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Old and young come together to build a new church
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BBC Look East's Stuart Ratcliffe reporting on Isleham's new green oak church

The oldest and youngest members of a Cambridgeshire church were invited to mark the moment the first beam was cut for their new building.

The congregation of High Street Church in Isleham has outgrown its 19th century chapel, so the parishioners are building themselves a new church.

"We happen to have within our church the skills to do that," church leader Paul Hedger said.

It will be one of the biggest self-build projects in the UK.

Green timber

Between 300 and 400 people worship at the chapel every Sunday. It is so packed the children have to worship in another building.

The congregation decided to construct a new building which would be both a church and a community centre.

"We could have gone down the steel or concrete route," Paul Hedger explained. "But we're in the centre of a village that needs to have a design that is aesthetically pleasing."

So he chose to model it upon a traditional Cambridgeshire barn in green oak, although this had its own problems.

Alf and Ivy Allers, with Ruth Taylor, Paul Hedger
Alf and Ivy Allers, with Ruth Taylor and church leader, Paul Hedger

"We found that the region's sawmills could cut beams up to only 25ft long but our new building needs beams 35ft to 40ft long," said Paul, who has worked with wood for three decades.

The solution? They built and equipped their own large sawmill on the outskirts of Isleham. There they will cut the beams needed using a redundant Robinson N2 horizontal saw with a 38ft blade, once owned by the Royal Navy.

First cut

It took a year to build and equip the sawmill and it will take a further two or three years to build the 3,500 square metre church and community building at Manor Farm in Chippenham. It will be called The Ark.

Work is now under way, and to celebrate the cutting of the first beam Alf and Ivy Allars and Ruth Taylor were invited to a special ceremony.

Alf and Ivy are both 90 next year and are the oldest members of High Street Church, while Ruth, at six years old, is the youngest. They signed their names on the newly-machined oak beam which were then etched in to form a permanent memorial.

Ruth said she found it very exciting: "I get to write on a piece of wood and I've never done this before."

Ruth Taylor
Currently, children like Ruth Taylor have to worship in a separate building

Alf said: "It's a very friendly church, it's very believing and most people are very excited about this. I think it's fascinating. It's so big and it's all God's timber

"People are so excited that these trees have been offered, freely in some cases."

It was the church leaders who suggested Ivy, Alf and Ruth should mark the occasion in this way.

Ivy said: "We're sitting here as older people but we're representing all the members of the church. It's a great honour and a privilege."

Old and new

Now the hard work begins for Paul Hedger and two others, who will spend up to three years building a church fit for the 21st century.

The industrial machinery will cut the huge beams to size but then the team will revert to joinery techniques used for centuries.

The men and women who founded High Street Church as a non-denominational congregation in 1812 would surely be proud to see how far it has developed over the past two centuries.




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