Lead me to church

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This church sports the Smartwater security logo. To protect it from lead theft. Photo Trevor Porter
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Coxwold Village Hall was packed for BBC Radio York’s Cake and a Cuppa celebration for Yorkshire Day
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BBC Radio York’s Georgey Spanswick (standing) chats to people enjoying their Cake and a Cuppa on Yorkshire Day

In my dad’s column from 1st September 1979, he talks about the sadness he felt at churches being targeted by thieves. Traditionally these holy places were left open all hours for the population to observe some peaceful reflection whenever they felt the need.

In 2017, a Home Office review revealed that theft from churches had significantly deceased since 2013 following the introduction of tighter controls that deterred petty thieves and opportunists. However, since then the price of metals, particularly lead, has gone up, so theft from churches has begun to rise again. But now, rather than petty thieves, it is larger and better-organised criminal gangs getting involved. Last October, the entire roof of All Saint’s Church in Houghton Conquest, Bedfordshire, was taken. With 20 tonnes of lead to dispose of, it would have taken a very sophisticated operation to do it.

The thieves would have achieved around £25,000 for the sale of the lead, while the cost of the repairs to the church is nearer £400,000, but of course, they do not give a monkey’s about that.

Obviously there are things churches can do to protect themselves, such as installing CCTV cameras and a good alarm system that covers the roof as well as the inside of the church, but experienced and determined thieves will know how to get around anything but the most robust security.

Possibly the most effective tool is a forensic marking system, which is an invisible traceable liquid that is painted onto items, such as roof lead, furniture, or silverware. The most well known is SmartWater, and each bottle has a unique forensic code that can be traced back to the original owner. The liquid, which only shows up under UV light, can also be channelled through a sprinkler system, so intruders that trigger the alarm will be doused from above in a permanently-marking shower. It cannot be removed from clothing and takes months of washing to come off the skin, so any suspects that are caught are easily linked to the crime scene. Protected buildings display prominent signage which in itself is a powerful deterrent, and 90% of premises displaying it have reported no further problems with intruders.

I need to hold my hands up here and confess to a dark, seedy past involving theft from a church. When I was 10, myself and our neighbour’s son hatched a plan to steal from a collection box in our local church (I’ll call him Billy to preserve his anonymity). We snook in when we knew the church was empty and both took 10p each out of the unlocked collection box, which we then immediately spent on sweets. As we only got pocket money once a week, we knew our mums would wonder where we got the sweets from, so we made a pact that I would say Billy’s mum had given them to us, and he would say that my mum had done it.

We were very confident that our cunning plan would work. However, like most children, we underestimated the almost mythical ability that all mothers possess of detecting when their children are lying.

As expected, when I walked through the door happily chewing on my ill-gotten gains, the first question my mum asked was where I’d got the sweets. She gave me ‘that look’ when I replied that it was from Billy’s mum.

Within seconds of me saying that, there was a loud banging on the door. Billy’s furious mum was on the doorstep holding him by the scruff of the neck and, to my horror, she began to tell my mum exactly what we’d done. Billy had obviously cracked under the pressure of her questioning, and my penny chew suddenly felt like a rock in my mouth.

We were made to pay dearly for our crime. We were marched up to the church house to see the priest, forced to confess to him face to face, and then had to hand several weeks’ worth of pocket money over to him. We were deservedly and humiliatingly named and shamed, and the lesson was well and truly learned.

Just a quick thank you to everyone who came along to the BBC Radio York Cake and a Cuppa event held on Yorkshire Day in Coxwold Village Hall. It was a huge success with lots of visitors from villages all around. I hope you all enjoyed it and thank you for coming!

Read more at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 30th  August and the Gazette & Herald on 28th August 2019

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