If you want to see all of English architectural history in one place, visit an English church. This is a favorite pastime for tourists and English citizens alike. You’ll see not only architectural history, but the political/religious history of England and Wales. In a typical church, you can have architectural elements from the 12th century until present-day, especially if the Victorians missed the church in their zeal to “update” and “renovate” everything.
We have visited churches and holy sites from Holy Island in the north to St. David’s in far western Wales. We’ve learned to follow the “rules” that aren’t posted in most places but which we’ve learned from doing as the locals do.
Most country churches are open during the day except when there are services. Of course, you are welcome to come in for regular church services, but obviously you can’t wander about and look at the structure of the church during a service. In larger towns, some churches have begun to put out boards that say: “Church open.” when the church is unlocked. Others will have a note by the door where the key to the church can be found if you want to go inside and see it. Usually it’s only a few doors away.
Let’s start with the basic parish church:
After coming through the lychgate (a free-standing gate usually covered and the place where the pallbearers could rest before carrying the coffin the rest of the way to the church), you will be in the churchyard. Some country churches have famous people buried in their churchyards, and usually there will be something in the church to let you know about that.
Look up at the eaves. Even simple country churches can have gargoyles spitting out water.
The tower is where the bells are. Some churches have spires on top of their towers. Others have what are called “witch-hats” because the top of the tower looks like what the Wicked Witch of the West would wear. In Norfolk and Suffolk, there are churches with round towers. There are plenty of questions by historians as to why these towers are round – and you can find articles about that hanging on the walls in many of the churches with these round towers. Basic answer: No one is really sure.
You will enter a church via the porch – a small covered attachment where there often are bulletin boards listing community events and outreach. This was where marriages took place for many years, because the couple couldn’t go into the church together until they were married in the eyes of the church. Don’t hurry through the porch to the main door. Often there are plaques on the walls that list the current and previous parsons of the church back to the establishment of the church. Also there may be interesting memorial stones in the floor of the porch…even though the words probably are worn from the many feet who have walked across them. In addition, you can see what outreach programs the church does…insight into the community. In especially small communities, there may be a listing of which church has a service on which Sunday, because several parishes share the same parson.
When you open the door into the church, make sure you close it behind you. If you don’t, animals and birds can get into the church…and you’ll find sheep in country churchyards. A cheap and easy way to keep down the grass and weeds. If there are other people in the church, especially if they are sitting the pews, be considerate. If they are there cleaning up, talk to them. The best guides are the parishioners themselves – and as much as we love talking to the English, they love talking to visitors from outside their country.
Unless posted not to, you are free to take photos (again be considerate of anyone there in prayer), and you may use a flash. Some of the bigger churches/cathedrals will charge you for a photo license (often around £3) and you will be given a sticker to wear. It’s a simple way to raise money for continued upkeep.
Some things to look at in a country church:
1) Baptismal font – many of them are works of art which reflect the local history or the village itself
2) Stained glass windows – don’t just look at the design – look at the writing in the memorial section which often lists who donated the window and why. Also you can find unique items. There is a small church outside of Bodmin, Cornwall, in a town called Temple (I’m not sure where the town is, but we did find the church). It was built on Knights Templar land, and one window shows a Knight Templar. The design of the other windows have a connection to the Templars, too.
3) Memorial plaques on the walls
4) Memorial stones in the floors – you can see where brasses were ripped out during the Reformation. Some of the brasses were left intact (although they no longer be on the floor but on display somewhere in the church) if they weren’t secular themes. These are of particular interest to me because I have a great-great-great (back in the 1500′s) with a memorial stone in Norwich Cathedral.
5) Altars and altar screens. If you’re in the north of England, especially, but in the midlands, too, you should look to find a small mouse carved into an altar or the screen. It means it was carved by Robert Thompson, who was known as the “mouseman”. When he began his woodcarving, he was as poor as a…okay, you get it. He was as poor as a churchmouse, so he began to put his signature mouse on everything he carved. Sometimes in bas relief and sometimes flat. If you visit the original Coventry Cathedral, there is a small gray chair by the altar with the cross at the far end. Look down at the chair’s leg, and you’ll see a wee gray mouse carved there. (Then look up and see the carved squirrels on either side of the bay where the altar is placed.) But altars and altar screens are wonderful pieces of art, even if Mr. Thompson didn’t make them. Some are carved, some are painted, and some are very grand.
