Englishman Drives Off Satanists and Rescues a 1000-Year-Old Church

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!"

This article from our archives was first published on RI in August 2020
Originally appeared at: Daily Mail
  • 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.

Significant: The ancient wall painting shows good souls leaving their graves on a journey to heaven

An archdeacon cleared out the church’s furniture and books during World War II and burnt it all, except for the Bible, which was salvaged by a local lady, who returned it to Bob half a century later.

At first, the Church of England, which is awash with medieval churches in Norfolk, was not very helpful to Bob in his labour of love.

Many locals, too, were wary about him because he was seen as an ‘outsider’ who’d moved to the area only in 1987. But, nonetheless, he continued to repair the church without official permission.

The church, four miles east of Swaffham, is so remote that it didn’t have an access road when Bob first saw it on that walk with his wife. The local farmer wouldn’t let him use a farm track and so Bob built his own road.

‘It’s seven-eighths of a mile,’ he says proudly, as we drive along it — and a very smooth drive it is, too.

‘I built it out of crushed concrete. It took me three months. They couldn’t stop me building it along the edge of the field — by law, you have to allow access to a consecrated site.’

And so, very slowly, day by day, St Mary’s came back to life. Bob cleared away all the blackthorn and brambles that choked the building.

He removed the earth and vegetation that covered the black-tiled path that winds around the graves and he built a path from the other end of the graveyard.

 You now have to book a seat for a service. It’s the only church in the country with a booking system, as far as I know

Bob filled in the crater next to the tower where the Zeppelin bomb landed in 1916 — there is still a faint depression in the ground.

The tower was split from top to bottom by the impact. You can see Bob’s brickwork, which plugged the gaps in the tower built of flint, stone and recycled Roman bricks. ‘To do all the building, it took a learning curve — a pretty quick one!’ he says. ‘But I was adamant I wasn’t going to lose the tower.’

Locals inspired by Bob’s enthusiasm soon offered to help out. In 1996, the Friends of St Mary’s was set up to replace the windows — a local landowner paid for the Gothic window, ripped out by the GIs, to be replaced.

Twenty volunteers keep the church open every day between 2pm and 4pm. Thousands of visitors have come over the years, including a group from New Zealand who gave St Mary’s a Bible in English and Maori as thanks.

Around 20 services a year are held for any Christian group that wants to come. ‘We’ve just had a service where 112 people turned up — there’s only room for 50,’ says Bob. ‘So, you now have to book a seat for a service. It’s the only church in the country with a booking system, as far as I know.’

One good thing came about after the Zeppelin bomb. It cracked the plasterwork inside the church, revealing ancient wall paintings hidden beneath.

Experts from the Courtauld Institute — Britain’s leading art history body — were invited to look at them. Peeling away a 17th- century layer of painted biblical texts and the 13th-century plaster underneath, they found some amazing treasures.

On the east wall, there’s a huge picture of the Holy Trinity, with God on a throne next to a crucified Christ and a dove signifying the Holy Spirit. Beneath, there are a series of saints. To the left is the Resurrection of the Dead, with an angel blowing the last trumpet and figures climbing out of graves. The scene is part of one great Last Judgement. On the north wall, God is busy creating Eve.

The pictures are thought to date back to 1090 or even to Anglo-Saxon times — the cross on God’s knee in the Holy Trinity is typical of that era. If so, this would make this Holy Trinity — with God enthroned with the crucified Christ — the earliest depiction in Europe of the Throne of Grace, as it is called.

Following their discovery, the guide to North-West Norfolk by Pevsner — the most respected architectural guidebook in the country — says: ‘These paintings are of extraordinary importance.’ And all thanks to Bob Davey’s restoration work.

Before he saved the church, the only guidebook he could find that mentioned St Mary’s referred to it as ‘a rather boring little church’.

In recognition of his efforts, Bob won a conservation award from the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. Then, in 2006, the Heritage Lottery Fund gave the church a grant of £190,000 to conserve the wall paintings.

Norfolk County Council, English Heritage and Breckland Council also helped with re-roofing the building and making it safe.

A set of pews were hand-made in London’s Covent Garden and floor tiles were manufactured in Sudbury, Suffolk, the last place in the country with the right outside kiln to make them in the original way.

Until the Lottery money came along, the bulk of the work had been paid for by Bob. He’s too modest to say precisely how much he’s spent, but will admit to lavishing ‘thousands of pounds’ on it.

Whenever he couldn’t recover the original church fittings, he paid for new ones out of his own pocket. He bought a pulpit and salvaged the altar rails from another church that was throwing them out.

‘Got those for £30,’ he grins.

Eight years ago, Bob’s wife died — she is buried in the churchyard — but still his work continues.

Recently, illness means he is unable to drive, but he’s determined to continue his daily visits to the church and his quest to uncover the remaining wall paintings that line the nave of the church.

‘I’ll come in an electric trolley if I have to,’ says the hero who fought the devil and won.

  • Shqip
  • العربية
  • English
  • Français
  • Deutsch
  • Bahasa Indonesia
  • Italiano
  • Português
  • Русский
  • Español