Rebuilding Project Survey

St Mary's Church, Wimbotsham



After the church of St. Mary the Virgin in Wimbotsham was destroyed by a devastating fire on 4 September 2019, Wimbotsham Parochial Church Council (PCC) decided to survey people who live in the parish or who had used the church, to find out what they would like to see incorporated when the church is rebuilt.

770 questionnaires were distributed and 246 (32%) were returned, an excellent response rate for this type of questionnaire. The detailed replies were converted into a spreadsheet by the churchwardens, and this report provides a summary of the results.

17 people had been marked (anonymously) as members of St. Mary’s congregation. This sample is too small to justify a separate analysis of their replies.

The background

The first two questions were:

  • Are you aware that St Mary’s church had a fire?

  • Do you know where St Mary’s church is?

99% answered answered Yes to both questions.

Past use of church

The next questions were:

  • Have you or your family used St Mary’s for….

    • Baptisms or Christenings / Weddings / Funerals

    • Christmas / Easter / Holy Week / Harvest Festival Services

    • As a place of quiet or contemplation?

The replies (in order of popularity) were

  • Use at Christmas - 41%

  • Attend funerals - 33%

  • Attend weddings - 28%

  • Use as a quiet place - 27%

  • Attend baptisms - 26%

  • Use at harvest festival - 25%

  • Use at Easter - 16%

  • Use during Holy Week - 13%

The “popularity” of funerals probably reflects that these are the most common type of non-Sunday service. The number using the church (and its churchyard) as a quiet place will be influenced by the number who visit the graves of family members.

Relevance of the church

Two questions asked about the relevance of the church:

  • How important is St Mary’s to you and your family?

  • How relevant do you think St Mary’s is to the village?

Here, and in most of the following questions, people were asked to give a mark between 1 (“very low importance”) and 10 (“extremely important”). The results, in order of preference, were:

  • Relevant to village - 9.0

  • Important to you - 7.0

The church is seen as highly important to the village as a whole, and of significant importance to the individuals and their families.

Future purposes for the church building

The questionnaire emphasised that church buildings in the 21st. century are much more flexible than they used to be (for instance, after fixed pews had been installed in Victorian times), before asking:

What additional purposes/uses, as well as a place of worship, do you think St. Mary’s can fulfil?

  • A place of quiet, prayer and reflection

  • For christenings, funerals or wedding services

  • A space for well-being and exercise groups

  • A space to display arts and crafts

  • A space for public meetings (non political)

  • Plays & Concerts, Community Theatre

  • Social gatherings, Ceilidh’s & Dances

  • U3A, WEA meetings & classes

  • Learning Disability Group use (day centre)

  • Craft fairs

  • Community choir

  • Book club

  • Café

  • Film Nights

  • After School activities/Breakfast Club

  • A space for young people to meet, Playgroup/Toddlers/12–18-year olds

  • A centre for parish/local archives

As before, answers were given as marks on a scale from 1 to 10, and this table gives the average marks in order of preference.

    • Baptisms/weddings/funeral - 9.6

    • Quiet place/prayer - 9.1

    • Parish/local archives - 8.1

    • Community choir - 8.1

    • Display arts/crafts - 7.4

    • Disability group use - 7.4

    • Craft fairs - 7.2

    • Plays and concerts - 7.1

    • Space for young people (0–18) - 6.9

    • Public meetings - 6.8

    • Well-being groups - 6.8

    • Book club - 6.8

    • U3A/WEA classes - 6.6

    • Café - 6.5

    • Before/after school - 6.5

    • Social gatherings - 6.1

    • Film nights - 6.0

These replies give emphasis to the more “traditional” uses of a church building. However, the proposal to house parish and local archives won a particularly large number of high marks (10, 9 or 8) – 164 out of 246; and the community choir proposal had almost as many (162) enthusiastic supporters.

Facilities for the church building

The next set of questions asked what facilities the refurbished St. Mary’s should have:

  • Toilet/WC

  • Kitchen

  • Internal heating and lighting

  • External flood lighting

  • Parking

  • Disability access

  • Wi-Fi/Bluetooth/TV

Once again, marks were given between 1 and 10.

  • Heat and light, internal - 9.7

  • Toilet/WC - 9.6

  • Disability access - 9.6

  • Kitchen - 8.8

  • Parking - 8.5

  • Flood-lighting - 7.9

  • Wi-fi/Bluetooth/TV - 6.6

The top three items are hardly surprising (except, perhaps, that the toilets did not take the top place) – given that any redevelopment proposal which failed to include all of them would be most unlikely to gain funding from grants. Flood-lighting the restored building was given strong support – the church tower can be seen from the A10. A broadband connection would be very important for many community meetings.

The questionnaire did not mention the provision of an audio loop for users of hearing aids (or of a sound system). The compiler of this report would like to point out this omission, and give it a mark of 10!

Redevelopment options

The questionnaire then asked four questions:

  • Should the redevelopment be environmentally sensitive using sustainable materials?