6) Painted murals on the walls. When people couldn’t read and the Bible wasn’t in English, murals on the walls told the story of the Gospels. Some of the paintings are pretty grim as people are cast down into Hell, but they are always interesting and reflect the style of painting for the time when they were created. In St. Peter and Paul’s Church in Pickering, Yorkshire, the paintings were rediscovered in the middle of the 19th century, but the pastor had them whitewashed over because he thought they were inappropriate for the eyes of good churchgoing folks. They were cleaned again and are lovely. Churches in the middle ages were brightly painted with surprisingly modern designs on the columns. You can see some remnants of that in St. Alban’s Cathedral.
7) Pulpits. Some are simple, some are amazing. The steps to the pulpit in the small church at Llananthony Abbey in Wales are cut into the outer wall of the church, so the parson climbs up a small stairwell to get to the pulpit.
Pews. Some pews are simple, some are ornately carved. Many will have kneeling pillows needlepointed by the parishioners that show important aspects of the church and the community. If the pews are ornately carved (or the whole church is like the parish church in Launceston, Cornwall), look at the back of the last set of pews. What look like vines with roses/other flowers may instead be self-portraits of the wood-carvers. Unable to sign their names, they carved themselves (or each other) into the pattern. If you go into Trinity Church in Coventry (right in front of the cathedral), ask one of the docents to point them out to you. Another interesting set of pews is in St. Clement’s Church in Romney Marsh. If the words Romney Marsh bring to mind the 1960′s Disney movie “The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh”, you’ll remember the leader of the smugglers was the vicar. Disney arranged with St. Clement’s to use its church for interior shots – a great arrangement because the church was in dire need of funds. But there was a problem – the white pews were too glaring for the movie cameras. So the pews were painted a soft pink, which they are to this day. The parishioners decided to keep the color when they redid the church again a few years ago. Btw, you’ll notice in the big, old cathedrals, there are no pews. That was because people stood during services.
9) Which leads us to looking in the choir. Some older churches that were once connected to an abbey will have misericords under the choir seats. These are carvings – often mythological characters or everyday people – set beneath a small shelf on the underside of the choir seat. During the middle ages, these seats were pushed up during service, and the elderly monks/sisters needed something to lean against. The small shelves were introduced to help them. Misericord derives from the Latin word for “mercy.” The carvings came later to decorate them. Some churches still have them in place, so feel free to put your fingers under the choir seat and see if it lifts up. Btw, photographing misericords led to Bill and me being locked into a church one evening. I was sitting in the choir and Bill was in a chapel (more on those in a minute) – both of us out of sight of the main door. We heard the door rattle, but didn’t look up. We figured someone else was coming in. When we were done a short time later, we went to the door and found we were locked in. Of course, Bill had left his mobile in the car, and the church office door was locked. As we considered that we might be spending the night in the church and wondering what was in the church kitchen to eat (we didn’t want to set off the fire alarms by lighting candles and holding them to the smoke alarms <g>), we realized that this church, unlike most, had a second porch. This inner door was locked from the inside, although the outer doors proved a bit more of a challenge. We were able to get out that way eventually without causing any damage and secured the doors from the outside. Now Bill always carries his mobile with him when we go into churches late in the day. Lesson learned!
10) Chapels. Larger churches may have chapels. Often these are set off to one side of the altar. They often are dedicated to military units from the area. You can see original flags (some with very few threads) flying there.
11) Effigies. Even small country churches may have effigies of important locals. Churches like St. Mary’s Collegiate in Warwick have amazing effigies. The Beauchamp chapel has effigies of some of the most important people of Tudor England. Look at the costumes as well as what is also carved with the person. A book? A dog? A child? Also where the effigy is placed speaks to its importance. If it is looking up at a holy figure in a nearby window, it usually is intended to suggest a connection or an especial godliness about the person.
