The Village Churches of England
The ancient stone church was empty and silent. I sat alone in the oak pew, but all around me the palpable intensity of faith echoed through the centuries.
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I was on holiday in England for the second time. On my first trip I’d toured the impressive cathedrals of Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s. Bustling with tourists, these stone monuments imparted a sense of awe and majesty. Their vast size and grandness could not be ignored.
Now, on this holiday, I planned to see the countryside, the picturesque cottages, the tiny hamlets, and, of course, the famous palatial homes and ruined abbeys scattered throughout England. But, unplanned by me, and far more significant were a group of buildings not on my itinerary.
I rented a car and headed for the Cotswolds, an area of England well known for its more than 200 beautiful stone villages. I discovered exquisite golden cottages awash with colorful gardens, but I also found almost every village, no matter how tiny, contained a church. I learned that more than 25,000 of these village churches still exist in Britain.
In the Cotswolds, wealthy wool merchants of the Middle Ages, in the years 1350-1550, built these magnificent churches, some small, but many much larger than the population could account for at the time. The merchants tore down old timber churches and built new ones in the golden-hued Cotswold stone, not just as places of worship for the local people, but as tributes to the glory of God.
I located the magnificent light-filled Church of St. Peter and St. Paul in Northleach. It is considered an outstanding church among many outstanding Cotswold churches. The oldest part of the church, the tower, was constructed in 1350, while the 15th century wool merchants completed the main part of the building with its slender pillars, stone tracery windows and beautifully carved pulpit.
Entering the church through its elaborate south porch, I spotted groups of worn memorial brasses on the floor. These brasses depict the wool merchants with sheep and woolsacks at their feet. An east window continues the theme showing a kneeling wool merchant offering the church to God.
As I continued traveling around the Cotswold villages, I seemed to come across churches at every turning of the road, as if they were asking to be noticed. There was the Church of St. James in Chipping Camden with its pinnacled tower and the largest memorial brass in Gloucestershire. All Saints Church in Turkdean displayed a mixture of architectural styles—from its Norman tower to its modern rood screen with the figures of Jesus on the Cross and Mary looking on. I chanced upon the tiny village of Coln St. Dennis with its squat-towered Norman church standing in a quiet valley by the riverside. Further along Coln Rogers’ limestone-walled church still cherishes a Saxon nave and chancel.
These ancient churches, so different than the modern ones I had worshipped in, fascinated me. I decided to extend my church visits to other sites. I progressed northward to Derbyshire’s Peak District and stopped in the village of Tideswell where I happened upon the Parish Church of St. John the Baptist. The church bustled with people cleaning up from the previous day’s flower festival.
One of the helpers was clearly in love with this church, and I spent a fascinating hour as he described its history and architectural details to me. He explained that churches were often the center of village life and were located on the village green, that they were a record of building styles and materials through the centuries.
The earliest church on this particular site was mentioned in the Doomsday Book of 1085, and the first known priest was appointed in 1193. The church nave, aisles and transept were rebuilt on the foundations of that early church around 1340, but the church as a whole took more than 50 years to finish—the Plague (Black Death) interrupted the work. When society recovered from that devastating time, the chancel and tower were built. I saw the church almost untouched by time since 1400.
The font was large enough to immerse a child, a common practice in the past. The sun streaming through the large clerestory window captured the delicate patterning of the stone tracery and lit up the chancel. The east window tells the story of St. John the Baptist. Gleaming marble tombs and elaborate polished brasses decorate the church. For five hundred years villagers hearkened to the Gabriel Bell ringing in the tower until it was retired to one of the chapels of the church. I understood why this church is called the Cathedral of the Peak.
As I wandered through Derbyshire’s green hills and barren peaks, I visited more unique village churches and learned much interesting historical and architectural information about these places of worship.
I headed south again and into the scenic village of Church Stretton in the rolling Shropshire hills south of Shrewsbury. There I stumbled upon the ancient stone Parish Church of St. Laurence, built about 1100 on the original foundations of a late 7th century priory. This simple village church with its eight-belled tower, timeworn wooden door, Norman arch and beautiful carving spoke for all the churches I had encountered on my journey, revealing their role as a testament of the living faith of centuries.
Each day as I continued my travels, I sought out a small village church, entered, and said a silent prayer of thanksgiving. Visiting these little countryside churches became, for me, a wondrous spiritual journey—a pilgrimage of faith I shall never forget.
Many tourist information centres have leaflets with church tours. Due to a lack of finances and membership, many of the small churches are no longer used for worship. They are falling into disrepair or are being used for other purposes. Some have become homes, others meeting places, and many have been lost altogether.
The Churches Conservation Trust (registered charity) cares for 330 churches that are no longer used for worship. All the churches are architecturally or historically important with most Grade I or Grade II*. They are open and free of charge. Donations are always needed. Visit their website for full details.
Churches Conservation Trust