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Newsletter No. 10 April 2021

  • Sport at Bisham Abbey

  • Answering questions about the Bisham Church Friends scheme

  • The new team

  • A message from Sean Wheeler

  • Unlocking the history of Bisham


A year ago we had just entered a strict lockdown, facing an unknown crisis and an uncertain future. Much has happened since then. Though fear, sadness, separation and selflessness predominated in the early months, gradually new ways of coping, working and going about our daily lives have emerged. Behind this has been remarkable innovation, most famously with the development of safe and effective vaccines, at a far more rapid pace than most would have expected. Changes are here to stay and hope has a place once more.

Bisham Church Friends has not stagnated during this difficult year. It has embraced innovation, developing a website that has attracted attention and automating processes that will be recognisable in a modernising environment. It is at a point of change, looking towards a future when church and community will be brought closer together and more young people will be involved. It is an exciting time.

To effect this change, we need people with skill, experience and motivation. I myself have been Chairman for seven years. Helping to bring the scheme to where it is today has been time consuming and not always easy, but immensely rewarding. When I realised last October that the time was approaching for me to move on, I embarked on a plan to find volunteers, better placed and a bit younger, to enable me to stand down in April. As with the vaccines, everything has come together more rapidly and effectively than expected.

I am delighted to tell you that Sean Wheeler did not hesitate to accept my invitation to succeed me as Chairman. I know that he is just the right person for the task and I am grateful to him for helping to ensure a smooth and seamless transition, especially with the assembling of a strong team to manage all the different elements of a flourishing scheme, with a vision which he shares. You can read about the new team towards the end of this newsletter.

At this point I would like to pay tribute to Melissa, my daughter-in-law. We will be standing down together, but before packing her bags to join our son in Canada, Melissa has put the finishing touches to what is a really attractive and informative website. The development of the website has involved many hours of skilled work over the last two years, for which we all owe her a sincere vote of thanks. Do take the time to visit again. You will notice new pages and links, including one to the history podcast, which I’m sure you will enjoy exploring. Please bring the website to the attention of others too.

This newsletter begins with an interesting article on sport at Bisham Abbey by Hamish Hunter, a regular contributor, with beautiful photos kindly provided by Sport England. The history of Bisham Abbey is closely linked with that of the church, and learning what goes on there today is fascinating.

I thought it would also be a good moment to remind you of the history of our Friends scheme, what we aim to achieve and where we are today. I have done this in the form of answers to a number of questions. But without you, there would be no scheme. So I would like to end by thanking you for your support and generosity, and to wish you enjoyment and interest through your membership of a scheme whose aims we all share. When the present crisis has passed and we can hold events again, including a rescheduled Friends Summer Garden Party, I shall look forward to seeing you there.

Robert Frost, Chairman

Sport at Bisham Abbey By: Hamish Hunter

What is now known as Bisham Abbey is a Grade 1 listed manor house and a former priory located in the village of Bisham in Berkshire. The manor house was constructed in the 13th century. The priory, originally for Augustinian canons, was built in the 14th century and, after dissolution, was refounded as a Benedictine abbey. This, however, did not last and it became a private home.

Sport England

After the death of her two nephews Berkeley and Guy Paget during WW2 the then owner, Phyllis Vansittart-Neale, let the Abbey at a nominal fee to the Central Council of Physical Recreation as a living memorial. The Council set up the first national training centre in the country at Bisham and later purchased the Abbey with government funds.

Bisham Abbey is owned by The Sports Council Trust Company (SCTC), a wholly owned subsidiary of the English Sports Council (Sport England). Bisham is unique in the sporting landscape, providing world class training environments for Olympic and Paralympic programmes, whilst simultaneously delivering wider outcomes for community participation in sport and physical activity. Bisham is recognised nationally, and increasingly internationally, as examples of best practice for the co-location of community activity and world class training environments.

