The Ancient Staircase

2016 Sir John Betjeman Award – Winners!

The project to restore the ancient staircase is the national winner of the 2016 Sir John Betjeman Award from the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB)

Click on the picture for a full-size view of the award.

Staircase Restoration

The project to restore our 15th-century staircase is now complete.

Click here for the final report (Warning – it’s very large – 26MB)

History Talk for the Service on 3 September 2015

Good Morning. I am Ann and I am the Tower Captain here.

Malc has asked me to say something about History and I am going to start with the end of the story, where we are now. History does not make much sense unless you relate it to the present day. So I can thank all those who have paid for this project: namely, the Environmental Trust, the Gloucestershire Historic Churches Trust, who are both represented here today; and the ten other contributing Trusts who have sent their apologies. The congregation here supported us through Ride and Stride and the Street Fair. Three private donors in our church gave very willingly, without being asked. And finally, the bellringers, of whom I am very proud, added to the fund with overwhelming generosity.


Videos to tell the story

Superb videos showing the work in progress and interviews with some of the key people. Click on the links below…

Staircase Restoration Part 1:

Staircase Restoration Part 2:

Staircase Restoration Part 3:

Staircase Restoration Part 4:

Staircase Restoration Part 5:

Interviews with key people:

The work in progress:


10 September 2015 – The Finished Job

Click on any photo for a larger version.

Photos of the finished job. Once again our lovely staircase sits all on its own, unbothered except when one or two gather round to have a look or to go up and down it.

8 August 2015 – All coming back together

Click on any photo for a larger version.

Now the balustrade is filled again – though not yet with the big thick elm panels on the inner side.

15 July 2015 – The Handrail Reappears

Click on any photo for a larger version.

Now the handrail is back, with its supports – some original, and some new. This is wood to run your fingers along, to savour and linger over…

06 July 2015 – the Stairs, Remade!

Click on any photo for a larger version.

Almost all the treads are back now. Most don’t look very different, though some have substantial bits of new oak grafted in to improve their shape – and it’s clear the restorers are doing a beautiful job.

Interestingly the stairs are still not ‘perfect’, if you mean being completely horizontal and exactly the same height – but that was never really the point. They may well be a <bit> more regular now, which was about all we ever hoped for.

Tread 18 needed a new piece right across the front to improve its shape. The new wood hasn’t yet been planed down, so it looks a rather bad fit in this photo – and the modern screws are only temporary – but once it’s finished it’ll look beautiful:

Some treads just needed a small infill here and there. This new piece looks a bit mis-shaped, but that’s because it actually fits the contours of the old tread perfectly. And just look at those perfect circles that cover up the screw-holes!

Tread 13 needed quite a large piece to make it the right shape. Even then it’s not the ‘right’ shape like a square box – but it respects the shape of the rather damaged tread that was previously there:

Tread 5 needed new pieces set in on both sides:

Tread 2 needed a piece at the base:

At the base of the staircase a new piece of wood has been inserted to support the main beam, since it was resting on – well – very little, when we looked at it. (These photos show ‘before’ and ‘after’.)

31 May 2015 – Even the Stairs have been taken away

Click on any photo for a larger version.

Even some of the the stairs (technically the ‘treads’) have been taken away now, for refurbishment at the specialist workshop in Devon. This means it’s very hard to get up into the tower at all – there are a couple of long scary ladders but these are for specialist builders, not ordinary folk.

Here are the gaps where the stairs used to be – numbers 1-5, 10-11 and 13:

Here is the point where the wooden staircase meets the stone staircase. If you think it looks a bit un-robust that’s because it really is…a lot of the expert work in this project has been to put modern wood in to strengthen the older joints.

In these photos you can see some of the modern strips of wood that are being inlaid to form new foundations for the handrail when it’s eventually put back. (Don’t worry, though – the new wood is an excellent oak which matches the old wood exactly and should do a good job for another 500 years!)

