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Restoration days

The ancient church of St Mary's, Houghton-on-the- Hill, has been struck by a German bomb, torn apart by American GIs and left 'in squalor' by a pagan cult. But after his wife discovered it on a ramble, revealing the oldest wall paintings in Britain, the campaigner Bob Davey has been working tirelessly to restore it and keep it open.

His efforts have resulted in the tiny church become an international tourist attraction - and earned him an MBE after Prince Charles made several visits.

Although it was never deconsecrated, St Mary's was last used in the 1930s and when the WI stumbled upon it on a walk it had no roof, door or windows. Piles of rubbish prevented access and the Daveys were shocked to discover a 'satanic temple and pagan altar' had been built there.

Mr Davey secured protected status for the church and sold his antiques business so he could work on its restoration.

'I feel I have a relationship with the building,' he says. I have got a funny feeling that I was always meant to save it.'

Davey has very little sympathy with the pagan ceremonies that had been taking place there: 'This annoyed me intensely. I've been a Christian all my life and wasn't putting up with this on my patch.' The site was still consecrated so services began straight away, the first being a purification event.

At first he had to guard the property at night to deter cult members, who he says once drove a car at him and sent him a death threat. He managed to get the Territorial Army to guard it for a while after the pagans smeared the walls with blood.

The building is now much more secure, and Davey opens the church every day to visitors from around the world, recounting its history, discussing its 1,000-year-old murals and proudly showing photographs of royal visits. But he is now 83, and needs more help to help keep up with the number of visitors.

But Davey is optimistic: 'Whatever happens it will not close. Whatever I have to do I will keep going, even if I have to haunt the place.

If you are interested in becoming a guide, or can help at all, contact Kevin Simpson on 01953 882790.