Published: 18:53, 16 September 2021
| Updated: 18:54, 16 September 2021
There is anxiety in Headcorn as the village waits to see if its former Methodist Church in the High Street can be saved for the community before it goes to auction on September 22 - and possible re-development.
One resident, 74-year-old Mary Frydd who has lived in the village for 50 years, said: “Many of us were in tears when the auction sign went up."
She said: "This has been a community space for nearly 200 years: all we need is a bit more time.”
The Methodists are determined to sell the building, which dates from 1867, saying the the rising cost of maintenance and insurance had made the church untenable for the dwindling congregation that had shrunk to just 12 worshippers.
A campaign group called The Heart of Headcorn was formed in February and is seeking to save the building for community use and has developed detailed proposals to use the building as a museum, an education hub, a mindfulness space, food bank and a youth club.
They have set up a Community Interest Company called Ability Needs to run the project.
The group has applied to Maidstone council to have the church registered as a community asset - which would immediately prevent the building's planned sale at auction and give the group six months to raise the necessary funds to purchase it themselves.
Otherwise they fear the building, which is not listed, could be demolished or converted to housing.
Maidstone council has promised a decision - one way or another - on September 20, just two days before the auction sale.
Headcorn ward councillor Martin Round (Con) said: "I am in complete support of the community asset listing. We have hundreds of new homes in the village already and the demand for meeting spaces for village groups and clubs is already over-stretched. There is a need for more community space that the church building could meet."
But Cllr Round was not confident of the outcome. He said: "The decision is not one made by councillors; it is determined by officers on the basis of legal arguments."
The church lies in the centre of Headcorn Conservation Area and includes a graveyard at the front with burials still relevant to today's villagers.
One much cherished aspect of the church - its 1912 Carnegie organ - has already been sold to Boughton Aluph Church.
Bella Mansfield of the Heart of Headcorn group said: "We all love the building and the village has invested a lot in the church over the years, helping the Methodists with their roof fund for example.
"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.”
Mrs Mansfield, who lives next-door to the church, said: "The frustrating thing is that because of the multi-purpose nature of our proposals and the 6,000-plus residents that we will serve, we are actually eligible for thousands of pounds worth of funding."
She said: "Funders are saying, however, that the threat of the auction makes it difficult for them to commit money that we could be entitled to.
"It is a Catch 22. We need fast and flexible funding.”
The group is also doing its own fund-raising, with a recent raffle for prizes donated by Headcorn businesses including Headcorn Airfield, Pyman's Garage and the Hush Heath Estate and Winery that raised £1,300.
The campaign has also received sizeable donations from 24 Headcorn businesses including Family Funeral Services, MTC taxis, Go Cruise and Travel and the Headcorn Eye Centre.
Many local societies keen to meet in the church have also donated, as well as individual villagers.
The campaign received a further boost last week with a £2,400 donation pledged by the Headcorn Sustainability Group given in memory of long-standing village environmental campaigner Penny Kemp, who passed away in June.
As the auction draws nearer, the campaigners remain nervous but resolute.
Mrs Mansfield said: “In olden days, farming folk would have defended their sacred spaces with pitchforks, now we have to rely on social media and legal minutiae.
"But we will not give up. People in Headcorn do not give up. They keep fighting.”
Local singing group the Headcorn Harlequins has even recorded a song in support of the campaign, especially written by their leader Derek Bates, which has now been further taken up by the Headcorn Diversity Choir.
It is in a style reminiscent of protest sings from the 1960s by the likes of Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan.
The Rev Helen Hollands, who is the superintendent Methodist minister for the South Kent circuit, said Methodist worship would continue in the village even after the church's sale.
She said: "The local Methodist congregation will meet and worship elsewhere in the village. The church is not closed - just the building."
And she promised: "When the building is sold, there will be covenants in place to ensure that it remains well maintained and that people are able to visit the graves, should they wish to, in the future.”
The existing church is the third on the site. The first was a wooden chapel erected in1805.
The property is being sold through an online auction by Clive Emson Auctioneers on Wednesday, September 22, at 11am.
The guide price is £170,00 for the freehold of the building and a 999-year lease on the churchyard.
Anyone who wants to donate to the Heart of Headcorn project can do so here.