Shropshire for charming graveyards, Suffolk for stunning stained glass windows and Cumbria for other worldly atmospheres: Where to find England’s most incredible churches
- Here we reveal the best counties in England to explore beautiful churches with intriguing histories
- Study by Explorechurches.org analysed 2,000 churches across 77 counties, from Cornwall to Norfolk
- It revealed which counties had churches with the best interiors, monuments, social history and more
England is home to some of the world’s most beautiful and historic churches – and now you can discover exactly where to find them.
Explorechurches.org has signposted the counties in England that are best for church tourism and listed them according to the standout features of the churches within their borders, after studying 2,000 of them. For instance, some counties are best for churches with stained glass windows, others for charming graveyards.
There are nine categories altogether and here we present the full heavenly guide.
Revealing: The study by Explorechurches.org analysed 2,000 churches across 77 counties in England
GREATER LONDON: Most visitor friendly
Visitor-centred facilities such as parking, refreshment and toilets have been deemed as key features of a ‘five star’ church. Bringing churches closer in line with other major tourist and leisure attractions, this rating helps visitors know what to expect if planning a visit, from a practical point of view.
Greater London scores the highest when it comes to visitor experience, with more than half (56 per cent) of churches included in the study being accessible by public transport and providing parking, refreshments and toilets. Yorkshire was the second most visitor friendly (49 per cent), followed by Surrey (38 per cent).
Churches in this category are commended for smoothly combining historically rich surroundings with modern day facilities.
VISITOR FRIENDLY PICK: St Martin-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square
Take a pew: St Martin-in-the-Fields in Trafalgar Square (above) has daily church services and free music every weekday
Standing tall amidst London’s busiest sight-seeing hub, explorechurches.org applauds St Martin-in-the-Fields as one of the ‘most visitor friendly’ churches.
Throughout its history, dating back to 1222, St Martin’s has been an innovator. In 1542, Henry VIII rebuilt the church that was already on this site to keep plague victims from being carried through his palace grounds – yet nowadays visitors can hope for a more welcoming experience. It was replaced by a Classical ‘temple’ style church, designed by architect James Gibbs, In 1726.
Ingenious modern renovations over the years have introduced more light, restored the pews and stone flooring, and exposed the crypt’s brickwork. There are daily church services, free music every weekday, as well as ticketed evening concerts, a shop, and an award-winning café.
NORFOLK: Top for interiors
Norfolk is joint first with Shropshire for the county with the highest percentage of churches with stunning interiors, including furniture, embroidered altar cloths, art, sculptures, carvings in wood and stone and ancient and modern wall and ceiling paintings.
Nearly all (96 per cent) of its churches are recognised for their interior features, followed by Somerset (94 per cent), and Oxfordshire (93 per cent).
INTERIOR PICK: St Agnes’ Church, Cawston, Norfolk
Lord above: The angels perched on the hammerbeams in St Agnes’ Church in Cawston, Norfolk, seem almost ready to fly
At St Agnes’ Church in Cawston, Norfolk, the breathtaking ceiling is filled with carved wooden angels, a trend that was especially popular in East Anglian churches in the later medieval and Tudor periods.
This beautifully preserved early 15th century building is a glorious example of an uplifting church interior and the angels perched on the hammerbeams seem almost ready to fly.
Explorechurches.org recognises this as a truly outstanding and remarkable interior – both due to the quality of craftsmanship and the exceptional condition of the carving.
SUFFOLK: Stunning for stained glass
Suffolk joins Cornwall and Cumbria in the top three counties in England for stained glass windows, with 72 per cent of its churches, the highest in the country, being recognised for the people they depict, the stories they tell and their famous designers from pre-Raphaelites to modern day artists.
STAINED GLASS PICK: St Margaret’s Church, Herringfleet
Divine: Light streams in through a stained glass window at St Margaret’s Church, in Herringfleet, Suffolk (pictured above)
In St Margaret’s Church, in Herringfleet, Suffolk, magical stained glass glows with different colours. Set in lead brackets, pieces of glass are designed to catch the sunlight and lift the mood of anyone looking.
The ‘perpendicular’ style windows allow light to flood into the building and the east window contains imported fragments of painted glass obtained from Cologne, which date from the late 14th century to early 15th century.
Explorechurches.org highlights this as an example of stained glass used to create an amazing ‘collage’ effect.
CORNWALL: Wonderful for wildlife
Cornwall is the top place for discovering wildlife in church grounds, with almost half (49 per cent) of its churches either having wildflower meadows, unmown areas of the churchyard to encourage native species or being recognized as sites of special scientific interest.
Lincolnshire is the second-best county (48 per cent) for its wildlife friendly churches followed by Cumbria (42 per cent).