Significant changes have naturally taken place over the years and, whilst Sport England retain the look and feel of a simply splendid old manor house in extensive leafy riverside grounds, it has evolved to also become a vibrant sports facility with the addition of a large very modern multimillion pound indoor collection of specialist sports rooms, state-of-the-art outdoor pitches, rehabilitation centre and injury clinic.

Bisham Abbey has become renowned in the world of sport and many international and Olympic elite sportsmen and women have passed through its centre - and many still do. However, a number of the facilities are open to individuals of the general public and local sports clubs.

Sport England

The amenities are many. They include four indoor and eight outdoor clay and acrylic courts, which are used extensively for coaching, wheelchair and leisure tennis, and there are two squash courts.

Outdoors there are pitches used for football and rugby - one each of 4G, Desso and grass. A thriving football academy is based here and the England Ladies rugby squad are often seen. Top English and overseas football squads train at Bisham from time to time.

Sport England

There is no finer synthetic water based hockey pitch in the land. England Hockey, men and women, and the GB squads make Bisham their home for training. Occasional internationals are held here and overseas teams also use the facility for training.

There is a 90 station fitness suite and gymnasium used by GB Olympic weightlifters for conditioning and elite strength work. It is also used by other GB athletes and Paralympians as well as the general public.

Sport England

There is a dance studio and rooms for workout classes, of which there are many.

A sailing and navigation school sits within the grounds on the water’s edge.

Sport England

The clinic and rehabilitation centre provides physiotherapy and medical assistance for athletes.

Accommodation comprising 50 en-suite rooms is on site for residential courses, supplemented by a banqueting hall, bar, restaurant and café. There are also seven conference rooms.

Some might say that having a modern sports facility of this nature is out of keeping with a historic old village like Bisham. However, it is a focal point for national and international sporting prowess, as well as being a facility for villagers to use, and certainly helps put Bisham on the map. Sport England and Serco are generous towards the village with the provision of some of their facilities.

The manor house is historically important, with close links to Bisham church, especially during the time of the Hoby family, several of whom are recognised with wonderful monuments in one of the chapels.

So, there is much of interest, both old and new, in Bisham Abbey and Bisham Church and, without the sad deaths of the Vansittart heirs, perhaps there would be no sports centre in Bisham.

Photo by: Robert Frost

Answering questions about the Bisham Church Friends scheme By: Robert Frost

In January I was approached by the Diocese of Oxford, who had heard about Bisham Church Friends and thought other churches establishing or developing Friends schemes would be interested in our experience. The result was an illustrated case study, accessible to others, which has already led to enquiries. The core of this study was my response to a number of questions, as given in this article.

Why did you decide to start a Friends scheme?

The Bisham Church congregation has aged and dwindled over the years. Its electoral roll now stands at 66 and numbers in the parish as a whole fell by 15% between 2018 and 2019. Meeting the Parish Share has become difficult. However, the church offers opportunity as a community resource; there is no other community centre in the village of Bisham and the church’s historic treasures are unmatched in the Marlow area. A successful Friends scheme was seen as a way of ensuring the future of the church itself.

How did you structure the scheme alongside the District Church Council?

In 2014, together with our Team Vicar and the Secretary/Treasurer of the DCC, I attended a Friends scheme training day arranged by the Oxford Diocese. Two options were discussed: setting up a separate charity or forming a sub-group within the DCC. We chose the latter for two reasons. A separate charity would have necessitated an extra group of trustees, separate legal obligations and additional layers of administration, when attracting volunteers, even for the DCC itself, was becoming increasingly difficult. More important, however, was our belief that the Friends scheme should be firmly anchored within the ecclesiastical side of the church. The Terms of Reference which we drew up reflect this.

How did you encourage new givers?

I do not share the assumption that a Friends scheme should be established primarily to raise funds, although in my experience money will follow naturally. The community aspect, which in our case now extends well beyond the local area, even as far as the USA and Australia, is more important. We even offer free membership, with the opportunity to give time and to become involved in various ways, which leads to growth.

How do you encourage non-congregation members to join?

