Long read: How I felt watching someone break into a local church

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It’s early morning. I’m emerging from a deep sleep, drinking instant coffee and aimlessly scrolling through my Facebook feed. A post pops up which catches my eye. Someone is filming themselves breaking into a church. And it’s a church I know. Suddenly I’m wide awake. On red alert. Violated. Panicking. Should I phone someone? The police? The vicar?

This particular church is where my beloved Dad, and many years later, my son were confirmed. On that happy day, the enormous building was full to bursting with young people and their families. The clergy processed in all their finery and the church looked magnificent.

The 35-minute film begins with a dark street scene outside the derelict church. I watch aghast as the walking narrator calmly makes his announcement from behind the moving camera. In gravelly Salford tones, he tells me, without a hint of shame, that he is about to “infiltrate this old gaff”. For a moment I seriously consider jumping in my car and driving down there in my PJs. To do what exactly? Give him a piece of my mind? Clip him round the earhole? This video isn’t live, it was shot a few days ago, so all I can do is watch helplessly as the break-in unfolds.

The camera pans across the busy street to the church before zooming up to the top of the imposing church tower. The narrator continues: “You can see the windows up at the top man, it’s so cool. You can see the original gate there. And just look up top at the gargoyles looming over us in the night sky! So foreboding and so cool.” Cue spooky 1970s horror film music and a grainy red filter.

Once inside the building the narrator reduces the volume of his voice to a theatrical whisper. The piped background music takes on a more sinister tone and the light of the camera flashes randomly around in the pitch black of the cavernous basement. “I assumed there would have been a crypt down here,” he says with some disappointment.

Poor lighting, dark shadowy shots and a shaky handheld camera style are reminiscent of Ghost Hunters and the Blair Witch Project. At one point the narrator asks: “doesn’t it feel sinister?” The “infiltration” is punctuated by a series of unscripted mini-dramas which generate tension and “eerie vibes”. Unexplained voices. Footsteps. A blocked doorway. Holes in the floor.

Another man, “Mike”, is also filming the church. Ten minutes into the video Mike’s face comes clearly into view as he steps in front of a huge door to demonstrate its scale. He is a slim white man, perhaps in his early twenties, sporting a dark moustache and wearing a Cambridge University sweatshirt with the hood up.

Although they are clearly trespassing on private property, they don’t steal anything and take care not to cause any damage. At the end, Mike is filmed climbing out of the building and the location of the entry point is clearly visible. Upon leaving the premises they make a big show of thanking the homeless man who had earlier pointed them towards the gap in a boarded-up ground floor window.

Consecrated in 1839 and then rebuilt in the early twentieth century this church has been unused for the best part of a decade. Five years ago there was a closing ceremony and the local priest removed a few items for safe keeping. It had lain empty for two years and before that it was judged to be structurally unsound and requiring repairs estimated to cost £1.5 million. The Church Commissioners, the Diocese and the Parochial Church Council agreed that it should close.

With what seems like genuine awe, the narrator pauses at intervals to film and describe the architecture. His reaction is raw and filled with emotion; at times he seems overwhelmed by the scale and beauty of the building. There are gasps and “Wow guys” at the leaded windows, brick arches, stonework, craftsmanship, an abandoned rusting safe, the old clock mechanism.

Even the creeping decay, the mould and a dead pigeon are given some appreciation. Like the character in a novel, he is conflicted, drawn by both light and dark. At twenty minutes into the film they both ascend a narrow stone staircase and gasp audibly when they are rewarded by the sight of the magnificent old church bell, still in its place. Their wonder becomes euphoria when they climb out onto the roof of the tower and see the city of Manchester illuminating the night sky.

Their enthusiasm and sense of discovery are infectious. They seem gripped by the absolute wonder of it all. I am morally conflicted about what I’m seeing but feel drawn in and feel compelled to watch until the end. The producers of this film have attracted over 3,000 subscribers to their YouTube Channel and over 7,000 Facebook followers, describing themselves as historical documentarians, filmmakers and photographers. Their stated aim is to “record history on film”.

Over one hundred of these “spooky” style videos have been produced and broadcast by these young men over the last two years. It’s an increasingly popular genre of video on YouTube and Facebook where people film themselves stalking through derelict stations or abandoned factories, places of worship, mills, pubs and farmhouses. On their social media accounts it’s implied that they aren’t technically “breaking and entering” but are in fact performing an important service for the public good.

The “reading” of the old building, though ill-informed and sometimes colourful, is confident and unflinching. The narrator is no Kevin McCloud, that’s for sure. There is some confusion about when the building was built but he confidently reassures his fans that “this is quite literally ancient history down here.” At another point, he says it is “gothic and creepy”. Clearly, he’s a creative and curious soul who is thoroughly fascinated by the structures and their functions.

Under the video on Facebook, the comments show peoples’ connection to the church. One man says he was a choirboy there in the 1970s. “My dad used to organise concerts in that cellar in the 60s,” says another. A woman who went to school next door remembers the church being used for school dinners. Someone remembers watching a Christian rock group there. A woman who says she was christened there in 1968 thanks the video makers for showing her around she writes: “I walk past here often and always wondered what the inside is like.”

The comments show how central churches used to be in community life. In many areas, they were a hub of social activity and had close links to the schools. Families who weren’t very religious might still feel they were part of the local church; attending its dances and sending their children off to play sports in its grounds. The comments under the video might prompt us to think about what has replaced these spaces in our increasingly atomised communities. How feasible would it be to put some of these beautiful buildings back into use?

As the pair slowly descend the narrow spiral staircase to make their escape, only the narrator’s legs and feet are in shot. Carefully placing one foot on each of the shallow stone steps, with great emotional intensity, he reflects on the experience of discovering the bell. “When you’re stood in front of it, in all its decaying glory, you realise the craftsmanship and the hardship that went into making such a thing, and putting such a thing into place, especially back in 1902,” he says. “Absolute gold dust.”

Main photo credit: Val Fraser

A longer version of this story was originally published by independent newspaper, The Manchester Mill.

Val Fraser

Val Fraser is a trained journalist with over 12 years’ experience working on staff in various demanding media environments. She has authored/edited thousands of articles including news, travel and features. Val has authored/contributed to nine non-fiction books. A regular columnist, she stepped up to the role of Digital Editor in September 2022 and is responsible for the Sorted Magazine website.
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