WILDLIFE PICK: St Michael and All Angels Church, Bude, Cornwall
All things bright and beautiful: The graveyard at St Michael and All Angels Church, Bude, Cornwall, is a haven for wildlife
St Michael & All Angels was built in 1835 and donated as ‘a gift to the people of the place’ by the Lord of the Manor, Sir Thomas Dyke Acland.
It was designed by the Welsh architect George Wightwick, who built many other buildings in Bude, and its building also marks the rise of Cornwall as a fashionable location for holiday-makers, due to the 19th century expansion of England’s railway network.
The lovely, scenic graveyard is home to a wide variety of wildlife and is alive with meadow flowers in springtime. ?Explorechurches.org has highlighted the importance of churchyards as wildlife sanctuaries supporting creatures such as bees, dormice and even deer.
SHROPSHIRE: Most charming churchyards
Shropshire is the top county for exploring churchyards with 96 per cent listing them as significant features, followed by Warwickshire (84 per cent) and Somerset (82 per cent).
Its churchyards are considered keepers of community heritage, a rich resource for seeking out family history and other historic information from gravestones.
CHARMING PICK: St Laurence’s Church, Church Stretton, Shropshire
Praise be: St Laurence’s Church (above) was recognised for its outdoor monuments and manicured graveyard
A fine cruciform church, St Laurence’s Church is largely Early English but with a Norman nave, a perpendicular central tower and Victorian aisles.
Its charming churchyard is recognised by explorechurches.org for its outdoor monuments and beautifully-kept graveyard, which is also a haven for wildlife.
Visitors can stroll through a little gate to explore this pretty and historically-rich outdoor space and take time to discover monuments including a sundial, which originated as a medieval churchyard cross, whose shaft is sunk into a former mill wheel.
FROM THE SMALLEST TO THE TALLEST, ENGLAND’S MOST EXTREME CHURCHES
OLDEST CHURCH: St Martin, Canterbury, Kent
St Martin in Canterbury is ‘an amazing time capsule’ says Explorechurches.org. It’s the oldest church in continuous use in the English-speaking world and a ‘must see’
St Martin’s Church, Canterbury, Kent, dates from around 597 AD and is the oldest church in continuous use in the English-speaking world. The oldest parts of the structure were built during the Roman occupation of Britain, while other alterations were made in the Saxon period. Standing for nearly one and a half thousand years, this amazing time capsule is a must-see for any history-lover.
SMALLEST CHURCH: Bremilham, Cowage, Wiltshire
Compact: Bremilham in Cowage, Wiltshire, is the smallest church in the country, measuring just 12ft x 12ft
Perched on a small grassy mound, in the middle of a farm yard, on the outskirts of Malmesbury, sits the tiniest church in service in Britain. Bremilham Church is barely four metres long by 3.6 metres wide and there’s scarcely room for a congregation larger than ten, seating for just four on one tiny pew and no room for an altar. Previously used for housing turkeys of the nearby farm, the church only recently found its way into the Guinness Book of Records as Britain’s officially ‘smallest’ church.
TALLEST SPIRE: Salisbury Cathedral, Wiltshire
Sky high: Salisbury Cathedral’s beautiful church spire measures 123.1m or 404ft. It is the tallest spire in the United Kingdom
Since 1549, the cathedral has had the tallest church spire in the United Kingdom, at 404 feet (123 m). Visitors with a head for heights are able to undertake a ‘Tower Tour’ and climb 332 steps to explore this fascinating structure from the inside. Reaching the foot of the iconic spire, 68 metres (223ft) above ground level soon provides a breathtaking aerial view of the inside of the Cathedral and panoramic views of Salisbury and the surrounding countryside.
LARGEST PARISH CHURCH: Beverley Minster, Beverley, Yorkshire
In-spiring: Beverley Minster, in Beverley, Yorkshire (above) is an architectural marvel, with its spacious and soaring structure
At 3,489 square metres, the interior of Beverley Minster is the biggest parish church in the UK. For over 1,300 years there has been a Christian community on the site of Beverley Minster and the current structure evolved through the three main Gothic styles of architecture to become the spacious and soaring structure it is today. The evolution of Gothic style allowed larger scale buildings to be created by repositioning structural weight and allowing bigger churches and cathedrals to be built.
CUMBRIA: Amazing atmosphere
Cumbria has the highest percentage of churches offering ‘atmospheric’ or ‘other-wordly’ surroundings (78 per cent), followed by Cornwall, which is the second best county (69 per cent).
Often small and rural, these churches are sometimes referred to as the ‘thin places,’ a term used by Celts and Christians.
ATMOSPHERE PICK: St Andrew, Kirkandrews-on-Esk, Cumbria
Gothic glory: St Andrew’s church in Cumbria stands under the protection of a Pele Tower in the Netherby Hall Parkland
The tranquil St Andrew’s church built in 1776 is set on the beautiful banks of the river Esk. The Grade II-listed church is a plain Georgian rectangular red sandstone structure, which sits on an unusual north-south axis.
