The stone ruins of the Church of St Mary the Virgin are located on the outskirts of the village of Clophill, England. Its construction dates from around 1350. The locals referred to it as Old St Mary’s or the Old Parish Church.
In 1820, a decision was made to expand the church because there weren’t enough seats for the entire congregation. However, these plans could not be carried out since the rector fell ill. He subsequently passed away in 1843, when a new rector was appointed.
This new rector chose not to expand the church but instead favored the construction of a new church in the center of the village. In 1848, a new church dedicated to St Mary was built, and in 1850, the Church Commissioners ordered that it had officially replaced the old church outside the village.
For a while after the construction of the new church, the old one was used as a mortuary chapel, holding bodies before they were buried in the adjacent cemetery which was still in use. The chancel and galleries were removed so that it could be turned from a church into a chapel. Some items, including two bells and the lychgate, were moved to the new church.
By the 1950s, the old church had become so derelict that it couldn’t even function as a mortuary chapel. Little more than the nave and the tower remained.
In the 1960s, the church gained a bad reputation after the desecration of graves was carried out and rumors of various unholy rites began to circulate.
The rector spoke to the press after two youths were found playing with a skull in the street. He confirmed that female bones had been taken from their graves and placed in a ritualistic fashion within the church.
There was a strong suggestion of devil worship going on at the church. At this time, such things were happening in many churches across Britain.
Eventually, a student from a nearby agricultural college admitted that he and his friends had set up the devil-worshipping scene as a joke, adding that it didn’t seem so funny now.
But that didn’t prevent the old church from having a bad reputation.
The suggestion of satanic practices was not helped by the fact that the church allegedly faced the wrong direction.
As a general rule, church altars should be towards the east so that the congregation is looking and praying in that direction. This is because the east is where the sun rises and so is associated with heaven.
Because the altar in the Church of St Mary the Virgin is said to have faced west instead, critics have suggested that it is an entrance way to hell rather than heaven, which would account for its allegedly haunted nature and the fact that satanic rituals have been performed there.
In 1961, the Church of St Mary the Virgin was categorized as a Grade II listed building. In 1977, responsibility for the ruins passed from the church to Bedfordshire Central Council. However, vandalism couldn’t be stopped.
By 2010, the Council had become concerned about the condition of the church. The Council wanted to renovate the old church and turn it into a bothy – an unlocked building that can provide shelter for walkers on the Bedfordshire Greensand Ridge walk.
However, it would have been necessary to have a fulltime warden on the site, and together with the renovation plans, this project would have cost the Council £75,000, which was too expensive.
Instead, in 2012, English Heritage and Heritage at Risk worked together to stabilize the ruins and add gravel paths to make it easier for visitors to walk around the site.
The work began in 2013 and has now been completed, so the site is open to the public and safe to access.
A viewing platform was also built at the top of the former church, and daily tours (at 10 am and 2 pm) allow visitors to reach the top of the tower via a spiral stair.
These tours are run by volunteers, and visitors are advised to call and book in advance. There are also plans to build a heritage center nearby.
English Heritage put forward £100,000 and Heritage at Risk put forward £75,000 to finance this project. The remaining balance of £50,000 was funded by Waste Recycling Environmental Limited’s Heritage Fund.
Now the Old Church of St Mary is a great place to visit on its own or as part of a longer walk. The site itself is free to enter and view, although there is a charge for the tour. Parking is available within walking distance in the village.
All photos of the Church of St Mary the Virgin in this article are provided with permission from the photographer, Andy Sears.
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