England’s hidden churches

When the Church of England released its latest attendance figures, bishops were heartened. Growing numbers are going to church at Christmas, while attendance at cathedrals throughout the year is also on the rise.

Yet the overall trend for regular weekly attendance remains down, and about 20 of England’s 16,000 churches are closed each year. Many are converted into houses or flats, some are transferred to other Christian groups or used as community centres. But a small proportion of the most beautiful, historic and architecturally interesting are passed into the care of the Churches Conservation Trust for preservation. The charity, established in 1969 and originally called the Redundant Churches Fund, now cares for 344 properties across the country, representing more than 1,000 years of history.

“These churches,” writes Prince Charles in the foreword to a new book about the Trust, “are a defining feature of the English landscape.”

The book is the work of Matthew Byrne, neither a Trust employee nor professional architectural historian, but a chemistry lecturer at Manchester University. For more than 30 years he has used his spare time to travel the country, documenting small, remote churches. “They are all different, but all have a wonderful atmosphere and sense of history,” he says. “There’s nothing melancholy or desolate about them – they are all in marvellous condition, not dusty or decrepit but cared for by the local community, often with flowers and fresh altar cloths.”

Part of the appeal, he says, is that churches take visitors to rural corners far from any established tourist routes. “Some of the Trust’s churches are in towns, but most are isolated – you would seldom come across them by accident,” he says.

The other key draw is the art and artefacts hidden within, much of it valuable. “The danger is dreadful, but the Trust refuses to lock the doors,” says Byrne. “I was at one rural church, standing beside a carved lectern made entirely of brass, when I looked down and saw a tiny red light in the floor. The lectern had previously been stolen, and recovered, but rather than resort to locking the church, the Trust had installed an electronic protection system.”

The book features 36 churches, ranging from simple Saxon chapels to ornate Victorian churches, and from Cornwall to Northumberland.

‘Beautiful Churches: Saved by the Churches Conservation Trust’, by Matthew Byrne, is published by Frances Lincoln (£20). All photographs by Matthew Byrne

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