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What’s been going on with the Church Tower

You might have been wondering why there was scaffolding up the Church tower last month.  Here is a bit of an explanation.

The tower was added to Plymtree Church around 1420.  About the same time a statue of the Madonna and Child was placed in a niche half way up the tower.  It has therefore probably been in place for around 600 years. The statue is made of Beer Limestone which can be affected by weathering, particularly by acid rain. 

Many statues of this type were removed at the time of the Puritans in 16th and 17th centuries, who destroyed many artefacts which were regarded as “Popish”.  However, the statue in Plymtree survived and it is now a relatively rare example.

It is believed that the tower walls at Plymtree, as in many other churches, were in the past used for ball games – versions of the game commonly called “Eton Fives”.   The Madonna and Child seem to have been a “target” during such games.

In 1890s there was extensive repair and strengthening of the tower.  Iron bars reinforced the walls, and a new bell frame was installed along with a sixth bell.  At this time cement was commonly used and the back of the niche containing the statue was given a coat of cement. It is thought that the head of the baby Jesus had already fallen off during 19th century.

By 1980s the statue was in need of some attention as the stone was badly weathered and showing signs of decay.  Significant conservation and protection was required and Andrew Lawson, a stone conservator, carried out the work in 1991 and it was funded by the St Andrew’s Conservation Trust in Somerset.  As part of his work he removed a lot of cement droppings which had fallen behind the statue during the repairs of 1890s.  Underneath this layer of cement were many loose stones, a child’s wooden spinning top and a leather stitched ball. This was evidence of the statue having been used as a target.  Most remarkable of all was the discovery of the stone crown of the Virgin.  Presumably this was knocked off by one of the missiles.  Andrew was able to replace it and to restore the figure of Mary to her former glory.

The statue before and after conservation in 1991

As a result of Andrew Lawson’s work, Plymtree Church was awarded the national John Betjeman Award for 1993 – this is an annual award from the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB).

In the work of 1991 the statue was given a “sacrificial shelter coat” to protect it for about 25 years.  That time has now passed and the statue needed to be cleaned, have minor repairs and receive another shelter coat.  This work was completed by Andy French, stone conservator, who has carried out a lot of work on the church in recent years.

Use was made of the scaffolding to also treat and conserve the large tower window as recommended by our architect. Whilst applying shelter coats to the statue and window, we also took the opportunity to treat the Beer Stone surrounds of both the tower and porch doorways.

Statue after work in October 2019

Much of this work has been funded by a generous donation from Peter Wylie and our sincere thanks go to him.