A SMALL community is rallying around after its historic church was stripped of slate worth thousands of pounds.

Thieves struck at 12th century St Lawrence’s Church in Besselsleigh, by the A420, leaving the parish to foot a repair bill estimated at between £15,000 and £20,000.

Villagers have already pledged a reward of at least £1,000 for any information leading to a prosecution.

The Rev Lyn Sapwell, priest in charge at the church, said: “It’s just sickening that someone can do this.

“It’s a lovely little community and the church is very important to it, and the church building itself is very important historically.”

She added: “Perhaps someone is stealing them to order, they’ve clearly gone for the tiles for something and if anybody knows about it we would love to hear from them.

“Like a lot of rural churches it’s off the beaten track and there is no residence on site for people to keep an eye on it.”

The valuable Stonesfield slate, which was mined for centuries in west Oxfordshire until the turn of the last century, was discovered missing last Wednesday morning by neighbouring landowner John May and his wife.

The grass outside the church has been trampled and it is believed the thieves climbed up the porch to get onto the roof.

Church warden Jane Cranston said: “I’m angry and I’m sad.

“People might think of it as theft without a victim because nobody’s hurt but it’s robbing us of history.

“We do struggle as a little church financially and one of our fears is that our insurance will go walloping up.

“I do hope it’s not the final straw but it could be.”

She added: “We’re a small but very strong little community and the village is looking at ways to make the area safer.”

Church treasurer Graham Varney said the Stonesfield slate which was stolen was hundreds of years old.

He added: “It will be almost impossible to find slates of that age as they are in huge demand.

“You can get them new but they are a very light sandy colour and they will stand out terribly.

“I have got one quote at the moment. It is going to cost between £15,000 and £20,000 to replace them.”

Mr May added: “These tiles have been on the church for centuries.

“They’ve been through two world wars and all that has happened around it, and suddenly modern society has brought about this theft.

“The slates cannot be replaced — there will be a whole patch of the roof that will look new for the next 300 years.”

Anybody with any information about the theft should call police on 08458 505505 or Crimestoppers on 0800 555111.