Church Tourism Week is the UK’s annual week-long programme of events designed to inspire us to explore and enjoy the ancient churches and chapels on our doorstep. The week takes place between July 26 and August 3 and to whet your appetite, the Churches Conservation Trust has selected nine very special churches with some intriguing connections and qualities for you to visit
Stained Glass: Shrewbury, Church of St Mary the Virgin, Shropshire
The spire of St Mary’s is one of the tallest in England and for over 500 years it has dominated the skyline of Shrewsbury’s old town. In 1739, showman Robert Cadman attempted to slide from it, head first, using a rope and a grooved breastplate. His engraved obituary stands outside the west door. The church is now the only complete medieval church in Shrewsbury. The church’s great treasure is its stained glass. There are panels in glorious colour including the world-famous 14th-century ‘Jesse window’, filled with the images of Old Testament kings and prophets and scenes from the life of St Bernard – a medieval cartoon strip that shows him ridding an abbey of flies, riding a mule and curing the sick. No other church in the country has a collection to equal it.
Medieval roof angels and the biggest chapel in England: King’s Lynn, St Nicholas’ Chapel
High up in the 15th-century wooden roof of St Nick’s, carved angels with outstretched wings sing and play musical instruments. One holds a recorder – the earliest ever portrayal of the instrument in church carving. The church also has a fantastic collection of ledger stones including one dedicated to Robinson Crusoe.
Magnificent Monuments: All Saints’, Kedleston, Derbyshire
All Saints’ church is all that remains of the medieval village of Kedleston, razed in 1759 by Sir Nathaniel Curzon to make way for Kedleston Hall. Today, the hall is a beautiful National Trust property. The Curzon family has lived at Kedleston for 700 years and their stunning memorials, created by several famous designers including Robert Adam, fill the church. A fascinating monument from 1456 shows Sir John Curzon in full armour with his wife and their two dogs. Essentially 13th century, with a classical east end, All Saints is filled with fine fittings including oak box pews, pulpit and communion rails. However, its oldest feature is the Norman south doorway, which has zigzag moulding and grotesque bird heads.
Medieval wall paintings: St Lawrence’s Church, Broughton, Buckinghamshire
St Lawrence’s has some of the best-preserved medieval wall paintings in the country, which were discovered in 1849 by workmen at the church. The colourful images, which include saints and George and the Dragon, were painted over during the Reformation, which ultimately preserved them until their discovery.
Best small rural church: St Mary’s Church, Lead, North Yorkshire
St Mary’s is a tiny 14th-century church standing alone in a field. Near the church is a field creased with the bumps and furrows of earthworks indicating the site of a medieval manor house, for which St Mary’s was probably originally the chapel. Nearby is Towton, the site of the War of the Roses battle, believed to be bloodiest in English history and which brought the Wars of the Roses to a temporary end in 1461. Cock Beck, the little stream which you cross to get to St Mary’s, is said to have run red. The church also includes monuments to crusading knights.
Links to William Morris: Church of St John the Baptist, Inglesham, Wiltshire
This exquisitely beautiful and fascinating 13th-century church stands on a gentle rise of land above waterside meadows near the Thames, only a stone’s throw from the river, and just off the Ridgeway Path. It is a frequent stopping point for walkers. Pioneering Victorian designer William Morris, who lived at nearby Kelmscott, oversaw St John’s restoration in the 19th century, ensuring it kept its original medieval identity.
Dating back to the Romans: St Andrew’s, Wroxeter, Shropshire
St Andrew’s is built on the Roman site of Viroconium, the fourth largest town of Roman Britain, and the evidence for the ancient town is everywhere. The gateposts are made from two Roman columns; the walls contain massive Roman stones; and the huge font is made from an inverted Roman column base.
Literary Links to Charles Dickens: St James’s, Cooling and St Mary’s, Higham
St James’s Church Cooling provided inspiration for Dickens’ Great Expectations with the churchyard providing the inspiration for the opening chapter in which the hero of the story, Pip, meets the convict, Magwitch. St Mary’s Higham, in the north of the county is now in care of the Churches Conservation Trust, is where the author’s daughter was married.
Literary Links to Shakespeare: All Saints’, Billesley, Warwickshire
It is said that Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway here but no records exist. We do know that Shakespeare’s Granddaughter, Elizabeth was married here. The CCT have produced an eight-mile walking trail leaflet, which explores the area’s connections to the Bard and which can be downloaded on their website.
The Churches Conservation Trust are celebrating their 50th Anniversary this year and for Churches Tourism Week they are launching a challenge, The Great national Steeple Chase, to raise funds for Heritage crime. Find out more at www.visitchurches.org.uk