A CHURCH which has stood in Old Town for 161 years is taking on a new lease of life with a project to extend its community centre and add a tranquil garden.

Christ Church – known affectionately by locals as the Old Lady on the Hill – is to embark on the first phase of a plan to adapt the facilities to the 21st Century, hosting worship, exhibitions, meetings and concerts.

A community hall in the grounds, which has stood for 40 years will be extended, fitted with a kitchen and meeting rooms, and made available for hire.

A garden of reflection with a self-contained visitors’ area will also be built in the spring, allowing people at the burial ground to stop for refreshments.

The grounds will have better access and the parish office, currently in a residence further up on Cricklade Street, will be moved into the new centre.

Project manager Stephen Grosvenor said: “We want people to recognise the value of the church.

“The church doesn’t stand there alone, it needs the community behind it, and at the same time we need to give something back.

“Our vision is that Christ Church, its community centre and the grounds welcome growing numbers of people throughout the week.”

The wooden-built community hall will become an attractive building able to seat 150 people fitted with solar panels, in line with church’s desire for modern, cost-efficient facilities.

The garden will replace a dumping ground for materials from the grounds, with a design competition opened up to allow the community to decide on the shape of the creation.

The work will cost around £600,000, which has been secured through grants and the sale of the old church hall in Devizes Road, and is the first part of a renewal scheme.

The later phases will include the church itself being renovated.

Rev Simon Steven Stevenette, vicar of Christ Church, said: “Christ Church is an iconic building, it’s part of the whole Swindon scene and that is a privilege as well as a challenge. It’s not about a building, it’s about people and the community.

“Our whole reason for being here is to be part of the community and to provide faith, love and hope for the town. “ The church has welcomed local companies including Nationwide for charity dinners in recent weeks, along with Swindon Town’s carol service on December 17.

Rev Stevenette said: “People come to the church and the community centre for all kinds of reasons.

“The church is like a meeting place where people come to meet with God and each other and go out more inspired to serve the community.

“We want to put the church at the heart of the community.”