The Hillersden Hall heritage project at Elstow Abbey brings together a 1,000 years of history in this English village.
Starting as a nunnery built by the niece of William the Conqueror, Elstow Abbey survived King Henry VIII’s reformation (in part), two World Wars and will still be standing when the current Coronavirus crisis is over.
Work began in the 21st Century with the first phase being the restoration of the ruins, completed at a cost of £233,000. Now fund-raising continues for the second of four phases.
Among the community activities has been a link with Bedford College’s foundation level students, who may have learning difficulties but who have “dug in” to help.
Adult course manager Karen Fulford forged the friendship after talking to Priest in charge Father Paul Messam.
Karen is an horticultural specialist and brought along students from the Margaret Stansfeld building from the college in Cauldwell Street to pick tonnes of tomatoes from an abandoned plot near the church. They turned them into soup and sold them as part of their Business and Catering training. That combined with other projects at the college campus brought the total to £40 – every little counts.
The £750,000 appeal to build a community hall from the ruins of Hillersden Hall next to the historic Elstow Abbey Church was launched in the autumn of 2019.
“This is a site which dates back over a 1,000 years which means that work will be expensive, but this is really history in the making,” said Priest in Charge Father Paul Messam.
Hillersden Hall was built in approximately 1620 in what was left of the 14th Century cloisters of the Abbey which were destroyed in the Reformation when King Henry VIII took over many wealthy Catholic places of worship for what we now know as the Church of England.
In later centuries the manor house fell into ruins. The first part of renovation into a community hall took place in the 21st Century thanks to a generous bequest.
“In addition we will be seeking grants and hoping that the local community will get behind this appeal for what will be a valuable community asset,“ added Father Paul.
Tourism is vital to the funding of Elstow Abbey and the new Hillersden Hall will serve, in part, as a visitor centre for those who travel from around the globe to see the village of John Bunyan author of what was the world’s best selling book for centuries (behind the Bible): The Pilgrim’s Progress.
The story of pilgrim Christian has inspired worshippers across the centuries and 1,000s have visited Elstow from the USA, South Korea and across Europe. More details bunyansbedford.weebly.com
Visitors to the church can now make high-tech donations through a card “tap” machine inside the historic doors.
“Churches have to move with times to raise funds and to welcome people not just on Sundays but seven days a week. We need help with funding in the same way that benefactors throughout the centuries have supported their local church,” said Father Paul.