FOUGHT THE DEVIL
Born in West Sussex, he was always known as ‘Bob’.
He began his working life as an apprentice engineer with Walter A. Wood and Company, but they went bankrupt.
Then Bob was called up for National Service with the Corps of Signallers, before being transferred to the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers.
After being demobbed he went to work as an agricultural engineer in his native Sussex, but an industrial accident left him permanently disabled in his right arm and hand.
By now he was married to Gloria.
He then worked for Southern Water in the maintenance department.
He retired in 1987 and Bob and Gloria moved to Norfolk. They briefly owned an antiques shop in Swaffham and lived in the nearby village of North Pickenham.
A life-long Anglican, Bob was a church warden, a lay reader and a bell ringer.
In 1992, Gloria was out on a ramble with the local Women’s Institute. The group stopped for their lunch at Houghton on the Hill, and Gloria saw the remains of a ruined church. It caused no surprise to the other women who were aware of the ruins.
Gloria went to investigate and pushing her way through the dense undergrowth, looked in through the smashed windows. She noticed satanic symbols and writing on the walls.
When she got home, she told Bob and the couple went to investigate.
They had to push aside piles of rubble to get inside. The church had no roof, no windows and no door and there were cracks in the tower. The corners of the church were gaping holes as people had taken the stone – “just like quarries.”
Even worse, Satanists had put blood on the walls, written 666 everywhere and drawn pentagrams. Bob was horrified.
The very next day he set about single-handedly removing the ivy, brambles and blackthorn – until the church was clear.
He found evidence of eighteenth-century cottages in the grounds which had been destroyed, with the stones being stolen.
At the same time Bob began investigating the church. It was ‘St Mary the Virgin’ Church, Houghton-on-the-Hill, supposedly a Norman Church (built in 1090). It had been bombed by a Zeppelin in the First World War and had been used to billet American GIs during the Second – and they had caused extensive damage.
The last wedding in the church had been 1925, the last baptism in 1933. But amazingly, he found the church was still consecrated.
He began restoring the church, something that became his life’s work. Bob always said he was guided by God.
But the Satanists were not happy. They threatened Bob. He received death threats. One turned up on his doorstep and put a curse on him.
Another tried to run him over in a car.
Then Bob enlisted the help of the local Territorial Army. One moonlit evening (All Hallows Eve, 1996) Bob was working alone in the churchyard. Illuminated by the moon, he found himself surrounded by Satanists. But then, slowly, menacingly, seven armed men in full military fatigues, all holding guns, rose out of the bushes. The Satanists were so terrified they ran away – and never came back.
Bob used second-hand timber to repair the tower. He repaired the walls. He found the original font being used as a bulb planter in the Rectory Garden and restored it to its rightful position.
He also recovered the Holy Water Stoop, which had been pinched by a wealthy lady who lived locally.
He encountered local opposition when he built a road up to the church but cited an ancient law which stated any consecrated building had a right to have an access route. The road was just short of a mile and was built with crushed concrete and stone with Bob just using a spade and a wheelbarrow.
He then started working on the internal walls. In 1996 he was patching a wall when a lump of Victorian plaster fell off. Underneath it he saw the face of an angel. More removal of plaster showed that the walls were covered with paintings. Experts were called in and said the paintings were from the twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.
And then Saxon wall paintings were uncovered, depicting the Creation of Eve, Noah’s Ark – and then the Wheel of Fortune. It proved there had been a Saxon church on the site before the Normans.
The experts said this was the only Wheel of Fortune painting over a thousand years old. The Saxon paintings were deemed to be not just the oldest in Britain but in Europe as well.
There was also an exceptionally rare painting of ‘The Last Judgement’.
Film crews came from around the world.
In 1998 services started in the church again. Before they could do so, a purification event had to happen, “to get rid of pagan rituals.”
The same year, St Mary’s won the ‘Building Conservation of the Year’ award, shared with Windsor Castle. Bob was very proud he shared the award with the Queen.
He was even more proud when Prince Charles visited the church, as did Princess Margaret. He was awarded an MBE.
He spent 25 years on the restoration and never took a day’s holiday. He said, “you’ve got to do something when you retire. You can’t sit around watching telly all day.” Although he tried fund raising, most of the money was from his own savings. “Put your own money in and people know you’re serious.”
Whoever visited the church, be it royalty, a TV / film crew or just a passing individual, they always got a personal tour provided by Bob.
He was very small with white hair and a long white beard. Some said he looked like a gnome; others said an Old Testament prophet.
He said, “I feel I have a relationship with the building. I have got a funny feeling that I was always meant to save it.”
Locals say that both the church and the garden have an atmosphere of calm and tranquility – a sense of spirituality. “The church would not be there if it wasn’t for Bob.”
Gloria predeceased him. Her ashes are scattered in the churchyard – and Bob’s will be too.
Bob was once asked how to go about such important work. He said, “first drive out the Devil, then set to work”.
RIP – Rescuing Important Paintings