Hanging around in churches

Our Chief Executive, Peter Aiers, has been hanging around churches for many years, but never quite like this! Here he tells us all about his recent adventure at St Paul's Church, Bristol.
Seeing a church from a new perspective
I’m always keen to try new things at our churches – in the past I’ve been Champing™, tried cutting Collyweston slates and climbed numerous church towers. This year, our church of St Paul’s in Bristol is taking part in the nationwide Circus 250 celebrations, so I jumped at the chance to try my hand at the flying trapeze under the tutelege of our site partners, Circomedia.

St Paul’s came into our care in 2000 and was in a pretty bad way. This fine example of early Gothic architecture was literally falling apart: it had suffered vandalism, there was water ingress and pigeons had taken up residence in the building, leaving behind evidence of their habitation. It was in an area of town with a negative image due to high crime rates and limited social resources. All of this resulted in a site with a multi-million pound repair bill. But happily we were able to secure a Heritage Lottery Fund grant of £2.3 million in order to undertake our project.

Repairs began in earnest and in a wonderful turn of synchronicity, a Bristol-based circus school, Circomedia, was looking for a new venue. What could be a better place than a church, with its high ceilings and ample space, to learn the high-wire, aerial acrobatics and flying trapeze?
Exterior shot of the entrance of St Paul's Church in Bristol, home of Circomedia circus agency

Hanging around in churches
Doing the trapeze certainly put new meaning on the phrase ‘hanging around in churches’ which I’ve been doing for years anyway!

After a thorough warm-up with my instructor Alan, my initial excitement gave way to trepidation as I ascended the wobbly ladder to the platform. The narrow trapeze platform didn’t seem so high up when looking from the ground and the trapeze itself is a surprisingly heavy piece of steel! Holding the bar felt like I was going to be dragged off the platform! There was no going back as my wife and two daughters were safely down in the nave shouting for me to get on with it (plus I didn’t want to have to go back down the wobbly ladder backwards)!

An image showing the interior of St Paul's Church, taken from the body cam of CCT CEO Peter Aiers, as he hung upside down on a flying trapeze
The interior of St Paul's Church from a different perspective, from the flying trapeze! 

However, my fear gave way to exhilaration after I parted company with the platform and went whizzing through the air. Alan shouted instructions from the ground and I was able to loop my legs over the trapeze and let go with my hands. What a truly brilliant feeling, to be swinging thorough the middle of the nave of a CCT church. It is always great to have a different perspective on things and this certainly gave me that. I had a wonderful view of the ornate plaster ceiling and the gallery as it whizzed past. Wheeee!

You can enjoy my star turn in the video below and see an unusual, upside down view of St Paul's from the ‘trapeze-cam’ that was strapped to my head. My daughters both had a go at the trapeze (making it look very easy), so not only did I fulfil an ambition, but we also had a great family day out! You try your own hand at the trapeze too as Circomedia provide sessions for all levels (see on their website here).

New uses for old churches
We have a huge challenge into the future as we see more historic churches having increasingly secular use. The CCT's spirit of adventure and creative problem solving is demonstrated at St Paul's – this church is relevant and has purpose. Circomedia has done a fantastic job in reclaiming this building, it's in daily use as a place of learning and a performing arts centre, as well as being a beautiful venue to hire and open to the public to visit too.

One acrobatic balances another on his hand outside St Paul's Chruch in Bristol, home of Circomedia circus agency
Image courtesy of Circomedia

This is a great example of how we’ve created a working partnership to save an historic church and demonstrates how it can be done and how a good business case can sustain a historic church into the future. St Paul’s was one of our first regeneration projects. Since then our regeneration team has grown and continues to develop and deliver sustainable new uses for historic buildings across our estate and for others in the heritage sector.
St Paul’s continues to contribute to the regeneration of a previously neglected part of Bristol and provides a citywide landmark for local people to take pride in.  The project continues to thrive and since opening has received various awards, including a Hudson Heritage Award for the best re-use of a heritage building in 2012, and a European Nostra Laureate award.