THIEVES have stripped the lead from the roof of a Grade 1 listed village church near Swindon.

The break-in at St Mary's Church in Bishopstone happened in the early hours of Saturday morning.

The thieves lifted the front gate off its hinges and drove through the graveyard, also damaging two gravestones, and cut 1.5 metre strips from sections from the majority of roof, leaving it almost entirely to exposed.

It is the latest theft of lead to take place in what looks like a spate of attacks by professional thieves in the county and nearby.

St John's Church in Pewsey was targeted on October 9, which resulted in further damage to the inside of the church from rain overnight, and another Grade 1 listed 14-century church, All Saint's Houghton Conquest, Bedfordshire, was hit four days earlier.

Gary Sumner, Swindon Borough Councillor for the Ridgeway Ward, including the village of Bishopstone, told the Adver: “The thieves actually drove over the graves to get close to the church, which is absolutely disgraceful.

"Drone footage shows that the cuts to the lead was incredibly sharp and clean. They've obviously done this before and are quite accomplished at it."

"It's a really significant church in terms of its historical value, while they're insured, it is an immediate problem to make sure the property is waterproof, and these things are never quick to repair or replace.

"It's incredibly disruptive and any work to a Grade 1 listed building. One can only hope that you can do the work with something which won't be stolen in the future."

Fortunately a local builders was quick to respond and covered the roof with a waterproof membrane before any rain could cause further damage.

The church had been aware of potential security risks and had taken precautions to block the driveway with a parked car.

But on the evening of the theft the car had been moved, leading those on the parish council to think the thieves had been watching the church for some time.

Revd William A O'Connell said: "I think we are shocked that such wanton vandalism which leads to an enormous amount of work can be suffered by a poor rural community who are struggling to keep their church open.

"It's a very popular church and we have a Christingle service which is important to the community."