Recognised by explorechurches.org for its ‘other worldly’ atmosphere, it stands under the protection of a Pele Tower in the landscaped setting of the Netherby Hall Parkland.
Internally, the church has been radically and sumptuously altered by Temple Moore, the great Gothic Revivalist.
CUMBRIA: Best for national history
Cumbria is the top county for churches with links to our national heritage with over half (54 per cent) stating a famous connection or association with a national event, followed closely by Greater London, which reported 53 per cent of its churches had national links.
HISTORY PICK: St Marys Church, Kirkby Lonsdale, Cumbria
Pictured above is a famous painting by JMW Turner in St Marys Church that depicts the River Lune at a spot now called ‘Ruskin’s View’
St. Mary The Virgin in Kirkby Lonsdale dates from the 12th century Norman period and represents a mixture of historical architecture during an era of extensive church building and re-building.
Explorechurches.org recognises it as a national treasure, highlighting the famous painting by JMW Turner (1775-1851), which depicts the River Lune at a spot now called ‘Ruskin’s View’, accessed through the churchyard and critically acclaimed by influential English critic, social theorist, painter and poet John Ruskin (1819-1900).
NORTHAMPTONSHIRE: Marvelous monuments
Northamptonshire has the highest percentage of church monuments (77 per cent), followed by Warwickshire (66 per cent), Shropshire (61 per cent), and Suffolk (59 per cent).
It is recognised for being home to both large, detailed and glorious monuments, as well as those that are quirky and unique.
Monuments include architectural or sculptural memorials made to remember individuals and historic events and often display fine stone carving and other artistic characteristics.
MONUMENTS PICK: St Edmund, Warkton, Northamptonshire
Angelic: Pictured is a 19th-century sculpture of the Montagu family, one of four incredible sculptures housed in St Edmund’s Church
St Edmund’s Church is situated within the small estate village of Warkton, Northamptonshire. It has been recognised by explorechurches.org for housing one of the most exquisite and important sets of funerary monuments in Britain.
There were sculpted by Peter Mathias van Gelder, a Dutch sculptor born in Amsterdam.
They commemorate Lady Mary Montagu, daughter of Duke John and his wife, who inherited Boughton House upon their deaths.
NORFOLK: Social history hotspot
Norfolk has the highest percentage of churches (63), both old or new, that safeguard community history with links to stories about people, activities and events throughout the years.
Cumbria and Greater London follow closely with 61 percent of its churches revealing more about our social history.
SOCIAL HISTORY PICK: St John the Baptist, Garboldisham, Norfolk
Majestic: Norfolk was found to have the highest percentage of churches revealing lots about England’s social history. Pictured is St John the Baptist in Garboldisham
St John the Baptist in Garboldisham, Norfolk, is a beautiful church with medieval origins and a long history of serving the people of its parish. Modified over the centuries, its structure includes Victorian restoration, a 15th century flint tower and chancel screen with 16th century painted panels.
Explorechurches.org recognises this church’s significance for the social history of Norfolk, with different features revealing how the building was used in the past.
The Victorian and early 20th century stained glass is exquisite, designed by J Powell & Sons’ workshop by J W Brown. One window next to the cross specifically remembers George Montgomerie.
- For more visit the National Churches Trust tourism website explorechurches.org.
DISCOVERING THE MOST AMAZING PLACES OF WORSHIP IN ENGLAND
Church tourism website explorechurches.org analysed churches across nine different categories – interiors, stained glass, churchyards, atmosphere, wildlife, national history, monuments, social history and visitor friendly facilities.
The analysis follows the National Churches Trust’s poll of 2,037 British people, conducted by ComRes, which shows 49 per cent of British people visited a church in the last year.
It also found 24 per cent of those surveyed said they visited a church building, chapel, or meeting house to attend a life event, such as a wedding, funeral or baptism – and 22 per cent said they visited a church building, chapel, or meeting house for tourism.
Almost a quarter of British people said they would be more inclined to visit a church as a leisure activity or tourist attraction if there were better visitor friendly facilities (23 per cent), and 19 per cent said they would visit if they knew in advance that the door of the buildings was unlocked.
Bettany Hughes, Vice President of The National Churches Trust, which runs the explorechurches.org website, said: ‘Our analysis will help tourists and visitors discover the amazing heritage of churches and chapels.
‘We hope it will encourage more people to become passionate about these tremendous buildings packed with memories of human life often dating back over 1,000 years.
‘As well as signposting the best architecture, stained glass, and history, our data also includes information on visitor facilities, which allows us to suggest which churches are ‘five star’ attractions.
‘Our study shows that churches and chapels offer a tremendous range of unique experiences for visitors including tower climbing, wildlife spotting and even live music. There really is something for everyone.’
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