This is a key question. Initially it meant extensive networking and personal contact, identifying those for whom Bisham Church might have special meaning, for example those who had relatives buried in the churchyard, those who had been married there, those who once worshipped there, those who had strong community feeling and, above all, those who wished to ensure the future of a building and place that they valued. While this networking is ongoing, it is time consuming, so we have automated joining through our new website, which should attract younger members familiar with smartphones, links and QR codes. It is early days but we are encouraged by the way automatic joining is taking off. Already two-thirds of our Friends are non-congregation members and the proportion is bound to increase.

How does the Friends scheme fit in with the church’s normal giving?

This is another important question. Since the majority of the Friends are not congregation members, and many are not church-goers, a system had to be found that did not conflict. Those Friends who already support the church financially as members of the congregation may make a small additional donation directly to the Friends scheme if they wish, but they are under no obligation to do so. Their membership in itself provides the essential link mentioned above. We do not wish other Friends to feel obliged to contribute to the running of the church as an ecclesiastical entity, so we have avoided the centralised Diocesan donation scheme and established a distinct Friends fund, with a separate bank account. This is mainly used for the maintenance of the building and its contents.

How is the money from the Friends scheme spent?

A small proportion covers administration, publicity and marketing, with maintenance of the website and occasional printing consuming most of this. The bulk of the money raised is transferred into a ring-fenced fund, restricted to the maintenance of the fabric. Commitments are approved by the DCC. This takes pressure off the small congregation no longer able to guarantee the preservation of a relatively large building, of great value to the wider community but now disproportionate for solely ecclesiastical use.

How much does it cost to be a Friend?

While acknowledging that defined subscription rates might have been the way to go, we have decided to leave it to Friends to donate whatever they wish. As explained above, free membership is possible, while we recognise that some Friends already donate to the church in other ways. Most Friends do donate to the scheme, usually on a regular basis, and their generosity is greatly appreciated.

Do you run events? If so, what kind are they?

We offer between two and four events a year, details of which are given on the website. These include historical talks, guided tours, social events and outside visits. They are generally open to anyone, although occasionally we hold an event restricted to Friends, to show gratitude for their contribution. The open events are sometimes ticketed. At other times, discretionary donations generally cover the modest costs. Sometimes non-members go on to join the scheme.

How do you keep up interest in the scheme?

In addition to running events, we are committed to producing a biannual illustrated newsletter. We believe this to be a useful platform for sustaining interest, appreciated by members, who receive it first by email before it is posted on the website for anyone to read. The website has considerable potential, not only for sustaining interest amongst present members but also for attracting new members of all ages, wherever they live. The ability to include links presents great opportunity, which we are in the early stages of developing.

What is the greatest problem that you face?

I like to see problems as solutions in disguise. To sustain the Bisham Church Friends scheme, we need to identify volunteers who share our vision and are enthusiastic about supporting our aim, willing to give time, experience and expertise. All volunteering can bring unexpected rewards and this worthwhile activity is no exception.

Photo by: Robert Frost

The new team By: Robert Frost

It has been wonderful to see the solution to a problem unfurl so quickly and positively. From the moment Sean Wheeler joined the Friends in January last year, he had been asking me how he could help. Aware of his qualities and experience, I called him a few weeks ago to ask whether he might consider taking over from me as Chairman. His response was immediate and positive, enabling us to work together to recruit a team to take the Friends forward when I stand down this month.

Sean, who lives in Bisham, retired recently from a senior management position in the hospitality sector, with HR responsibility for an expanding group of hotels. He chairs a number of charities and has been awarded the British Empire Medal for his charitable work. He is a people person, familiar with social media and ideally qualified to lead the Friends scheme at an exciting point in its development, when we are reaching out to all age groups.

