In the Diocese of Chester in the Parish of Neston and on the banks of the Dee lies the small village of Parkgate. In the 18th Century, Parkgate was an important port linking England with Ireland. As the river Dee silted up, Parkgate became a seaside resort and fishing village. Today it’s a residential village with beautiful views across the salt marsh to Wales. Visitors still come in large numbers for the local ice cream, local shrimps, its pubs and restaurants and to stroll along the Parade watching the birds out on the flashes (lagoons).
At the centre of the community on Mostyn Square, is a Grade II listed sandstone church that has served the village since 1843. It is in a Conservation Area which ensures the charm of the old port and village is safeguarded. Traditional associations with the fishing community led to St Thomas´ being known, affectionately, as the ‘Fisherman’s Church´.
St Thomas’s started life as a Congregational Chapel in 1843 catering for local people and the large number of summer visitors to the seaside resort of Parkgate. The Congregationalists numbers sadly reduced and in 1858 the chapel was sold to the Presbyterians. By 1884 they became so successful that they moved to a new Presbyterian Church inParkgate Road, closer to Neston, leaving Parkgate Chapel empty and for a time unused. The Church of England Parish of Neston had been holding occasional mission services atMostynHouseSchooland in the corrugated ‘iron room’ in the yard of theInfantsSchool. They leased the empty Parkgate Chapel building in 1910 and, in 1917 finally purchased the Chapel and dedicated it toSt Thomasthe Apostle. Since then, it has been one of the two daughter churches in the Parish of Neston.
By the 1980’s the population of Parkgate had risen to about 4,000 people including a high proportion of senior citizens. It had no Community Hall, Heritage Centre or small meeting place.St Thomas’ was well attended and in 1988 discussions took place regarding the possibility of building an extension toSt Thomas’ Church. A poll conducted by the Church showed that of the 422 households who responded, a substantial majority wantedSt Thomas’ to be preserved as a focal centre of the village for churchgoers and non-churchgoers alike. These plans were eventually put on hold because it was decided that the other daughter church in the Parish of Neston, St Michaels Church in Little Neston, was in need of rebuilding. The plans for St Thomas’ were never to bear fruit as shortly after Easter 1994 St Thomas’ was closed for essential repairs. Engineers had raised concerns about stability of the walls andSt Thomas’ Church building was declared structurally unsafe and permanently closed. The cost of repairs was considered too much by the Parish which was directing its energies and fund raising towards St Michaels. A planning application was subsequently made to the local council for the demolition ofSt Thomas’ and the sale of the site. However, its future was safeguarded by the Department of National Heritage which protected the church by granting it Grade II listing in 1995.
The Family and Friends of St Thomas’ Church was formed by a few members of the congregation and this became the focus of many local people in the fight to keep the Church building and restore it to the centre of our village. The building was put up for sale in 1997 and a meeting was held by the Diocesan Archidiaconal Committee to discuss the matter. Two representatives from the Family and Friends met the committee and successfully pleaded the case for the retention and restoration of St Thomas’ Church. Fundraising commenced and meetings were held with the Parkgate Preservation Trust and Parkgate Society. Following a series of meeting with other interested bodies a joint meeting with representatives of the Family and Friends of St Thomas’, the Parkgate Society and the Parkgate Preservation Trust was held with the Bishop of Chester. In 2001 the Bishop’s Trust for the Restoration of St Thomas’ Church was formed under the patronage of the Bishop of Chester. The Bishops Trust working in partnership with the community and with the Vicar of the Parish of Neston commenced serious fundraising.
The objectives were to initially repair and make safe the building. To then renovate and equip the interior for use not only as a place of worship but also as a much needed community centre for people of all faiths and denominations, or none, who live and work in Parkgate.
Phase 1 was completed in 2004 at a cost of £123,000: £56,000 coming from the Heritage Lottery Fund and other grant-making trusts; and £84,000 from the Parkgate area. The work included stabilizing the walls with tie bars. Repairing, and in some cases, replacing some of the exterior sandstone blocks. Removing the roof slates, replacing worn timbers, adding new insulation and replacing the slates. New gutters and downspouts completed the exterior works. English Heritage has pronounced the building sound for the next 100 years.
Phase 2 was the interior works and this involved removing the pews and the old pipe organ. The floor on the central aisle was raised to a single level. The old vestry became the disabled toilet; a small kitchen area (sink, water heater and fridge) was cleverly incorporated into a cupboard. A new heating system was installed together with new electrics and new lighting. The cast iron windows and glazing were professionally cleaned and restored. A complete refurbishment and redecoration of ceilings and walls completed the building works. Comfortable chairs and folding tables were provided to complete the project.
The restoration and repairs to St Thomas’ Church were finally completed in 2010. A total of more than £250,000 had been raised for the whole Project. So thank you if you are one who contributed. In May 2010 the Church building was returned to the Vicar of Neston as fit for services. To the great delight of the people of Parkgate and further afield the first service in the restored St Thomas’ Church was held on the 9th May 2010. Many shouts of delight and tears of joy fell that day.
On 4th July 2010 the Bishop of Chester, The Rt Rev Dr Peter Forster rededicated St Thomas’ Church. The service held aptly, the day after St Thomas day, was attended by over 150 people. A wonderful celebration service of Praise and Thanksgiving to God was followed by refreshments in a marquee on the lawn of the church grounds.
As part of the restoration works the perimeter wall had also been repaired and restored and it was during the work outside that it was decided to enhance the building by redesigning the churchyard and make it more of a feature. The Bishops Trust looked at a number of proposals and agreed that it would be in keeping with the historical aspect of Parkgate if the original entrance to the Churchyard, on Mostyn Square, was reinstated (if you look at the photograph of the fisherman repairing their nets, at the top of this page, you can clearly see the original sandstone posts in the wall). Of course since the time of the photograph a sandstone bus shelter had been built covering part of the old entrance. Therefore permission had to be sought from the council and bus company to demolish the bus shelter. Once the relevent permissions had been obtained the bus shelter was removed together with the blocks between the posts which opened up the front of the church. Steps and supporting walls were constructed leading up into the churchyard and handrails were also installed. A new paved walkway was constructed from the new entrance up to the Church and around the side to the main entrance. A pair of oak gates were installed to complete the new entrance to the church grounds. To complete the works the Bishops Trust paid for a new heritage style lamp standard, to be installed on Mostyn Square. The council notice board and bench were resited and BT were also persuaded to refurbish and paint the phone box. Three benches have been donated by local people in memory of loved ones. The benches, looking towards Mostyn Square and beyond to the Dee Estuary, provide visitors a place to rest and enjoy the views. The garden project was conducted in partnership with Neston Town Council, who have supported the project as part of the “greening” of Parkgate and also the Parkgate Society who have generously supported us with donations for specific parts of this project. Once the pathway was completed new flower beds were dug out and planted up with shrubs and flowers. Permission was sought from the local council to open up the site by removing damaged and diseased trees. These trees have now been replaced with similar species. A garden party of volunteers meet several times each year to maintain the gardens.
Community support for St Thomas’ has been impressive; a large proportion of the cost of restoration has come from local people and we are extremely grateful to everyone who contributed.
We anticipate visitors to Parkgate will be attracted to the new entrance and the gardens and of course the church. The church will definitely be more visible to the public as a result of the completion of the entrance and gardens.