  • Should the redevelopment imitate the interior as it was before the fire?

  • Should the redevelopment have a flexible interior design?

  • Do you think St Mary’s could be used for wider community events as well as for worship?

The questions were between 1 and 10

Sustainable materials - 8.7

Wider community event - 8.1

Flexible interior design - 8.0

Imitate previous interior - 4.1

The suggestion that the interior should imitate the situation before the fire was given the lowest mark throughout the questionnaire, and the only one below 5: 133 people – more than 50% of the replies – were strongly against (a mark of 1, 2, or 3), whereas 49 people were strongly in favour (a mark of 10, 9, or 8). The desire for a modern building inside the old shell is clear. The three other options in this section were all widely supported.

Other comments

The questionnaire included a space for people to make further suggestions on uses for the building or other comments. This section aims to summarise these. Naturally, these will be considered by the PCC.

Should the PCC spend now?

A couple of respondents asked a fundamental question: Should the PCC rebuild the church?

  • “Why spend so much money on rebuilding when so much could be done to help others with such funds? Matthew 18:20 says: ‘When two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there in the midst of them’. Doesn’t have to be a building. Your decision already seems to have been made! A church is primarily a place of worship, quiet reflection, and committal – i.e. weddings, funerals, baptisms, etc. We have a perfectly adequate (and to be improved) Village Hall for all other activities in the village.”

And another wrote:

  • “In my opinion, you’ve put the cart before the horse here.

  • “First the building needs a full survey to determine how much work needs to be done. An estimate of cost needs to be made to see if it is actually viable to spend so much money against actual usage.

  • “Most importantly, who is going to pay? Will the C of E pay or contribute? These are the questions people need to know [the answers to] first.

  • “Don’t get me wrong. It’s a lovely old historical building. I would like to see it rebuilt; but the hard truth is: it will have to pay its way. If not, it’s money down the drain.”

  • "My understanding is that the bulk of the funds needed for the restoration will come from the insurance company because the PCC had kept the building fully insured. But these funds can be used only for rebuilding the church, not (to take a random example) for improving sports facilities for the young people of Wimbotsham. The PCC needs to explain this carefully to the residents."

Is like-for-like reinstatement required?

One writer asked: “Given the church is a Grade II* [listed] building, would it not have to be reinstated life-for-like, or has special dispensation been granted?” The PCC needs to explain how much (or little) flexibility they have, and to publicise the kind of restraints that may be imposed by the planning authority and by the Diocesan Advisory Council (or DAC).


One correspondent, in a long and encouraging letter, ended: “Funding may not be available to provide an excellent future-proof facility. If this is the case it would be better to wait until funds are available than to provide a budget build that will not stand the test of time.” This strategic question does need careful consideration, even if it is hoped that the insurance money will prove adequate.

Population growth:

One person pointed out that substantial growth is being planned in the Downham Market area, and the PCC’s long-term plans need to take this into account. It is not often realised that the ecclesiastical parish of St. Mary the Virgin extends some way down Lynn Road and Broomhill (as far as the playing field). A significant number of the houses now planned for ‘Downham’ will therefore be in this parish.

Secular activities in the church building:

Understandably this issue provoked a range of comments. Several were opposed:

  • “With Christianity in perpetual decline, there is a drive to move into more secular activities. This would be a mistake and hasten its inevitable end.” This writer was opposed to all secular activities.

  • “It would be lovely if the church is restored as a place of worship and, although it sounds attractive as a community centre, I do not feel that the building is suitable for many of the activities suggested. I cannot see that there would be sufficient use of the church to justify this, as I believe the village hall is not currently used to its full potential.”

  • “I think the majority of these [secular] activities belong in the village hall and not the church itself. I don’t like the idea of the church body itself being used for secular activities. Is there a separate section being envisaged for these, with religious activities being completely apart?”

  • “Usage by regular daily groups such as school activities, learning disability groups, playgroups, fitness/well-being would be disruptive to villagers simply by the large amount of cars requiring parking spaces. Noise would also be problematic to neighbours. St. Mary’s is too small to accommodate these types of groups. A group organiser would need to consider profitability i.e., large attendance to achieve a level of sustainment. Primarily, the interior design of St. Mary’s requires a permanent quiet area for services, prayer and solace which should be soundproofed from other activities. This area needs to have separate access so as not to discourage those who wish to use it.”

But others saw advantages:

  • “In our opinion, if the church is kept as a church only, life within it might stagnate.”

  • “Nowadays it is common for churches to be used in different ways – Norwich city is a prime example. I think it is a win-win situation if the church will be used as a multi-purpose building.”

  • “Keep the outside of church as it was, but inside make [it] multi-functional for all to use, thus generating income for the church and surrounding grounds.”

  • “It could be deemed that to add an extension to the building is sacrilege, but it must be remembered that, since its inception 1000 years ago, the church has been modified and extended to suit the needs of the growing population.”

