It is filled with ancient English iconography, and may date to Anglo-Saxon times, meaning it was originally consecrated as an Orthodox church. An energetic 85-year-old man has restored the church to "liven up his retirement".
He says, "Who wants to retire? My advice to others: don’t play golf or buy a Spanish villa when you retire. Find yourself a ruined church to save!"
- Bob Davey began work on St Mary's, Norfolk, when he retired 22 years ago
- 1,000-year-old church, last used in 1930s, had been hit by WWI bomb
- When he first entered he was horrified to find satanic temple and pagan altar
- The Christian guarded church from cult members who once drove car at him
- During restoration he found dazzling religious murals hidden by plaster
- Bob's wife died eight years ago — she is buried in the churchyard
- 20 volunteers now keep church open every day
When Bob Davey stumbled across the ancient church of St Mary’s, Houghton-on-the-Hill, in Norfolk, it was in a terribly sad state.
It was a summer’s day in 1992 and Bob had gone for a Women’s Institute ramble with his wife, Gloria, president of the local WI branch.
They were two miles from their home in nearby North Pickenham when they came across the ruined church tower — victim of a World War I Zeppelin bomb. It was shrouded in ivy.
Inside, the church had been desecrated by satanists. They had painted the walls in blood with symbols of the Anti-Christ, scored an upside-down cross into the ancient masonry and lit fires in front of a pagan altar.
Bob Davey has spent 22 years restoring St Mary's church in Houghton-on-the-Hill, Norfolk to its past glory
The church tower, covered in ivy and split from top to bottom
How it looks now after Bob rebuilt the ancient flint and restored the windows
They had even torn open the grave of an 18th century rector, flinging the smashed tombstone across the graveyard and stealing his skull to use for satanic rituals.
In addition to these horrors, American GIs had ripped out a charming Gothic window to take home as a souvenir of their time at the nearby airbase during World War II.
On the spur of the moment, the recently retired Bob made a decision that would dominate his life for the next 22 years. He would save St Mary’s. ‘I felt the ruined church was a corruption of Christianity,’ says Bob, 85, a retired water board superintendent and practising Christian.
Early days: Two years into the project, in 1994, the church's roof has been cleared of ivy
‘You couldn’t see the tower, and there was no roof, windows or floor — nothing, really. But I felt it was my duty to save it.’
He set to work immediately. He was so determined in his mission that he didn’t even seek the Church of England’s permission to save the church. He just walked inside — the door was long gone — and that afternoon started clearing out 60 years’ worth of rubbish.
He has been to the site nearly every day since, ‘except on days of family christenings and weddings,’ says Bob, who has four children, six grandchildren and a great-grandchild.
‘I haven’t had a holiday in 22 years, but I haven’t wanted one. Who wants to retire? My advice to others: don’t play golf or buy a Spanish villa when you retire. Find yourself a ruined church to save!’
Progress: This photo from 1996 shows the roof of the Norfolk church being rebuilt
New chapter: A photo of the purification service in 1992 - following the church's occupation by satanic cults
Bob hasn’t just saved the church. As the Mail revealed earlier this week, he’s also uncovered a unique set of wall paintings, the earliest in Britain and some of the finest in Europe.
The images of the Last Judgement and the Holy Trinity are so rare that Prince Charles and the late Princess Margaret visited them. In 2006, Prince Charles gave Bob an MBE for his work.
‘Prince Charles was supposed to come to the church for only half an hour, but he stayed a whole hour,’ says Bob. ‘His secretary came over to us and said: “We should be in King’s Lynn by now!” ’
Who wants to retire? My advice to others: don’t play golf or buy a Spanish villa when you retire. Find yourself a ruined church to save!
Yet at every turn in his restoration work, Bob has met resistance.
The satanists weren’t too happy with the church returning to Christianity and they tried to stop him. But he kept a lone vigil at night to stop them returning.
‘They would come back on their celebration nights — the longest day and the shortest day,’ says Bob, ‘I turned them away and one of them — a tall, thin, young man dressed in black — tried to run me down in his car.
‘He said: “If you continue to come here, I’ll kill you.” But he didn’t frighten me at all.’
When soldiers in the Territorial Army learned about Bob’s battle with the satanists, they volunteered to guard the church on nights they might be expected to turn up to hold their rituals. Not surprisingly, the satanists disappeared.
Next, Bob arranged for a purification service to be held in the roofless church among the flintstone ruins.
When soldiers in the Territorial Army learned about Bob’s battle with the satanists, they volunteered to guard the church on nights they might be expected to turn up to hold their rituals
... and not surprisingly, the satanists disappeared
As a permanent reminder of darker times, he decided to leave intact the upside-down cross the satanists had carved into the masonry to remind today’s visitors. As part of his never-ending restoration, Bob planted 3,500 daffodils in the graveyard and recovered the tombstone of the 18th-century rector and restored it.
He also recovered the church’s font and stoup (the vessel used for holy water which is found in church porches), as well as a 1709 Bible. They had been removed from St Mary’s after the last service in 1933, when the church began to fall apart.
He had gone to see the vicar for the area and found he was using the font as a flower pot.
‘A local lady was using the stoup as a birdbath,’ says Bob. He says he explained he wanted to restore it to its proper place in the church, but she tried to stop him.
‘But I just took it! It had been damaged by a lawnmower, but otherwise it was fine.’
He put the word round that if any local had an object from the church, he’d like it back — no questions asked!
‘I soon got the church’s chalice dating from 1550 in Norwich silver — it’s worth £30,000.’
By then he had learned a lot about the church’s history. It had gone into decline after the surrounding village was flattened by the local landowner in 1925, when property had little value, and given over to sheep-farming and game-shooting.Those responsible, he says, would have wanted to demolish the church, too, to make money from the flint. But since it was consecrated land, they couldn’t.
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