Pews on Wheels help to keep the Church open
Published 3rd March 2016
The small Devon village of Littlehempston faced a couple of problems five years ago. It didn’t have a village hall for community gatherings and there were fears that the beautiful Grade 1 listed church might close, as congregations dwindled – a problem facing many rural churches today.
All was resolved by adapting the church so that it was both a “village hall” as well as a place for religious worship. In May 2102, after a busy winter of “re-ordering”, the church was re-opened as a flexible multi-use space, with a new kitchen, toilets and underfloor heating.
But the most innovatory feature of the re-ordering was the idea to put the pews on wheels – to our knowledge this has never been done before. It means that we can have the church “in repose” for religious services, but within 5 minutes have the pews pushed back ready for a Pilates class. Everybody is now so well trained that after a concert & supper evening, we can have the place cleaned and pews in place for the Sunday service next morning in less than half an hour.
To pay for the project, villagers were invited to sponsor the pews in a big “Get the Pews on the Move” campaign and most pews have a little brass plaque denoting the sponsor. The sponsorship paid for installing robust locking wheels.
Visits and enquiries have been received from all over England wanting to know more about our pews and Community Space, and we’ve helped churches in the south-west, Abingdon, King’s Lynn, Great Bedwyn, Shelton and Chingford. The Conservation Officer for the Methodist Church in England asked for more details, saying We would like to encourage the adaptation rather than removal of pews within our listed buildings .. and wish to commend you on doing something different.
A church in Wiltshire hosted a Norwegian dance company, who’d performed for us, and wrote to say: We spent the day lugging our church pews around to make the space and the dancers kept saying “Well, in Littlehempston they are on wheels!” … and of course we were intrigued to hear about this. I’ve googled “pews on wheels” and you come up immediately.
“Pews on wheels” have proved a huge success. The ability to keep the church looking as it’s always done, but to move heavy Victorian pews quickly and easily to create a variety of layouts has made possible the wide variety of events and regular activities that bring in the income to keep our church open for all.
Everybody is welcome to come and see for themselves, and find out more about the Community Space. Contact the Community Space Team to find out more.
Details of fitting the wheels
We did the fitting of the wheels ourselves: initially rather crudely using the former kneelers as our spars and some very sturdy thick rubber blue wheels bought locally, which sadly the DAC did not approve of. We replaced them with Häfele braked castors, not costing a huge amount, but somewhere near the top of their range (ref. 660.19.261). We also routed the spars and concealed the bolts with the help of a competent carpenter.
The Re-ordering is a Triumph!
Published 18th May 2015
You might be persuaded today – especially when the church is ‘in repose’, or when a Sunday service is in progress – that very little had changed since the current re-ordering began in November 2011 (see the earlier postcards on sale by the door). But you’d be wrong. The chancel, on the far side of the rood screen, has remained unaltered. And we’ve been careful to preserve the antiquity of the building by keeping its stone floors and re-using the Victorian pews. But the pew platforms have gone; the pews are on wheels; there’s a kitchen in the south aisle, and lavatories in the tower. What results is a flexible multi-use space which, because of the new underfloor heating in the nave, will be kept warm and dry throughout the year.
Putting wheels on the pews – which, to our knowledge, has never been done before – is the most innovatory feature of the re-ordering. We can now re-arrange the pews in any way we like: for a concert (facing the organ), for sales of produce, for village lunches and suppers (making use of our new kitchen), for children’s parties and for other private functions (all of which may require a cleared floor). Sunday services will continue, as before, on a fortnightly basis. But the new community space will be available all year for a variety of other uses, including rehearsal space for young people, country dancing, gentle exercise, and classes in pilates and t’ai chi.
All churches are cold in bad weather, so one of our earlier additions was a set of four industrial-strength convection heaters for on-demand warmth in the winter months. We’ve since added a glazed inner porch which, while also serving as a buffer against draughts, enables us to keep the south doors open and more welcoming to visitors during services and other events. Our most recent improvements have included installing a loop for the hard-of-hearing and a new sound system, particularly useful for the folk concerts, charity auctions and our other village fund-raisers during the year. We are proud of what we have achieved in this very small community, not least because the building looks much as it did before, in contrast to some of the more aggressive re-orderings in the diocese. Our visitors, happily, agree. ‘Wow!’, wrote one recently, ‘Fit for the next century and more – well done!’ While to the ‘sensitive and exemplary’ of the original English Heritage verdict may now be added the ‘stunning’ of one visitor and the ‘gorgeous’ of another; ‘the re-ordering’, said a third, ‘is a triumph!’ Do please add your comments to the visitors’ book by the door. We’d particularly love to hear your reactions.
Published 27th October 2011
Littlehempston is a small friendly village with nowhere to meet. We don’t have a village hall, but we do have a very beautiful Grade 1 listed church. So our plan is to adapt the church, so that the community can use it for a wide variety of events. This will also help secure the future of the church, as there have been fears that it might close as congregations dwindle.
We hope that by summer 2012, the church will be in use again not only for religious services, but also busy with a wide range of activities to suit villagers of all ages. Suggestions from local people include dances, concerts, film shows, talks, markets, exercise classes plus a space to have seasonal get-togethers like Harvest Lunch and Yuletide Dinners. The local playgroup will also have a home.
To make this community space warm and welcoming, we’re installing underfloor heating, a toilet, with wheelchair access and a kitchen. The pews will be fitted with wheels, so they can be pushed back to provide an open area, when necessary. None of this will affect the church services or alter the basic fabric of the church. The design is commended as exemplary and sensitive by the Diocese. The cost of all this work is around £107,000 and so the Community Space Project Team is working hard to raise this through grants, donations and fund-raising events around the village.
Phase 1 aims to install a kitchenette to the left of the door as you come in. The current kitchen will be replaced with a toilet area that can be entered from inside the church or from outside through a newly created door that will provide disabled access. (The door will replace the current kitchen window.) This new entrance is necessary, as there’s not enough space inside to get a wheelchair past the organ. Phase 2 will install underfloor heating in the nave in the pew area and provide wall heaters in the side aisles. Once this is done, the pew area will be floored with sandstone. Finally, if fundraising goes well, a new lighting scheme and an inner porch, created with glass doors and using pew screens, will be installed. The font will also be relocated to the north aisle near the window.
If you would like to help, contact the Community Space Project Team.