Published: 09:05, 04 February 2021
| Updated: 09:12, 04 February 2021
A group of villagers in Headcorn have come together to launch a campaign to purchase the disused Methodist Church for the community.
The building in the High Street is shortly to be put up for sale, after the Methodists declared that the rising cost of maintenance and insurance had made the church untenable for the dwindling congregation that had shrunk to just 12 worshippers.
Now villagers Sally Musker, Duncan Payne, Tim Thomas, Victoria and Richard Berry, Dr Khum Raj Pathak and Bella Mansfield have formed a committee that has developed ambitious plans to purchase the church and use it to give the village its own museum and to provide a place for education and support.
Bella Mansfield said: "We all love the building - it's right in the heart of the village's conservation area.
"The village has invested a lot in the church over the years, helping the Methodists with their roof fund for example, and many village events have been held there - from antique fairs to yoga classes.
"Some of our older residents got married there and some of us have relatives buried in the churchyard at the front of the building - including my gran, Constance Benstead.
"The last thing we want is to see a developer moving in and demolishing it for housing."
'The church has been important to the people of Headcorn'
Instead, they envisage the church with three separate uses: as a museum to tell the history of the village and help boost tourism; as a community college to provide life-long learning opportunities for villagers including helping people with IT, form-filling and skills upgrading to help them find work; and as a "mindfulness space" that would be for both reflection and prayer and offer counselling services.
They've named the three component parts: Headcorn Museum, Headcorn Community College and Headcorn Oasis.
Mrs Mansfield has been a Headcorn villager for 33 years and lives next door to the church.
She said: "The ideal will be to keep the interior as close to the original as possible."
Tim Thomas, chairman of the Headcorn History Society, said: "It would be wonderful to have a small museum. The history society currently stores our archives in the village hall, but there is nowhere to exhibit them."
"The Methodist Church is a very important building - it's prominent in the view as you enter the village - and it has also been important to the people of Headcorn. My own parents were married there in 1939 and I was christened there.
"This is the third church on the site - the Methodists started with a wooden chapel in 1805."
Sally Musker, whose family first moved to Headcorn since the 1960s, believes that the project will provide a link between past and present residents:
She said: "Covid has shown how our community matters. Despite these insecure times, the Heart of Headcorn project helps us to return to our history and our roots.
"It is an opportunity to create something that chimes with the Methodist spirit, but that works in the modern world. It's also about honouring those who had the love and passion to build the church in the first place and all those who have worshipped there over the decades."
Mr and Mrs Berry run the bespoke cake shop Bake My Day in Headcorn. They are well used to community work having recently provided Christmas dinner for elderly and lonely people in Headcorn, and making regular deliveries of food to the Homeless Care shelter in Knightrider Street, Maidstone.
Mrs Berry said: "We feel honoured to be on the committee for the Heart of Headcorn project.
"Although it seems like a well-off area, we've discovered that there are still many people in need. Hopefully this place will help people get stronger.
"Its been tough for businesses to survive, but we hope that this new venture will get shoppers coming back to the village after the lockdown.
"People might come to the village to visit the museum or go to a class, then have a wander around the shops afterwards."
The couple will use their expertise to provided refreshments at the new centre. Mrs Berry said: "People will be able to come for the session that they are interested in, then have a cup of tea and a nice bit of cake in the break or afterwards with friends. It might seem like a long way off right now, but it is something to look forward to."
The community college element will be overseen by Dr Khum Raj Pathak, who currently teaches maths for tuition company Divine Global.
Dr Pathak said: "We would like the college to focus on lifelong learning and help to make education accessible and welcoming to people of all ages and backgrounds.
"We plan to include a variety of academic and intellectual subjects, as well as hobbies and courses for pleasure.
"Most importantly, we would like to help people develop their hard and soft core skills with apprentice training, upskilling for all ages and a Back to Work programme. Helping everybody to fulfil their potential will have a positive impact on the whole of our community. When people are flourishing, we are all safer and happier."
With no idea yet, what the asking price for the church will be, nor how much any necessary repairs will cost, the group have set themselves a target of raising £300,000 and have launched a GoFundMe appeal.
The appeal is currently being hosted by the Ability Needs Community Interest Company (CIC), run by Mrs Mansfield, but the idea would be to set up a new CIC called the Heart of Headcorn to run the centre if it gets off the ground.
Mrs Mansfield said: "We felt we had to act fast, because we heard the Methodist Church might take the building to auction and its sale could be very quick."
The building dates from 1867 but is not listed.
Its former church yard at the rear was sold to Headcorn Parish Council in 1980 and is now the village cemetery, but there are still some graves in front of the church that fall within its curtilage.
Mrs Mansfield said: "Time is short, so please support our campaign to preserve this precious public space for the village and future generations."
Visit the appeal here.