Hard Hat Tours: Behind the scenes of a remarkable restoration projectTuesday 29th November 2022
People from across the Greater Manchester region have been taking up the rare opportunity to find out more about the restoration of one of our iconic churches.
St John the Baptist RC Church in Rochdale has begun a series of Hard Hat Tours – inviting visitors to get up close to the intricate work of restoring the magnificent mosaic and structure of the building.
The tours have become a talking point of the area, with people travelling across Rochdale and beyond to take part.
Pat, a member of the Parish Project Team, has been delighted with how well the project has been received by the community.
She said: “We started of with a limit of 10 people per tour but there’s only been one tour where we’ve managed to keep bookings to the limit.
“It’s great because you put these things out there, but you never know whether or not people will see them. It’s been great to have so many people attending.”
The tours begin with a fascinating trip back in time, exploring the cultural heritage of Rochdale and how the Byzantine-style church found its way into the heart of a burgeoning town in the midst of the industrial revolution.
Visitors were then invited to grab a hard hat and hi-vis jacket before making their way into the main body of the church.
Amongst the noise and bustle of the busy construction site, the visitors gathered underneath the church’s iconic domed ceiling to hear from the specialists at Mosaic Restoration – the firm carrying out the extensive mosaic work.
The group learned all about the intricate process of cleaning and repairing the 315m2 mosaic, and the team’s efforts to retain as many of the original pieces as possible.
Visitors then learned more about some of the issues that has led to the need to complete this project, before taking up the opportunity to climb the scaffolding and see the magnificent mosaic up close.
Tommy, a long-time parishioner and member of the project board, was delighted to have the rare opportunity to examine the masterpiece and speak to another member of the mosaic team.
He said: “I was an altar server here for 13 years. For such a long time, I would sit on the altar and look at this mosaic, so to see it up this close is amazing.”
After exploring the mosaic and taking part in other activities such as mosaic building, the group headed outside to learn more about the work on the dome of the church, and the gruelling efforts of replacing the previous water-sodden material with a more weather-proof alternative.
This ambitious project has been made possible thanks to funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, in addition to the support of other organisations, including Valencia Communities Fund, Benefact Trust, National Churches Trust, The Wolfson Foundation, Idlewild Trust, Churches Conservation Foundation, The Prince of Wales’s Charitable Fund, Manchester Guardian Society Charitable Trust, and The Granada Foundation.
As the tour drew to a close, visitors were full of praise about the experience.
One former parishioner, called Anne, was married in the church over 30 years ago, so was delighted to see work being carried out to preserve its unique identity for future generations.
She said: “For years and years, it has been neglected and previously the work hasn’t been done properly. Years ago, they didn’t know what we know now – they didn’t have the same knowledge.
“We’ve got to keep these special buildings in good condition because there aren’t many that are quite like this.”
Another visitor, called Noreen, added: “For me, it was a wonderful experience and I found it a privilege to go up on the scaffolding. I found it wonderful – I would look at one part of the mosaic and then I would look at it from another angle and would see something completely different.”
The hardworking volunteers at St John the Baptist’s have been delighted with the response and can’t wait to share even more opportunities for people to engage with this unique church and parish community.
Pat said: “We’ve had some brilliant feedback. It just shows how interested people are in the project. In the coming weeks and months, we’ve got a number of new activities for people to get involved with, from local history podcasts to family mosaic craft sessions.
“But we need people to help deliver these activities and to welcome people through our door. We want to engage with the local community, so our church isn’t just hidden away. People travel to Istanbul to see something like this but it’s right here on our doorstep.”
The Parish Project Team is now in the process of recruiting for a number of roles, including digital volunteers, welcome volunteers, research and interpretation volunteers, and arts and crafts volunteers.
If you are interested in becoming a volunteer for St John the Baptist RC Church, please contact Heritage Officer Gemma Bailey by emailing email@example.com