The church is recorded as existing as far back as the thirteenth century, but was extensively rebuilt in 1861. Only the tower contains any of the earlier fabric nowadays. It is listed Grade II.
Coombe Keynes today is a shadow of the village which existed in the Mediaeval period, depopulated by changes in agriculture and/or the Black Death. It now consists of a dozen or so houses round a small green, plus a handful of outlying farms and cottages, and three pairs of council-houses built after the last war just far enough away from the village centre to make the residents feel like outsiders.
Apart from the council houses, the church and vicarage, all of the village belonged to the Lulworth Estate until the 1970’s, when farming of the Estate was reorganised and the two farms in the village, with all the farm buildings and workers cottages, were put up for sale. Only a handful of ‘locals’ remailnedin the parish; and attendance at the church was clearly poor. The Diocese took the decision to close it in 1974.
At that time, I was working for the County Planning Department, and in 1976 the Historic Buildings Officer mentioned to me that the building was likely to be sold, suggesting that I and my wife might be interested in a conversion project. We came to see it but, overlooked as it was by the vicarage, and with problems relating to the conversion (not least sewerage, parking, use of churchyard) we decided it wasn’t for us. Fortunately, walking around the village after looking at the church, we saw a sale sign on West Coombe Farmhouse which fitted our specifications very closely and we purchased that instead.
At this time the village was experiencing a remarkable re-birth, as other young couples purchased the vicarage and several of the barns for conversion, and set about raising families. We considered that it would be regrettable for the one public building in the village to be lost and set about trying to find a way to keep it for the village, (after all there could be another religious revival!).
There hadn’t been a meeting of the Parish Council for several years, so we revived it as a Parish Meeting and suggested to the parishioners that we might take the church on as a village hall. I was the first Chairman of the revived Parish Meeting, and soon discovered that it was a hopeless mechanism for taking such decisions: one meeting would agree to go ahead, and the next would back-pedal! Accepting that the parish would never take on this responsibility, the sub-committee who had taken on the task divorced itself from the Parish Meeting and set about the business of setting up a charitable trust to take on responsibility for the building. In 1980, the Coombe Keynes Trust’s constitution was approved and the Diocese handed over the building into our care. (Having initially insisted that we must raise an endowment of £10,000 to cover the care of the building – which we started trying to do – the eventual price was £10.)
The Trust owns the building but not the churchyard, which is still in use. The vicar of Wool is responsible for this. However, Wool has been happy to leave the management and maintenance of the churchyard to the CKT, contributing the occasional burial fee toward our costs.
Having been substantially rebuilt in 1861, and with (fairly) sound Purbeck stone roofs, the burden of keeping the building in reasonably good repair has not been too onerous so far. however the Trust has made no attempt to adapt the building by adding kitchen or toilet facility, and accepts the restrictions on its use that this brings. In any case, there is little or no car parking in the vicinity of the building, so use by persons outside the community is not really practical. We have been advised that with only one entrance, we should not hold events involving more that 50 people; and this limits the potential income of an event (such as for example a barn-dance, if a band has to be paid).
The building is available for Parish meetings, and small private functions for residents and/or members of the Trust; and the Trust organises a handful of events each year (for example, our Harvest Supper) which aim to provide social interaction for residents, and some educational input (a talk, quiz or music) and raise small sums for our funds. For thirty years our big annual fund-raiser was the Village Fete held in the adjacent Vicarage garden, with cream teas being served in the church. We have built up a fund (never quite the £10K first mentioned) which covers occasional repair works and improvements – and most critically, our biggest annual expense, the insurance.
The Trustees are very concerned for the future of the Trust and the church as the demographic of the village has changed. Increasing property values have made it attractive for families who came here in the 70s to sell up and move on, at the same time as making it virtually impossible for younger local families to afford to live here. The prices are, however, no deterrent to purchasers from London and the South East. In consequence, more of the dwellings are now second homes. Furthermore, the average age of the residents is steadily increasing so that fund-raising for the preservation of the church becomes more difficult.
We often wonder how much longer the Trust will be able to carry on.
Peter Brachi, chairman