12) Crypt. If you want to go back in time, go into the church’s crypt. The one at Hexham Church (once part of the Abbey) in Northumberland dates back to the 7th century. My favorite is the crypt at St. Mary’s (a very, very common church name in England) Lastingham, Yorkshire. It is accessible right from the center of the church. It is said that St. Cedd, one of the early missionaries to England is buried beneath the altar table. There are also carved stones from Viking, Anglo-Saxon, and Norman times on display there.
13) Bells and clocks. You can see the ropes where the bells are rung inside, and you can see the clock(s) on the face(s) of the towers outside. Also many churches have sundials on one side or in the churchyard.
14) Organ. Some are small and modern. Others are magnificent and set in a balcony over the church. Please don’t touch them. Just admire them.
15) Booklets and postcards are often on sale on a table near the door. The prices are usually well-marked. The booklets give you the history of the church and point out items for which the parishioners are especially proud. The poor box is usually in the wall next to the table. There may be more than one slot. If so, they are usually marked for publications or donations. Even if you don’t take the booklet with you, but used it during your visit to guide you around, pay for it. Also leave a donation to the church of no less than a pound. It helps with the upkeep of the church and its grounds. When I visited a church named (what else?) St. Mary’s in Watford, Hertfordshire, there was no box in sight for the donations. I opened a drawer on the table and saw someone else had left coins there, so I did the same.
16) Guest book. If the church has a Guest book, sign it before you leave. We’ve gotten holiday cards from churches we’ve visited, which is always a treat.
17) Everything else. Each church is unique. Some have amazing sculptures. Some have used book and toy sales going on. If you buy something in those churches, leave the money in the appropriate box.
Cathedrals will have most of the above as well as a cathedra, which is the official chair of the bishop. You’ll see it often near the choir. In a cathedral, the exterior of the building is as important as the interior when it comes to architecture. Lincoln Cathedral’s front is covered with statues telling Biblical stories. Even the entry doorways show figures floating up the arches. And don’t forget the gargoyles!
In the cathedrals, look up at the ceilings and admire the bosses. These are the small sculptures where the arches of the roof come together. Norwich Cathedral in Norfolk is famous for its hundreds of bosses that fill the cathedral and the cloister connected to it. In Lincoln Cathedral in Lincolnshire, look for the imp – a small demon carved at the far end of the church.
You’ll often find a Green man (and/or woman) among the carvings. This shows the connection to England’s pagan past, but the cathedrals (and the churches) display them proudly as fine works of art.
Visit a “new” cathedral/church like the one at Buckfast Abbey (actually St. Mary’s Abbey, Buckfast) in Devon – a Catholic Benedictine abbey by the way – or Truro in Cornwall or Coventry Cathedral. In Coventry, what remains of the original St. Michael’s Cathedral after the Blitz stands beside the contemporary cathedral, so it’s easy to compare and contrast the two.
If the church has a tower, consider climbing it. Yes, it’s hundreds of uneven curving steps to the top, but the view is worth the breathlessness and the sore muscles the next day (what don’t get strained going up get strained coming down!). Usually there is a small extra charge. At Coventry Cathedral (in the original part), you can look down on the bells through plexiglass in the floor – and try not to jump off the roof when they ring! York Cathedral offers a view across the rooftops and to the old medieval walls. My favorite may be St. Mary’s Collegiate in Warwick, because you look over the town and into the castle.
Visiting other holy sites such as holy wells is fun, too. Each is as unique as the time it was built and how long it was visited. St. Cybi’s (pronounced Cubby like on the old Mickey Mouse Club <g>) on the Lleyn Peninsula in Wales has a pool where people could step down into it and a room for changing, because it was in use as late as the 19th century when such privacy concerned everyone. St. Non’s (the mother of St. David, the patron saint of Wales) holy well is a small pool out in the open air with just a statue of the Virgin Mary next to it. The ruins of a chapel are nearby. Stop by the holy well and its spring.