over the past two generations, which was presented to every householder in the village.

Other successful recent ventures include flower festivals, arts and crafts weekends, wine and cheese evenings, school painting competitions and sponsored walks, and there was a special pealing of the church bells last year to mark the 2012 Olympics.

The church has also been a venue for meetings of Wigginton and Hopwas Parish Council, which serves the villages of Wigginton, Hopwas and Comberford and is part of Lichfield District Council. The parish council meets tomorrow evening [Thursday 6 June 2013] at Thomas Barnes School, Hopwas, and its next meeting after that is on 4 July at Saint Mary’s and Saint George’s Church, Comberford. The Parish Council has six councillors, with one vacancy.

Speaking at the Annual Parish Meeting last month [2 May 2013], the newly-elected chair, Councillor Keith Stevens, said: “A resident of Comberford would be particularly welcome as we have no one representing that area … Their local knowledge could be critical.”

Saint Mary’s and Saint George’s Church … local fundraising helped repair the bell tower and spire

When the fabric of the bell tower and spire of the church needed repair, and a failed lottery bid meant the cost fell to the parish, the Comberford Committee organised events that raised £2,000, and a further £5,000 came from the parish restoration fund.

Some time ago, a sponsored walk and other events raised £2,000 so that new heating could be installed in the church, making it a comfortable place with no cost to the PCC.

“People power has prevailed in Wigginton after money was raised to carry out much needed repairs to a village church,” the Tamworth Herald reported last July. “Work began on the roof of St Mary and St George’s Church, in Comberford, this week after years of fund-raising from churchgoers and residents.”

The proprietors of ‘The Wigginton’ pub, Sarah and Steve Gibson, present a cheque for £950 to the Revd Rowan Davies, after an auction to raise funds for the church in Comberford (Photograph: Tamworth Herald)

The local pub, ‘The Wigginton,’ has organised several auctions on behalf of the church. One event raised over £950 in just two hours towards repairing the spire, and in the process raised awareness of the church and the importance of its place in the community and the outreach of this small church beyond the village.

Sarah Gibson, the landlady of the Wigginton pub which has hosted regular quiz nights, told the Tamworth Herald: “We get a lot of customers who use the church so to know that the money we have raised is helping is a fantastic feeling.”

After one successful fundraising effort, the Vicar of Wigginton, the Revd Debra Dyson, told the Tamworth Herald: “It’s fantastic as the church is a great link for the local people. This is truly down to the hard work of the community.”

There is a truism that we do not inherit what we have from the past but hold it in trust for the future. The future for the church in Comberford may be something very different than we can imagine. Its location may offer the potential for a retreat centre or centre for the arts and spirituality. The expansion of Tamworth may open potential for future generations. Who knows? But I hope that for generations to come this church remains what the vicar has described as a great link for local people and a centre for the community.

The church spire had fallen into disrepair but was restored after a £6,000 fundraising project (Photograph: Tamworth Herald)

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