Lastly here is a wider photograph showing the current state of the stairs. There’s very little to see, of course, because it’s all been taken away for repair!

25 April 2015 – Handrail ready for work

Click on any photo for a larger version.


The handrail has been moved up to the top level of scaffolding and set up to ready to be worked-over. It’s not very clear in the photos, but this is a 6-metre long single piece of Oak – a marvellous piece of work in its own right.


Meanwhile the supporting Beam is under scrutiny. The end supporting the stairs is in good order, but the other end is causing some concern…


The Elm side panels have been taken off the landing for refurbishment. We’ve never before had this view through into the Ringing Room. (The photos show the landing today and a week ago.)


Last for today, another look at the roof timbers.

22 April 2015 – Handrail completely removed

Click on any photo for a larger version.

Today the handrail and all its supports were taken out, exposing the sides of the treads and showing some of the pegs and internal structure that made the balustrade. What’s left looks a bit naked…

20 April 2015 – Side Panels removed from the Staircase

Click on any photo for a larger version.

Today all the side panels were removed from the balustrade/handrail part of the staircase.

11 April 2015 – Lots more scaffolding

Click on any photo for a larger version.



Lots more photos to come here…


…and more to come here…


At the top of the stairs is, not surprisingly, a landing – which is all built on the enormous beam. The landing is actually just a few planks laid across to fill in the gaps, and then a few more planks nailed up round the edge.  But if this sounds a bit careless, look carefully at the cornerposts – again it’s clear that this was originally done as a decent piece of work. Perhaps the planks were nailed on at a later date – we’ll no doubt find out during the restoration – but I suspect even they are not just nasty old planks, but quality wood. And even the effort of getting these planks up so high must have cost some effort.

As a ringer who goes up and down these stairs every week, I have to say again – given that it’s all 24 feet above ground level and it all looks so precarious, I think there’s something very clever about the way this is all constructed that means I’ve never felt vertigo going up and down. And I’m not really aware of anyone else feeling it either.


More photos to come here…

9 April 2015 – First lot of scaffolding

Click on any photo for a larger version.

Media Release – 24 March 2015

Bishop’s Cleeve Church. For immediate release. Oak stairs. March 2015.

Read this as a PDF, with pictures

Richard III was not needing re-interment when the oak staircase in the local Church of Saint Michael and All Angels was built.

While the Wars of the Roses were fought between the Plantagenets, and the Battle of Tewkesbury took place in 1471, and eventually Richard III was defeated at Bosworth, an unknown joiner in Bishop’s Cleeve was quietly constructing the remarkable staircase in St Michael’s church tower. Now a major refurbishment is necessary for this national treasure.

Imagination is helped by a description of treads made of solid pieces of oak, taken from trees which were probably growing from 1300 or earlier. The balustrade was made with painted panels installed, though sadly these decorated panels are lost. The handrail on the balustrade was a continuous piece of elm, still intact, possibly the whole length of the trunk of an elm tree. The underneath of the stairs was covered in with lovingly carved linen fold panels. We still have this wonderful artefact, rising steeply from the floor to the next level of the tower. It is of national importance and is probably unique.

Over the years, the structure has suffered a little, and there is evidence of earlier repairs. The stairs are still in regular use, to access the church tower, for flag raising, clock maintenance, bell-ringing, cleaning and repairs. The central tower itself fell down in 1696, collapsing into the chancel. Amazingly, the oak staircase, safe in the North transept, was not damaged. The tower was rebuilt in 1700 and the original stairs have continued to serve their purpose.

Lex Jenkins, aged 11, a member of St Michael’s, says the stairs are, “Extremely old and felt unusually sturdy for something so ancient!”

All the bell-ringers feel very privileged going up and down the staircase.


Brian Chappell, a bell-ringer for more than 40 years, says, “I enjoy a great feeling of wonder when using the ancient stairs, which are so rare and special, built so long ago, still good today.”

By 2009, it was found that, although the stairs themselves were still sound, the balustrade to the left was slightly loose. Therefore, specialist repair and conservation is necessary.

