New effort to safeguard identity of Duchy chapels
Protecting the cultural heritage – as well as the bricks and mortar – of Cornwall's chapels is the subject of a joint conservation initiative being launched this week.
With congregations in decline, hardly a week goes by without the closure of another non-conformist place of worship. This Sunday, it is the turn of Treverva, near Falmouth. When the hymn books are put away after its annual carol service, the building will be locked up and sold. Like hundreds of others, its future will then be in the hands of its new owner. It could be converted into a home or business or used as a store.
More than 900 chapels were built in Cornwall – serving the needs of Methodists and Primitives, Bible Christians and Ebenezers. Today, fewer than 250 remain in religious or community use. Within the fabric of each is a unique community history – and it is this aspect that new guidance is aimed at safeguarding.
The Methodist Church, Cornwall Council and English Heritage have this week launched two guides to help communities preserve the character of their buildings. The advice is also designed to help new owners understand a property's cultural significance. One guide is aimed at planning officers, applicants, estate agents and architects, while another provides advice on a building's historic character.
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Jeremy Lake, who co-wrote the reports, said: "The greatest number of chapel closures within the Methodist Church is happening in Cornwall. In the coming years more will close and be sold. The challenge for those that remain open is how to maintain them, while for those that close it is to find appropriate new uses that respect their interiors.
"This guidance provides a way of helping owners, estate agents, communities and planners to manage sensitive change to all chapels and find a sustainable future for the most significant and vulnerable ones."
Cornwall has one of the highest concentrations of Methodist and non-conformist chapels in the country. A third – 184 – of all nationally listed chapels are west of the Tamar, with 18 being Grade II* and one Grade I. Most date from the 19th century and display a great variety of size and architectural style. Among those currently identified as at risk are Trinity Methodist Chapel in Newlyn, Charlestown Methodist Church and Little Trethewey Methodist Chapel.
Methodist Church conservation officer Joanne Balmforth said: "This is a serious attempt to inform and guide those with an interest in the conservation of non-conformist chapels, whether it be managing sensitive alterations to extend their use or in finding a sustainable and appropriate new use."
Methodism developed as an important part of Cornish culture from the late 18th century. Many Cornish people subsequently emigrated to Australia, South Africa, the Americas and other parts of the world, taking their religious conviction with them and establishing chapels.
Cornwall Council heritage champion Colin Brewer, said: "This initiative is a major step forward in taking an informed, consistent and sensible approach to the future of Cornwall's unique legacy of chapels. It is not a remote academic issue – these chapels are part of our landscape, our shared identity and our personal histories. We can now work to make sure these special places have the same presence in the lives of future generations in Cornwall."
Fellow Cornwall Council member Mark Kaczmarek, cabinet member for housing and planning, added that the plan had already received unanimous support from the authority's planning advisory panel.
"These chapels are as important for our towns and villages as the mine engine houses – they are a part of our identity and worthy of protecting," he said. "Planning officers will now be able to use this document when considering any change of use."