At the end of a small lane in the village of Long Marston is a small churchyard. It has a few gravestones, some somber yews and a gigantic lime tree. At the northwest aspect is the remains of a moat which once surrounded the Manor of Long Marston; long since lost. Adjacent is a 16th century thatched cottage.
Hidden by the yew trees is an old church tower dating back to about the 15th century. It is a remnant of the 12th century Chapel of All Saints, Long Marston. In fact it was a Chapel of Ease; providing a local place of worship, easing the burden for local people who would normally have to make the long walk to the parish church at Tring. It is possible that it also served the needs of the inhabitants of the Manor of Long Marston nearby.
Up until 2001 the old tower was disintegrating; pieces of masonry were falling down. The glass in the windows was completely smashed. The structure was infested with ivy and the roof leaking as some of the lead had been stripped. The tower had been taken over by Jackdaws and feral pigeons. The structure was clearly dangerous and in danger of collapse.
Disintegration through neglect and abandonment seems to have been the fate of this chapel. Neglect has been the feature over the last 120years but abandonment came about before this, when in 1883 the main body of the chapel was pulled down. The building was considered to be unsafe owing to insecure foundations, compounded by damp. Furthermore it was thought to be too small for needs of the community. However it could well be that the vicar felt the chapel was not of sufficient size to reflect his status in the Church. The decision taken was to build a larger church in the village also to be named the Church of All Saints. It was thought to be a grander building than the old chapel but had no tower; indeed it is thought now by some to be of little architectural merit?
It was as though unstoppable forces had conspired to “see off” this chapel.
The tower remains but stands alone so these forces have not completely removed all traces of the old chapel. The foundation stone was taken from the chapel and laid in the northeast buttress of the new church, probably as a symbolic gesture. Furthermore, in a strange way, the chapel still lives on through a donor transplant. The old chapel itself had been rejuvenated many years ago, as an organ purchased from Tring church for £50, had been installed there. It then gave the instrument, in what was literally an organ transplant, to the new church when it was built. In medical parlance this could have been complicated by rejection. However, after over 100years this has not been a problem!
Although the main body of the church has been removed it has not been officially declared redundant so theoretically services could still be held there. The last recorded event was a wedding, which took place on 27th April 1882 when only the contracting parties were allowed inside owing to the dangerous state of the building.
The churchyard has few graves and only served as a burial ground for 34years. The first burial was that of an infant in 1832. This was then followed by seven more infants before the first adult was buried. The last burial took place in 1866, this being yet another young person; a 14year old boy. Clearly the churchyard, although having a short life itself, received many young people whose own lives were tragically cut short.
Fortunately it will now be difficult to completely “see off” this old building as the tower has been given Grade 11* status as a national monument and thus there is a duty to maintain it and ensure its safety.
There have been many attempts to renovate the tower over the years; all have foundered owing to lack of finance. Not to be deterred, a small group in the village came together to explore what urgent action could be taken to restore the tower as a fragment of local history. The Parochial Church Council had no funds but gave the group, now known as the Tower Conservation Group, a mandate to attempt to raise funds, engage an architect and take on the task. This was in early 1999.
Having engaged an architect, complicated negotiations started with local planners, the Church and English Heritage. The local planners at Dacorum were very helpful and offered us a grant as they felt it essential that this ancient yet dangerous structure should be preserved and made safe. Rather protracted negotiations took place with the Diocese as we had to obtain a “Faculty” to undertake the work. After a somewhat labyrinthine process this was eventually achieved. However the real problem came with English Heritage, who somehow became not only a grant giver but also an agenda setter for what work should be done and to what standard. Their original grant seemed generous enough but as time progressed the specifications they set increased but the percentage level of their grant remained the same, resulting in us chasing an increasing financial target.
While this process unfolded we did obtain a generous grant from HELP (Hertfordshire Landfill Partnership) This latter organization distributes funds for environmental projects gleaned from local landfill taxes; a source of help which was unknown to us until embarking on this project. In fact we all learnt an incredible number of lessons on this restoration journey.
We certainly did not rely on grants alone. Many fundraising events were organized including musical events and cream teas and stalls in the old churchyard. Four of these were organized and have become increasingly popular; to such an extent that “Tea at the Tower” is now firmly fixed in the village calendar.
Of course, in addition to all these endeavours, we had a number of very generous donations.
Towards 2001 it was clear that we had a large financial gap to bridge. We were getting desperate! In one of our more manic moods on 1st April we suggested negotiating with SKY to put a large satellite dish on the tower to beam sport to the two local pubs and from which local residents could have the option to “plug in”.Surprisingly this did not go down too well. Neither did the idea of working with BT to have a transmitter on the tower to allow locals to get celestially connected.
So we had to go back to the conventional drawing board and renegotiate with English Heritage on VAT reimbursement and grant percentage enhancement. Finally we had breakthrough; the grant was enhanced and work thereby commenced.
A new parapet had to be constructed with a new lead roof and waterchutes. Festoons of ivy had to be prized out of the masonry and the flint and stonework made good. Many of the window lintels had to be replaced, as they were split and dangerous.
Inside the tower was an amazing accumulation of pigeon guano. It was almost four foot deep and represented the output of the best or worst part of a century. It required a gang of men in protective suits, goggles and masks to remove it.
An internal access ladder was constructed to access the belfry and roof. To prevent reinvasion from the pigeons all windows had to be wired up and the final work consisted of six applications of lime wash. All for the price of approx. £47000! If we had known this figure at the onset I don’t think any of us would have entertained the idea of starting a fundraising process. It was a lot of hard work but it generated fun and good camaraderie. The final result is that the Old Tower is now secure for centuries to come.
The churchyard and tower are at the confluence of two footpaths converging on Long Marston. One is from Wilstone, the other from Puttenham both crossing a ridged and furrowed field. It is an interesting corner of Long Marston with a number of sensitively converted barns and two old farmhouses; the 16 century thatched cottage has a Victorian addition. It was originally probably just a farm workers home that has survived the changes of time. It was for a number of years, the home of Mary Grieve. She was editor, for nearly a quarter of a century, of Woman magazine, which in her time claimed to be read by half of British women between the ages of 16 and 65!
Why not come and visit this interesting spot? There are some information boards we have erected in the churchyard. Long Marston’s village green is thought to be the site of the pond where Ruth Osborne, the last women in England accused of being a witch, was ducked and drowned. If you don’t believe that, you can drown your disbelief in The Boot or The Queens Head.