Jackie Marfleet will cover the administration, on which the whole scheme depends, taking on the combined role of Secretary, Treasurer and Membership Secretary. Jackie is a qualified librarian, who has worked in both the public and private sectors. She has experience with Ernst & Young, KPMG, the British Library and the National Archives, where she was responsible for their Friends scheme. She was Director of Library Services at London University, whose Friends scheme she also ran. She is a former Secretary of the Bisham District Church Council.

Judy Taylor will be Editor and Marketing Secretary. She works full time as a consultant in qualitative market research and marketing and has her own company. She is a writer by training, has an interest in history and edits a newsletter for industry.

Hamish Hunter has been a pillar of the Friends scheme since its inception seven years ago, whose support I have greatly valued. He has contributed often to the newsletter, including this one, and will play a vital role in liaison with the District Church Council, which he once chaired.

Sheila Featherstone-Clark will also be continuing as a member of the team, her particular interest being the history of Bisham and its people. She is a former teacher, actively giving guided tours and talks in the church and writing articles for the newsletter, based on her research. She is married to Stewart, the Church Warden.

Judy, Hamish and Sheila all live in Bisham.

Peter Osborne will cover the role of Webmaster. He is a marketing and web expert, who has been looking after a number of hotel websites. It has been gratifying to receive his endorsement of the quality of the BCF website, which will go forward in good hands.

Our Team Vicar Revd Sarah Fitzgerald, who chairs the District Church Council, is an ex officio member of the Friends sub-group. Sarah is enthusiastic about the Friends scheme and values its role in supporting the church and the community.

Although not a member of the team, I also mention here Anne Turnbull, daughter of the late Roy Partridge, who played the major part in launching the Friends. Anne is very busy as a consultant in the pharmaceutical industry, for which she organises a large event each year. She is also a busy mother and has a wide circle of younger friends. In view of the fact that BCF is aiming to reach out to all ages in the community, I am delighted that Anne has agreed to act as our "Consultant" about matters concerning young people and their use of the church.

Photo by: Robert Frost

A message from Sean Wheeler

Sean has responded to the question "What are you most looking forward to, as you lead the Friends into the future?” as follows:

Robert has created something special with the Bisham Church Friends and laid some solid foundations, which I am excited to build on.

I live in the village and am committed to supporting the community, so am proud to now be part of the Friends, as I love the unique architecture, history and river surroundings of the church. Together with the great Friends team, I am keen to make the church even more a part of the community by creating a space inside for local people to enjoy, opening it up for different activities and events. I also look forward to connecting and building the Friends membership. We have lots of plans to discuss, including summer weekend teas in the church, so watch this space.

Robert has left a valuable legacy and, on behalf of the Friends, I want to thank him for his amazing contribution. I hope the team and I will do him proud as we move the BCF forward.

Sean Wheeler BEM

Unlocking the history of Bisham By: Sheila Featherstone-Clark

Lockdown gave me the opportunity to share some of my Bisham research in a new way; I started a podcast. In the Shadow of the Abbey explores the history of Bisham Village, telling the story of those who lived in and around Bisham Abbey in Berkshire. Each episode recounts the history, a personal story or the impact of an event; based on interviews with people who lived here all their lives, local knowledge and documents from the archives. The War Years episodes recount life in Bisham Village in the difficult aftermath of WWI (1918 – 1924), based mainly on the delightful Bisham Parish reports which were published in May each year by the Revd William Farrer, the much loved vicar of All Saints’ Bisham, who lived in the vicarage next to the church for 24 years from 1900 to 1924. I persuaded others to join me in bringing these unique reports to life. Click the link on the history page or listen on Podcast addict or Apple podcasts.

Photo by: Robert Frost

Service times

Having been closed during lockdowns, the church reopened for private prayer at specific times on Sundays. Subsequently Sunday services at 09:30, alternating between Morning Prayer and Communion, resumed under careful safety conditions. Digital services arranged by the Marlow team throughout the pandemic have continued. This is still the position. However, the situation is fluid, so those wishing to worship at All Saints’ Bisham, where members of the public are welcomed along with the regular congregation, are advised to refer to the following website here.

Robert Frost


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