As plans for the St Swithun’s Repair & Renewal project begin to move forward, Mandi Sturrock looks at the church’s current role in the community – and how it might serve local people even better in the future…
What’s in a building?
St Swithun’s Church in Allington is in the process of finding out. While a building is just bricks and mortar, communal buildings stand or fall by the community they serve. So St Swithun’s has been looking at how it serves its community now and how it could do it better.
St Swithun’s has been occupying its current space for almost 200 years. The old medieval church had been in a terrible state of repair in the early 1800s when the parishioners decided that something radical had to be done. Bridport’s industry was growing at that time, and its industrial heart was moving south, so plans took shape for a new, modern church nearer the town. The land was bought, and the building was put up during the 1820s.
The church interior looked very different then, and has had many redesigns during the intervening 200 years. The major changes have been a reduction in the size of the box pews, the installation of a splendid organ in 1857 (details in the September issue) and the addition of a church hall in 1987.
An asset to the community
St Swithun’s and its hall are now used for all sorts of gatherings. Every month over 20 groups and organisations – about 200 people from the community – come here for their regular sessions, and there are also special events such as family parties and group AGMs. And this number doesn’t include those who come to weekly and one-off church services; a recent service for St Mary’s Primary School, for example, brought in 220 adults and more than 100 children.
One of our regular forms of worship is the weekend Contemplative Church group. Regular member Caroline Moore says that when she first moved to Bridport she looked for a contemplative group, having been part of something similar in London. “I’m not particularly affiliated to any one Christian denomination so I came to several different things before joining this group. I really enjoy the space for silence and reflection, and the friendliness of the people.”
Secular groups, too
One of the regular secular groups that meet in the hall is the Bridport Bridge Club. Chairman Roy Tarsnane says the club had grown over the years and had been in many venues before finding St Swithun’s large hall – with its car park, kitchen and storage – over 15 years ago. The club amalgamated with another and now has more than 80 members. Sessions are on Wednesdays and Fridays.
The Community Food Group, which runs the Food Glut stall, is also a regular fixture and can be found in the car park on Thursday mornings. Peter Wilson, who runs the group, first suggested using the venue. He says: “We approached St Swithun’s in 2020, during Covid, and found the community here very receptive to our idea of a food stall. Our stall differs from a food bank in that there is no referral process – anyone can use it.
“We collect food that for various reasons local shops and supermarkets can’t sell, and present it on the stall for anyone to take. We also take surplus from people’s gardens and allotments so we have a good range of fresh produce. Our two main aims are to reduce food waste and help people in need.”
Everybody needs good neighbours
Among the other people who value St Swithun’s are its neighbours. It’s blessed with a lovely churchyard and garden plus a secluded courtyard that’s well used by its neighbours as well as by the church community. It was even more valuable during Covid as people felt able to meet there safely for a chat or a cup of coffee.
One of our new near neighbours is Bridport Cohousing, a cooperative of 52 sustainable homes being built next to the community hospital. Residents are starting to move in as the houses are completed, although the communal building – where residents can cook, wash, eat and spend time together – is still in the planning stage. The residents have asked St Swithun’s if they can hold communal lunches in the hall until their ‘shared house’ is ready, and of course we were delighted to agree. The Revd Lorna Johnson, one of the new residents says: “I love the story behind the building of the church hall, which was pioneered by two church wardens – one of whom, June, still lives locally – so local people would have somewhere to meet. There are a lot of families in the cohousing community and St Swithun’s has a wild churchyard for the children to explore. Although the churchyard is no longer used for burials, many local people have had their loved ones’ ashes interred here and I’ve often found people laying flowers and spending a quiet moment.”
A musical treat
The Conacher organ is a fine instrument and ideal for teaching; you can often hear students practising at the weekend. One student who uses the organ every week says: “It’s wonderful to be able to use such a beautiful instrument regularly. And getting to play here for the community during recitals has not only been highly rewarding, but also crucial in developing confidence in performing.”
Plans for the future
So why are we redeveloping the building? We are looking at ways to make the space more flexible and better serve our community. We have held several open meetings, inviting people to come and give their views, and some interesting ideas have emerged that we will consider when we’re creating the architectural plans.
Many of the things we do would be improved by reordering the buildings and surrounding space. For example, while we’re lucky to have a car park, it now needs to be better presented with parking for the disabled, an electric charging point and a cycle rack. All of this would give us a broader appeal in a changing environment. And in an area where many of our neighbours don’t have any outside space, we might also consider a community garden or some communal planting.
There is so much more that we could do, if only we had more facilities and a more flexible space. We have a team looking at the redevelopment and coming up with innovative ways to work with the local community. An architect has been recruited to help with this process. Do visit the church and look at the display of pictures and information. Things are moving – watch this space!
For more information about using St Swithun’s, please contact Yvonne Welch (hall) or Mandi Sturrock (church) via the Parish of Bridport website: www.bridport-team-ministry.org