Approximately £50,000 has been raised for this project. Gloucestershire Environmental Trust heads the list of contributors. Significant amounts were given by Church Buildings Council, Garfield Weston Foundation, Gloucestershire Historic Churches Trust, Wolfson Trust, Idlewild Trust, Alan Evans Trust, Veneziana Fund, Allchurches Trust, Jill Franklin Trust and Langfield Trust. The rest was raised by fundraising efforts and personal donations.

No money from St Michael’s own funds has been diverted to the restoration. This leaves the church free to concentrate its resources on its mission and development.

St Michael’s is a gracious building of Cotswold stone, constructed around 1170 using Norman techniques and technology. Each succeeding century has left its mark of importance and witness. In the 21st century, it hosts a vibrant, active and growing community under the leadership of the Rector, the Rev Malc Allen, with the Team Vicar, the Rev Richard Reakes. Worship is diverse. The ethos is welcoming. The Mission Statement is to exist for people to discover the love of God, sharing life in his family as followers of Jesus. Youth Work is a major focus of activity. Understanding and supporting people in their daily lives is central to its teaching. The church is committed to caring for the vulnerable.

With such a busy and dedicated church life, it can be difficult to find the resources needed to maintain an ancient building and preserve its heritage for future generations. The needs of the building must be balanced against the needs of the people that the church serves. So St Michael’s is immensely grateful to all the Trusts and donors who have made this restoration work possible.

Archdeacon Robert of Cheltenham says, “St Michael’s parish is to be congratulated for demonstrating that conservation and mission are not mutually exclusive! This is an excellent example of the church working in partnership with the community and heritage and environmental bodies to ensure the conservation of the church while continuing through its activities and outreach to serve the community today.”

Hugh Harrison has been chosen to take charge of the work, which is scheduled to begin 13th April 2015. His other timber conservation projects have included work in Derby Cathedral, Bristol Cathedral, Peterborough Cathedral, Chesterfield Museum, the House of Lords, 9 Southgate in Gloucester, St Mary’s in Temple Guiting and many others. Hugh says, “The stairs to the belfry may be the oldest oak staircase in the country. They combine the ancient solid steps made from triangular shaped pieces of wood with high class panelling of circa 1480 which forms the handrail on the side of the stairs. Many examples of the solid treads are known, as is panelling of this date, but rarely together. When one adds the linen fold panelling to the underside of the stairs one realises how important the churchwardens of the time considered this addition to the church to be. Cameron Stewart from Exeter who will be carrying out the work with his son Danny, was amazed when he saw the stairs. With 35 years’ experience in working on church woodwork, Cameron has seen plenty of unusual examples of ancient craftsmanship.”

The complete conservation report by Hugh Harrison can be found on St Michael’s website:

Churchwarden Nigel Bennett says, “The restoration of the stairs is a classic examle of continuity from yesterday to today and for tomorrow. We are the people who have the responsibility to preserve what we inherited and make it available for those who follow us.”

The rector, the Rev Malc Allen says, “Part of the joy of being Rector here in Bishop’s Cleeve is that we have a fantastic building and a body of wonderful people who care for it.”

End of Press release. Ann Jessop 20 03 2015

Media Contact: Graham Ledger: 07703 336762

Press Release – 29 July 2014

Our Press Release was timed for the reinstatement of the Weathervane, but in the event the press were more interested in the Oak Staircase. Here’s the full text…

St Michael & All Angels, Bishop’s Cleeve

Local Refurbishment of Medieval Oak Stairs is of National Importance

Scaffolding and a Steeplejack will be the unusual addition to the medieval tower of the Church of Saint Michael and All Angels in Bishop’s Cleeve during August.

In January this year storms resulted in the locally designed and constructed weather vane flying off the roof! Thankfully no-one was injured but new reinforcement and securing of the vane is essential.