Church as quiet space for reflection and prayer:

A correspondent emphasised that this is one of the primary purposes of a church: “The grace of allowing people to go somewhere to be quiet and reflect, absorb, release and be in a SAFE place.” And two other writers, quoted above, also asked for this, recommending that the ‘sacred’ part of the church should have a separate entrance and be sound-proofed.

Effect on Village Hall:

A dozen people saw that, if the church were used for a variety of community activities, this could affect the viability of the Village Hall, and they urged collaboration between the church and Village Hall committee. Comments included:

  • “Extreme sensitivity has to be applied taking regard of all the feelings of the people of Wimbotsham. There are three other important venues in the village:- the Methodist Church and schoolroom, the Village hall and the village school. The plans for the new village hall are well on their way and the Church of England should work sympathetically alongside their proposals and usage of the other venues. Revenue is important to all, as is attendance. Pulling together is essential.”


Several people were worried about this: e.g.

  • “Parking is an issue as [there is] no space on Church Road and [one] would not want to park on graves”

  • “The additional traffic that a well-attended event creates will cause gridlock [on Church Road], as already happens at well attended funerals”.

Of course parking for disabled people must be provided close to the church. One writer mentioned that, in the 1950s, his family used to bring his disabled Gran by car and park in the lane on the south (Downham Market) side of the church. He wondered whether the PCC could buy part of a field there for a car park – if the farmer were willing to sell.

In a year when the pandemic has caused significant reductions in car journeys and made many think again about their transport options, this reviewer was surprised that nobody mentioned bicycles.

External lighting:

  • “We suggest ambient eco subtle lighting, not flood lights”.

  • “Movement-sensitive LED lighting on approach paths would not disturb the neighbouring houses as much as flood lighting.” Lighting of the approach is particularly important in the winter months.


Four people hoped that adequate security features, such as outside lighting, sprinklers and closed-circuit television, would be provided. Very understandable, given last year’s disaster. Presumably the new church will be connected to the water supply (unlike the old one!)

Chairs or pews?

Three people wrote in favour of chairs, as that would give greater flexibility; on the other hand, two wanted pews, and asked that they be made by local craftsmen. These wishes are not incompatible.

  • “The old pews were lovely; but, for future use, it would be more practical to have moveable seating so the floor space can also be used for other activities.” And: “Toilets, tea/coffee facilities and comfortable chairs that can be easily moved, will be a great start to encourage a broader use of this wonderful village facility.”

Hot drinks and food:

If a kitchen is provided, one person hoped that the church would run an Over-50s club; another suggested providing hot drinks and soup to the homeless, but the latter might be more appropriate nearer the centre of Downham Market.

Archive centre:

  • “Currently there are no storage facilities in Wimbotsham for its village archives, nor is there a venue where this could be accessed. At this moment in time, a new history group is collecting and processing items for archiving. The storage of this data could be within the new village hall or St. Mary’s providing there is sufficient space for using and displaying the archives. Fire-safe storage is required for digital and electronic equipment and for files, photos and other historical items.”

  • And another writer asked: “When would the archives be available for perusal?”

If an archive centre is planned, space must be provided for people to view and use them occasionally.

Sunday School:

This was mentioned a few times, but it is not possible to tell whether these were requests for new Sunday School activities or simply comments from those with fond memories of times past.

Young people:

One couple commented: “We think that [there needs to be] more emphasis and encouragement for the youth of the village.”

Collaboration with Methodists:

One couple suggested that joint services with the Methodists should be considered. And another: “The Methodist Church has a coffee/tea morning monthly, and now propose a games session as well. Could St. Mary’s host similar [events] on alternate weeks? They are popular events.”

Public meeting to discuss:

  • “A public meeting in the village hall would be helpful.”

The PCC needs to decide how it will keep Wimbotsham residents aware of developments during the process of refining its decisions.


And finally, one writer’s full comment was: “The building is extremely important; it was established in Saxon times by Ramsey Abbey, and as such deserves restoration. As a Christian, I realise churches are different places than they used to be when fitted out in Georgian/Victorian times.

  • “Wimbotsham PCC have a chance to produce a flagship building with bright interior and all mod cons for 21st century worship. They have a chance to grab the opportunity. Hopefully they will. A decent building on the North side of Downham, with the development that will take place there, would be a vital asset both to the area and to the village. In the name of Christ, GO FOR IT.” [Double-underlined by its author.]


The replies to the survey generally show broad support for rebuilding St. Mary’s, though many are concerned that the PCC’s plans need to be co-ordinated with those for updating the Village Hall. There is also a clear indication that people in the village would like (and need) to be kept informed of progress. There are concerns about how parking can be provided, but majority support for a multi-functional building to be used by the church and the community. Indeed there was some measure of real enthusiasm for the church as it looks to the future.


I should like to express my thanks to Liz and Philip Wing, who organised and administered this questionnaire and also transcribed the numerical replies into a spreadsheet. I hope that this report will help the members of the PCC and others in making decisions about rebuilding their beautiful church, and wish them every success.

D. G. Burnett-Hall CEng FBCS CITP

2020 October 31