Hart of the Matter
As it’s Halloween, it might be a good time to consider a horror story which continues to run and run in Haverhill, concerning an old, crumbling building.
When I first worked in Haverhill and got to know the town well, I was puzzled by this curious edifice in Withersfield Road, known as ‘St Felix’.
I cannot quite remember when I first saw the inside of it. It might have been on a social occasion, it might have been for a quiz, or it might even have been for a Haverhill Darts League finals night.
These latter were held there annually, and I was sometimes required to trot along. Our news editor was the secretary of the darts league for many years. By the time I knew him he was not liable to indulge in the sort of alcoholic consumption which was habitual for many of us younger lads, in the true tradition of journalism, but on this one Thursday night in the year he was accustomed to ‘tie one on’, as the old saying goes.
It was all prepared for in advance, and we were told not to expect him in the office very early on the following Friday morning. But he was also often on the lookout for someone to drive him home.
A darts finals night is not really a place where one wants to be when required to remain under the drink-drive limit, so it was not a popular gig. There was the presence of the year’s Miss Echo who, poor girl, had to present the trophies, but she was always carefully chaperoned by someone.
Anyway, I got landed with it once or twice and I think that must have been when I first made the acquaintance of the wood-panelled inside of the Corn Exchange, which had been converted into a social club for the Roman Catholic St Felix church.
Nowadays, it is casually called ‘the old corn exchange’ when people discuss its current miserable condition, but it is, of course, just ‘the corn exchange’, because the old corn exchange was actually where we worked at the time, and is still extant next to St Mary’s churchyard.
‘St Felix’ was a large interior space, much larger than was really needed except on very big occasions like the darts league finals night when it would be crammed with people. Darts was huge in those days, with 16 pubs and several social clubs like St Felix in the town and almost all having a team of ten players in the league.
At other times when I went there it seemed far too big, and one wondered if there was not a better use for it. If you’ve never seen the inside, it is most reminiscent of the auditorium of the arts centre, or town hall as it was then.
But I assume it brought in a reasonable income for the Catholic Church at that time. I don’t know how they came by it, but anyone who is mystified by the River Of Life Church taking over Chalkstone Social Centre should be aware there is a definite precedent within the town.
And whereas the free churches, who had church halls attached, might rent them out for other activities in the same way as a social centre, there were (and, I imagine, still are) limitations of use, like no alcohol and no raffles.
Such matters have never bothered the Roman Catholic Church and the bar at St Felix was permanent and excellent, stocked, of course, with Greene King products and serving their beers, as almost everywhere in the town used to in those days.
It was some while before I cottoned on to the fact that the Catholics, who only had a large prefabricated hut for a church up on the Parkway estate, had a long-term hope for a church of their own, and that the real estate represented by ‘St Felix’ was part of the equation.
Like most things in Haverhill this remained a distant dream for many years and then there came that all-important day when one heard that there might be movement on this venerable issue.
Sure enough, the old social club, probably having gone into considerable decline as most similar institutions have done, was eventually sold and the money put aside towards the distant vision of a new church.
It was many years before that distant vision began to get any closer but, as we all know, the Catholics not only raised a huge amount of money but came up with by far the most attractive piece of new building in Haverhill for more than a century, shaming council planners, businesses and developers who have made such a mess of the town in that time.
It was a long project, in the financing, in the planning and in the building, but that church has now been open for several years and still the corn exchange is unchanged from the day it was sold, except by natural decline.
One would like to know when and how decisions were made by the conservation department of St Edmundsbury Borough Council and by English Heritage about whether any action should be taken over the state of this unique building. Both should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves.
The building is, of course, part of Haverhill’s Victorian heritage, and as such should be conserved anyway, but it also has some unusual decoration, including the swastika-like tiles above the entrance. The inside, also, has much to recommend it as a large space, assuming the right use could be found.
But one fears that if nothing is done soon, this is going to be a project suitable for Halloween indeed, involving a complete resurrection, rather than a refurbishment.
Haverhill Town Council are at least going to find out what is required, which is a start, but whether the Irish bank into whose hands the building has now fallen will want to do anything about it is another matter altogether – unless someone makes them.