Historic church gutted by fire

An investigation is under way as to what started a ferocious blaze which caused severe damage to a historic parish church.

The fire began in the organ loft of St Mary Magdalene Church, Whatlington, before 4.30pm on Thursday July 15, and when the west window collapsed, the high winds quickly spread the flames through a void in the roof space.

Gordon Labbett, 85, lives nearby and was one of the first on the scene.

He said: "It was quite vicious.

"It blew out the round window at the west end of the church and it was like an inferno inside.

"We do not know how it started, but it caught very quickly.

"The tiles were exploding off the roof."

Mr Labbett has been involved with the church for around 40 years and was the secretary of the Parochial Church Council for many years.

He said: "It's a sad day I never expected to see.

"We will pick up the pieces in the fullness of time."

Hilda Aplin, treasurer of the Parochial Church Council, said: "We have lost a lot.

"We are absolutely gutted. It was a beautiful church."

Although the west window was destroyed and the east window has been damaged, the majority of the windows, recently refurbished for 25,000, were not damaged.

Six fire crews from Battle, Bexhill, Hastings and Broad Oak prevented the flames spreading into the vestry and tower and the walls have remained intact.

Hilda said: "We have got a shell which we shall build again and the church will be up and running as long as it takes to get everything done.

"The PCC remain very positive and want that church reopened.

"It was a much-loved church and besides being a place of worship, it was a historic building and we must get it up and running as soon as we can.

"It was steeped in history."

It is estimated the damage will cost in excess of 100,000 to repair.

The church was left structurally unsafe following the fire and was cordoned off, although, under the eyes of the firemen, PCC members were allowed inside the building to retrieve some important documents.

It is not yet known what caused the blaze, which started inside the locked church.

Watch manager Mick Taylor, of Battle fire station, said: "It was quite a severe fire in the church itself.

"There was nobody in there and it was all locked up.

"It had been burning for some considerable time before we arrived so it was well established when we got there."

The fire was out by 9pm, although throughout the night firefighters continued to dampen down hotspots and cut away materials that threatened to re-ignite.

A church has stood on the present site since before the Conquest and it is likely that the original building was burned down by the Normans.

The present building dates from the 13th century and was restored and modernised by the Victorians in 1862.

* THE CHURCH building may be out of action, but the congregation of St Mary Magdalene refused to let the fire spoil their Patronal weekend.

A concert with cream teas, planned at the church, was moved to the village hall, with the event raising 506 to kick start an appeal fund for the church, set up by the Parochial Church Council.

On Saturday the church also received donations totalling 645.

The weekend closed with a moving Patronal evensong in the church yard by the fire-damaged church.

The service was full of positivity on how to move on after the blaze.

Anyone who would like to give to the appeal fund set up by Whatlington PCC should send donations to Mrs H Aplin, "Lismoyne" Oakhurst Road, Battle, TN33 0JL, cheques should be made payable to Whatlington PCC.