The Quarterly Village Publication produced by Barrow upon Soar Community Association

Feature


Old St. Alban’s on the Fossil Trail

If you try out Barrow's Fossil Trail this summer your leaflet will tell you to start at the Three Crowns Public House In North Street. After taking in a few fossils and learning something of the Old Women's Hospital you will be told to leave North Street and walk down Breadcroft Lane passing the entrance to Bryan Close but turning down the jitty The Hollybush just to the left of it. At the bottom of this jitty you will find a representation of a trapped Jurassic dragonfly in a beautifully shaped lump of orange 'amber' protruding from a bracket on the wall of an old building.

The Fossil Trail leaflet tells you that the building is now in private hands but used to be St. Alban's, Barrow's Roman Catholic Church and was built in 1839 by Irish Navvies working on the railway. As there is little space in the leaflet for other than the bare bones I thought it would be interesting to find out what had happened. Why did this tucked away church with its ' attached dwelling ' become de-consecrated and given a new lease of life as two residential houses? And what was the area like when it was first built?

The second question is the easier to answer. Although the building is surrounded on all sides by houses now, when it was spanking new it was sited amongst fields and orchards and slightly away from the heart of the village. This was probably deliberate as it was only ten years since the 1829 Catholic Emancipation Act had been passed and in those distant days many still thought of Roman Catholics as different from Protestant folk; they were even regarded with a little suspicion. The area remained rural until the 1950's when more houses were built along Church Street but before this happened the path to the church was often covered in bits of straw and cow dung. Mothers instructed their children to be very careful to wipe their feet before they entered the church: dirty shoes being thought disrespectful. For children this careful wiping of shoes became an indelible memory still crystal clear decades later.

The church finally closed its doors in 1989. Many people, especially those who had regularly worshipped there were very saddened by the closure but it wasn't just the Catholic community that missed the church, others of different faiths in the village regretted the loss as it had become part of Barrow. Over the years the worshippers had made many repairs themselves, and collected money to keep things going, but by this time there were major problems they couldn't rectify. The walls were bowing outwards, the heavy Swithland roof slates and ground liable to subsidence from old nearby lime workings were said to be the culprits. The interior walls had been cracked for years. But perhaps most tellingly of all is that a priest, Father Cunningham, wanted to restart ringing the bell before Sunday Mass. Sadly he had to be tactfully dissuaded. The bell had long been silent as the regular worshippers feared that if it were enthusiastically rung the fragile enclosing brickwork might fall down and cause even the wall to collapse!

So the church was de-consecrated and sold. This resulted in the Catholic community becoming a less obvious presence in the village as people now worshipped at St Gregory's in Sileby, in the Bishop Beveridge Club or each others homes. Yet there were advantages to worshipping in Sileby particularly in relation to music.

In the old days St Alban's had a good choir but only an old hand pumped organ whereas St. Gregory's now has the benefit of electricity and a regular organist. There is therefore greater scope for the singing of sacred music. In the 1990's the church and 'attached dwelling' were gutted. This 'attached dwelling' now called 'The Priest House ' had often been used as such in the 19th century. However, in the mid twentieth it had become the church caretaker's home. Mr and Mrs. Hubbard were the last to occupy the house in its original form.

Although permission to ' change- use' was quickly obtained from Charnwood Borough Council there were many obstacles to be overcome before planning permission was granted. Two of the main ones were lack of off road -parking and a loss of privacy for residents of Bryan Close. Loss of privacy was a real fear as the original window designs in the roof were for large protruding windows. However architectural changes ensured neighbourhood privacy and although the parking question was never truly resolved the site was such an eyesore, and had been for so long , that planning permission was eventually given as it was thought that something had to be done to end the site's derelict nature. Walking down the jitty now it's hard to believe that this attractive area was once described as an eyesore!

The builder originally thought he could convert the existing structures into three houses but this plan was dropped. The small 'Priest House' was made bigger by being extended into what had formerly been part of the church. The main body of the church itself experienced massive change as a whole new floor was inserted. The iron railings are original.

And what's it like to live there now? Well, I asked Jane Melbourne, the present owner of The Priest House and she loves it. Jane and her family moved in over a year ago and she has very much enjoyed making her house into an attractive home. She particularly likes its quirkiness - the little passageways, the different heights of its doors, the low windows, the way the rooms exude a feeling of warmth and coziness and the ease of access to the flower beds and rambling clematis of the cottage garden. Although her choice of colour schemes and textiles are modern she aims to sympathetically combine the new and the old to create a pleasing harmony and this she has definitely achieved. Since moving in she has noticed several little groups of Fossil Trail folk walking along the jitty. This summer make sure you are one of them too.»

Gaynor Barton

To read much more about the history of St. Alban's in the 19th century please go to the Leicestershire Villages website www.barrowuponsoar.org.uk/catholicchurch or Barrow's 'Heritage Group' website www.barrowuponsoarheritage.org.uk To find St. Alban's go to 'View all Projects', then' Places of Historic Interest in Barrow Upon Soar' then 'Historic Buildings in Church Street'.