THE old badge of Abbeydale Junior School depicted the abbey in question as an ivy-clad ruin, said Louise Jennings, who attended the school in the 1930s.
“A lot of people don’t realise it is a working church,” added Ted Scholfield. “In the past I remember walking past and just thinking it was just an old ruin.”
As part of the Heritage Inspired weekend for Sheffield, the Church of St Thomas the Martyr and the Virgin Mary opened up for the public to see the restoration work carried out last winter. The church, which has to be officially known as such since it has no resident abbot at present, is better known as Beauchief Abbey.
“What a treasure,” said visitor Patrica Bradshaw. “I didn’t know much about it until I came today but I think it’s a hidden gem from ages past.”
Members of the congregation, like Ted and Louise, were clearly very pleased with the reaction of the 230 or so visitors to the abbey church on Saturday and Sunday. From last October to April, building owners Sheffield Council and volunteers from the congregation have been restoring and renovating the building, the last remaining parts of the old abbey, which was originally opened in 1183.
Old plasterwork and mortar has been removed, the roof and interior stonework has been repaired, new heating and lighting has been installed and the walls (some dating back over 800 years) have been repainted.
“The changes have brought the church alive,” said Louise. “The old lights used to swing around in the draught and it was awfully cold and grey.”
The floor of the church has been uncovered to reveal gravestones buried beneath sand and damp carpet. Archaeologists and historians among the congregation have been involved in the restoration work. “It used to be a real mess, especially in the porch, but it looks so much better now,” said Ted.
Holes and cracks in the ancient stonework had kept the church open to non-human visitors in the past.“We have field mice and the cleaners would come in and find squirrels sitting on the pulpit steps.”
Louise has been a member of the congregation for 50 years and has helped research the building’s history. A keen artist, she’s also produced several plaques and other artworks to bring the story of the abbey church to life.
“The original church was 200 feet long,” said Louise. “It was a successful monastery and also served as a hospital, school, and university through the ages. We also think that the monks of Beauchief played an important part in the development of Sheffield due to their iron-working.”
The abbey’s lands and influence extended through south-east Sheffield and north Derbyshire (Beauchief was part of Derbyshire at that time).
Louise said the land was granted to the abbey as a penalty handed out to the family of the murderers of Thomas a Becket, hence the full name of the church. As such, the church is a ‘peculier’ which means that it remains under the direct jurisdiction of the Archbishop of Canterbury rather than the Bishop of Sheffield.
“It must have been beautiful in its day. If you look at the entrance road, you’ll see that it’s much higher than the surrounding land, and that’s because it was originally a dam wall above a lake supplying water for a wide area, along with fish ponds at the back.”
After the destruction of most of the abbey on the orders of Henry VIII, the remains were partially dismantled to supply building materials for Beauchief Hall up the road. The current church building was originally the private chapel of the Pegge family, who owned the hall in the 17th century.
The box pews inside the church mostly date back to that time – including the ‘manorial pew’, with it’s higher sides, “so that the Lord of the Manor could have his fish and chips in there,” said Louise.
The Heritage Inspired events are part of a South Yorkshire promotion of the history of local religious buildings over the summer. The congregation of 20 to 30 people at Beauchief is supplemented by 20 or so additional heritage enthusiasts at special services and the church is packed on Christmas Eve when around 175 carollers usually arrive (and keep the mice and squirrels well away).
“We now get visitors ever Sunday, and we do like to show it off, although I do think the abbey is probably not appreciated as much as it should be,” said Ted.
It is hoped the facelift will attract more people to see the building, which, along with the nearby St James Church at Norton, is one of the oldest working churches in the city. And at least the worshippers will no longer have to suffer as Louise depicted them in one of her poetic artworks five years ago:
“Now every Sunday with fair health permitting, You’ll find us all there in Pegge’s pews a sitting, Nigh frozen to death in mid-winter chilling, And maybe just thawing if summer is grilling.”
lwww.beauchiefabbey.org.uk; www.heritage inspired.org.uk.