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Battle to save Gazeley, between Bury St Edmunds and Newmarket, village church’s precious roof carvings

An urgent fund-raising appeal is to be launched to replace the chancel roof of a village’s Grade I-listed church and save a remarkable secret hidden beneath it.

The launch, at an event in All Saints’ Church, Gazeley, at 7pm on Thursday, October 19 will set an initial target of £70,000, about half of the projected total cost and although money may be available from local and national grant-funding bodies, this is usually on a match-fund basis with cash applicants have raised themselves.

“It feels as though we are in the foothills, if that, of a very tall mountain indeed,” said churchwarden and fund-raising committee member Simon Gash.

The inside of Gazeley church roof with its intricate wood carvings
The inside of Gazeley church roof with its intricate wood carvings
A medieval mooner appears to feature in one of the carvings
A medieval mooner appears to feature in one of the carvings

All Saints’ Church has stood in the heart of the village of Gazeley since the 14th century and is thought to have been built on the site of an even earlier church.

Like the custodians of most ancient churches in small parishes, the villagers of Gazeley, who number less than a thousand, have regularly been called upon to raise funds for repairs and refurbishment and only a few years ago had to help find £50,000 to replace the lead on the main roof.

But now they face a challenge of a much bigger order after the roof over the chancel at the east end of the church was found to be leaking and an estimate of more than £100,000 has been received for its repair, with more than 10,000 hand-made clay tiles in a mix of colours needed to replace the original roof.

What gives the appeal its urgency is a series of unique early 16th century carvings on the wagon-vaulted ceiling of the chancel referred to as ‘secret’ because they are too small and too high up to be seen clearly from the ground, which may have contributed to their survival.

They were discovered in 2018 by Simon Johnson, a historian and photographer who made a record of the strange and wonderful images which form the basis of his book Men, Myths and Monsters.

“The carvings vary from the quite vulgar to the very religious,” said Mr Gash. “There are angels, animals and birds and others which are from bizarre myths like the sciapod, a sort of merman, who is laying on his back with with one leg in the air using his enormous foot as some sort of parasol.”

Among the ‘quite vulgar’ is the carving which features on the cover of Mr Johnson’s book, of a man baring his bottom, which is thought to represent a sort of mediaeval mooning at the devil.

Leading academics have said that the carvings are a unique artistic treasure of national significance which have survived over the centuries when others were either destroyed deliberately at times of religious reformation or due to damage and decay.

“The roof is a precious survival, a gift that must be shared and protected for future generations,” said Professor Sarah Peverley, of Liverpool University.

“It must be safeguarded from damage so the church can continue to welcome people to enjoy the carvings and learn what they tell us about Britain’s past and the wider context of of European art and culture,” she said.