Rural: Acts of God and other risks

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The Independent Online
In the belfry of his church, Duff Hart-Davis ponders the worst case scenario

I fear that we are inclined to take the fabric of our village church for granted. There the stone building stands on the hillside, apparently as solid as the rock on which it is founded, and apparently as unchanging. Yet nothing brings its potential frailties more sharply into focus than a visit from a representative of the ecclesiastical insurance company.

When I and my fellow church-warden met him for a routine inspection, I decided to make a job of it and look into the bell loft, which is rarely visited because the only access is through a small door set into the wall of the tower 20ft above the ground.

I therefore took along an extending aluminium ladder, and walked down the lane with it balanced fore and aft on my shoulders, head through the rungs. This drew looks of astonishment from several passing hikers, who clearly thought that a lunatic had been set at large from some nearby institution with a special neck-brace to keep him out of mischief.

Our insurance man was waiting for us, a lively and articulate fellow, smartly turned out in a suit and a dark blue overcoat. Almost his first words were: "As you probably know, 65 per cent of all church fires are started by arsonists."

"Really?" I said.

"Yes. And 25 per cent by lightning strikes." Warming to his theme, he rattled cheerfully on: "If someone set fire to this church, he wouldn't start just one blaze. He'd start several. One here under the tower, one at the altar end, maybe one under the organ. The result usually is that the building is engulfed in flames before the fire brigade can reach the scene.

"You've got a good deal of wood in here, haven't you? All these pews, the screen, the roof timbers, the floors in the tower ... Stained glass, too, I see. Of course, flames tend to go out through windows and up through the roof. So you'd lose the roof and all the windows."

At first I thought he was pitching things rather high. Then I saw that he was only being realistic, and looking at the worst possible scenario.

As he measured and noted, I kept thinking of the lightning bolt that streaked down during a thunderstorm two summers ago and missed the church by the length of a cricket pitch. The strike, which I happened to witness from across the valley, exploded a giant cedar growing in the graveyard, and flung 100lb chunks of wood several hundred yards uphill.

The discharge of energy was so phenomenal that I doubt whether the church, for all its copper conductors, could have withstood it. Even without a direct hit, we had to pay pounds 1,200 to have the shattered tree removed and pounds 500 to rebuild a stone wall smashed by the falling trunk, so we were glad we could make an insurance claim.

"Slip and trip," the inspector was saying. "That's another thing you've got to look out for." He explained that because people are increasingly litigious these days, and tend to sue for damages at the slightest setback to their persons or property, it is advisable to have no loose carpets, hidden steps or other hazards over which visitors may stumble.

We scored fairly high on that front; less well on the fire-extinguishers, which were past their test-by date. One big point in our favour was that we had renewed the entire electrical system only two years earlier. When we came to the vestry, we were able to demonstrate our contention that the church contains nothing of value.

One key question was, "Do you keep the building locked?" The answer was, "In winter, yes, but not in summer." I feared that this policy might bring criticism, but no - our inspector found it reasonable that tourists should have access to the building.

When it came to the tower, I was the only person who went up the ladder. I was glad to report that the first little room was dry and sound. A rusty iron ladder led up to the chamber housing the single bell, and although it is seldom rung these days, the bearings at either end of the spindle were well greased. By giving the drive-wheel a sudden turn, I sent one baritone chime booming out over the valley.

Up another level, and out through a pop-hole, I gained access to the roof inside the battlements. From there I could look out on level terms at two large pines, which I knew that inspector had marked down as a potential threat because, if they blow over in a westerly gale, they may crash into the tower.

Clanking home with my ladder, I felt sure he would raise our premium, which is already more than pounds 500 a year, and a considerable burden for a parish with fewer than 20 households. But I see that we need to pay it - and after all those revelations, I am glad that we do.

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