Work also will commence to restore the medieval joinery and make the rare oak staircase safe in the ancient tower. The 15th century, staircase was designed and constructed with solid oak logs, has a decorated balustrade and an elm banister together with a series of linenfold panels.

From the 15th to 21st centuries access to the tower has been via this staircase and the new work in August will ensure local people can continue to climb the tower by this durable medieval structure.

Hugh Harrison is an accredited conservator and he surveyed the stairs in 2013 and produced a report estimating the costs of repairs at approximately £49,000. He says, “The structure is an extremely rare survival of medieval joinery and is of national importance.”

Rector of St Michael’s Church Reverend Malc Allen says, “Part of the joy of being Rector here in Bishop’s Cleeve is that we have a fantastic building and a body of wonderful people who care for it.  It’s been great to see the weathervane rescued after the storm and lovingly restored, now to be re-instated as a landmark at the foot of Cleeve Hill. Come and see the work commence on Friday August 1st at 9.”

An appeal is underway to aid the project; Ann Jessop heads the fundraising effort and says, “The bells, the clock, the flagpole, the tower itself all need constant servicing, maintaining, repairing and improving. We do not forget that the tower fell down in 1696 and we have to be vigilant to prevent any damage or deterioration.

Bellringers and other tower users have always felt very privileged to be regularly climbing the rare and special oak staircase, which was planned and constructed while the Wars of the Roses were being fought. I have been a bellringer since 1966. My husband David was the steeplekeeper here at first, while I took charge of the bellringing. We love this place and we love the tower, although it causes us some problems sometimes.

The weather vane is in the form of St Michael the Archangel, it is beautiful and a very unusual item, designed by sculptress Anita Lafford in 1966, and crafted in Duralinum by the apprentices at Dowty. With new fittings, we shall be glad to see it back in its rightful place, with the golden banner flying in the direction of the wind, visible for miles around.”

Steeplejack Steven Mansfield will start the refurbishment work by reinstalling the weather vane on the tower at 9am on Friday 1st August 2014. People are welcome to see Stephen commence reinstallation and enjoy light refreshments. Find us at the parish website:

Note to Editors: Photographs attach. Echo Editor: you might like to refer to the article in the Echo of 17th December 1966.

It should be in the archives. There is a picture. The 3 apprentices making the weathervane are named as Malcolm Clark, David Owen, Brian Walker; they might come forward if they read the new article.

Media Contact: Graham Ledger on 07703336762

Hidden treasure in the North Transept – Our Ancient Staircase

Very interesting activities are taking place in all our benefice churches, to promote our faith and our aims, actively caring for one another and the wider community.

In the background, working quietly, the churchwardens and others must also take responsibility for the fabric of our churches. St Michael’s is a Grade 1 Listed  building. The oldest parts were built in 1170, on the foundations of an earlier place of worship. The value and significance of this building are tremendous. All its parts speak of our history of worship and witness.

Unnoticed by many, hidden away behind the door in the lady chapel, there is an ancient timber stairway which leads from the North transept up to the tower. This is a very rare survival of fifteenth century craftsmanship. The steps are made of solid oak logs. The bannister rail is a continuous piece of elm. Eight stone steps at the bottom lead to the 19 oak steps.

The bannister and balustrade are now in need of attention. An accredited conservator, Mr Hugh Harrison, has produced a conservation report. You can read this on the website or in the booklet at the back of the church. This report has been lodged with the Historic Environment Record in Gloucester. Our Diocesan Advisory Committee are very warm in their admiration of the report and the project, and a faculty has been approved to carry out the restoration. We hope that this will happen when sufficient funds are raised, mainly from Charitable Trusts which specialise in important heritage items.

If you have not seen the stairs, and would like to do so, please phone Ann Jessop on 672872. We invite you to enjoy and share our heritage.

Nigel Bennett (Churchwarden)

Ann Jessop (Tower Captain)



Conservation Report on our Ancient Staircase by Hugh Harrison

It’s a lot more interesting than it sounds… Click here to see the full report.