Monday, 29 September 2014

Bilborough's hidden treasure, a 'Stargate' moment and a sad footnote

Last Friday (26 September) Susan and I took ourselves off to St Martins Church in Bilborough on a 35 bus (just a twenty-five minute bus ride) to learn more about the ongoing Heritage Lottery Funded (HLF) 'Hidden Treasure' project to restore this medieval parish church and its Evelyn Gibbs mural from 1946.

It was ninety-minutes well spent, during which time we learnt a great deal and were greatly impressed by the friendliness and enthusiasm of those closely involved with the project. At the end of this post you will find dates of future events. It is really worth attending. You will not be disappointed.

We were originally going on the afternoon visit with TravelRight, but visitors later in the day from my Wembley South Young Socialist days in the early-1960s meant we went to the morning tour instead. By way of a taster and to encourage you to visit, I took some photographs, but first you need to know how to get there. By bus of course, so here is a simple map.

Opposite the Moor Road bus stops is St Martins Road, complete with a sign pointing you in the right direction.

As you walk down St Martins Road you will pass the City Council's Sheila Russell Community Centre which is, without doubt, the prettiest in Nottingham. 

The community centre comes with its own secret garden, which always wows folk who see it for the first time and as my TravelRight 35 Bus Days have proved, a good many local folk did not know the garden existed before I took them to it. I love it. A real, hidden, city gem.

South side view of St Martins Church, Bilborough Village, but not the modern extension you first see as you approach the Church from the north side.

Now for the visit to St Martins Church to see the restoration work. We were welcomed by the Hidden Treasure Project Manager (and Church Warden), Hilary Wheat. On the wall, a projected image of Evelyn Gibbs in her Nottingham Houndsgate studio, probably in the late-1940s. The pub across the way from  her window has gone, replaced by a modern building housing a MacDonalds takeaway, but you can still the windows of her studio on the south side of Houndsgate, across from St Peter's Church and Marks & Spencers. 

We were next treated to an enthusiastic and very informative presentation about the life and works of Evelyn Gibbs by her biographer, Beeston artist Pauline Lucas. This is a fine example of one Evelyn Gibbs's many wartime drawings.

Tobit Curteis, the lead conservator, gave a truly wonderful talk about the history of church murals and how Evelyn Gibbs is part of an ongoing tradition. Towards the end he said 'Conservation? I tell students it's all about drains. Think about it. Water penetration does the most damage'. 

After Tobit we went into the old church, which was being protected from the modern extension and the outside world by a curtain of thick polythene sheeting. As I saw Hilary holding back the curtain so I could pass through, I thought of 'Stargate' (the TV series), which Susan is a great fan of, and how you pass into other worlds and times. For me, and I suspect others, this was one of those moments.

Once inside, Tobit stood on the scaffolding where his two conservator colleagues, Claudia (left) and Bianca (right) were hard at work, whilst he explained all the challenges they face. The lower part of the Evelyn Gibbs mural was covered with emulsion paint back in the 1970s and the top-half hidden from view by a false ceiling put in place when the church extension was built in the 1970s. Because emulsion paint cannot be removed at the present time without stripping away the layers of paint beneath, they are going to re-create the original mural from photographs, then sometime in the future, with the help of techniques Tobit expects to be invented in the next 20–30 years, the emulsion paint can be removed to reveal the lower half too.

I then caught Pauline Lucas looking up at one of the conservators. As you can see she was transfixed. Pauline is author of Evelyn Gibbs: Artist and Traveller published by Five Leaves Publications in 2002. The website says the book is still available, but when I enquired about a copy today I was told it was out of print. At the time Pauline was writing her biography, everyone thought the mural had been lost during the 1970s modernisation. When it was re-discovered, Pauline was one of the first to appreciate its significance and has been closely involved ever since. I am really pleased with this photograph. Pauline is such an engaging speaker that to hear her talking about Evelyn Gibbs is an experience not to be missed. 

Conservator Bianca working on the Angel Gabriel. The ‘Annuciation’ painted at St Martin’s Church in Bilborough in 1946 (which) is thought to be the last surviving example of these works and features Mary, the mother of Jesus, and the Angel Gabriel painted in the local setting, with the church and the old farmhouse behind them (you can read more on the St Martins Hidden Treasure Blog.

Some of my regular readers will know that I have mentioned St Martins in an earlier blog this year and in relation to the 35 History Bus as well. This memorial to the Helwys family of nearby Broxtowe Hall is a tangible link to Thomas Helwys, one of the founders of the Baptist Church. You can argue that it all began here, in St Martins. Another remarkable reminder of why this wonderful little church, in all its otherwise simplicity, is of international significance, with the potential to attract visitors from around the world.

The modern false ceiling also hid from view this wonderful bossed ceailing, Looking at my photograph captures how looking up at it made me feel quite dizzy.

My final photograph of the day shows two other important members of the Hidden Treasure Team. Lesley Owen-Jones, HLF's East Midlands Development Manager, who, according to Hilary Wheat, chased St Martins until they got their funding bid in (which resulted in a £744,100 grant) and Matt Dolman, who is in charge of Volunteering — an important aspect of the Hidden Treasure Project. Behind them Claudia works on the image of Mary.

Lesley also asked me to make the point that HLF very much wants to encourage local funding bids and is clearly enthusiastic about the wider role they can play in increasng local heritage awareness and this, in turn, brings me to an important potential spin-off — the bringing together of a number of local heritage related initiatives coming with a view to creating a local history society for the area.

In a nutshell St Martins Church in Bilborough is at the centre of an area we should be promoting as Nottingham's 'Garden City' and the series of Walking and Cycling Guides by Chris Matthews which have been published by TravelRight. 

Again, these are all things I have blogged about. Through me and John Parker, Chair of Nottinghamshire Local History Association, its Angel Row History Forum (with the support of the Local Studies Library), has been promoting a wider interest in local heritage, especially in areas of the city without local history groups. The following map illustrates this last point and how we may be able to bring groups and individuals together in a common cause as a Nottingham Garden City Heritage Society. The map shows all the areas around and close to St Martin's without any local history group.

Finally, the dates I mentioned for future events at St Martin's Church:

Wednesday 19 November 2014, an evening lecture starts 7pm, The Gibbs Murals: If Walls Could Talk, by Pauline Lucas, £6 (£3 concessions) includes refreshments.

Saturday 29 November 2014, Hidden Treasures Community Party, 3–5pm. Come and celebrate the launch of the Project and find out how you can be involved. Free music and food.

A FOOTNOTE: TUESDAY 30 SEPTEMBER 2014. A report in the Nottingham Post that over the weekend just gone vandals broke into St Martin's Church and did £1,000 worth of mindless damage. Suddenly, it becomes a site 'at risk'. Those responsible have no understanding that it is their heritage, regardless of faith or politics, that they attack. It is, at the end of the day, all about education and community engagement — and the creation of a Garden City Heritage Society could become an important part of the process, getting to every school and community facility in the area. Local history is democratic and greater than the sum of its parts. It is something we all own.

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