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Serious concern as plans for historic Kent church are revealed

The Victorian Society is warning that alterations to the church of St Mary the Virgin in Ashford will irreversibly damage the fabric of this nationally important church.

Ashford Borough Council wants the church to be used for cultural activities as well as for worship and is proposing that the nave of St Mary the Virgin is converted into a flexible performance space. The Society is concerned that creating what is effectively an auditorium in the heart of this Grade I-listed church will be extremely damaging.

The plans propose the removal of nearly all the pews in the main body of the church, moving and altering the pulpit and inserting a new floor.

St Mary the Virgin is a medieval church which was extended in 1837 and 1860. 'Its Grade I listing reflects the interweaving of many layers of historic fabric,' said Heloise Brown, Conservation Adviser for the Victorian Society. 'Strip these layers away and the character and importance of the church will change. It is too high a price to pay to improve cultural facilities in Ashford.'

'The need for flexibility in the nave is understandable and could be dealt with more subtly with perhaps selective removal of pews, but the sensitive historic character of the building means it simply isn't suitable to be used in the same way as a purpose-built theatre.'

As the town's population grows the council hopes to justify building a new cultural venue, so the alterations put forward for the church are merely a stop gap to provide performance facilities in the short term. Yet the changes proposed are extensive and permanent.

The Society believes that the historic importance of this outstanding church will be lost to future generations if these plans are given the go-ahead.

The pulpit

The pulpit is an exceptional nineteenth-century fitting which was designed to curve around the north west crossing pier by the architect John Loughborough Pearson. It is proposed to move it to the south west pier, which is not the same shape. The stairs which currently curve elegantly around the irregular shape of the north west pier will project awkwardly past the south west pier rather than wrapping around it.

Other changes include the addition of pods in the galleries, picture rails, monitors, a projector screen, a lighting rig, a platform lift and curtains. All of these will clutter the nave with equipment and fittings at odds with the character of this ancient church.

Thursday 19 November, 2009

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