Bill Bryson shares his favourite English churches

    Award-winning travel author Bill Bryson
    Award-winning travel author Bill Bryson
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    National Churches Trust has this week, in conjunction with English Tourism Week (25 March to 31 March), launched Explore Churches, a dedicated website to the UK’s many stunning abbeys, cathedrals and churches. Here celebrated author Bill Bryson shares his favourite English churches.

    English Tourism Week (25 March to 31 March) is an annual celebration of English tourism and the fantastic attractions throughout the country that visitors experience each year. And with over 40,000 Christian places of worship in the UK, 10,000 of which are of medieval origin, the many abbeys, cathedrals and churches are often at the top of the must-visit list. Explore Churches, the new online resource from National Churches Trust, aims to support and promote the beautiful collection of religious buildings dotted around the countryside, while helping visitors with an interactive country map, allowing searches based on location or by a particular feature such as stained glass windows, as well as providing important historical information.

    The site, which currently has 1,300 churches to explore, provides all the inspiration you could ever need for a church tour of Britain, showcasing all the romantic churches, tidal island churches and medieval churches, and even churches that have featured on film and TV.

    To get you started, award-winning travel writer Bill Bryson, who has called the UK home since 1977 and has written many books including Notes from a Small Island, which in a national poll was voted the book that best represents Britain, has revealed his favourite churches. He said “It is impossible to overstate the importance of churches to this country. Nothing else in the built environment has the emotional and spiritual resonance, the architectural distinction, the ancient, reassuring solidity of a parish church. To me, they are the physical embodiment of all that is best and most enduring in Britain.”

    BILL’S FAVOURITE CHURCHES

    Christchurch Priory in Christchurch, Dorset
    Christchurch Priory in Christchurch, Dorset

    My first love – Christchurch Priory, Christchurch, Dorset

    “This is my first love among English churches. Christchurch, Dorset, was where my wife and I lived when we were first married. I passed through the grounds of the priory almost daily for two years, and I could never do so without stopping to gawp at its magnificence. Stone doesn’t get more glorious than this. How so many locals could scurry past it without seeming to notice its presence, never mind its grandeur, was a permanent mystery to me.”

    St Martin in the Fields, Trafalgar Square, London
    St Martin in the Fields, Trafalgar Square, London

    Gorgeous inside and out – St Martin in the Fields, Trafalgar Square, London

    “I admire St Martin’s for all kinds of reasons. It is gorgeous to look at inside and out, provides superb musical recitals at lunchtime and in the evenings, and does heroic work helping the homeless of London. It also has, in its cafeteria in the crypt, one of the best places in central London for lunch or tea.”

    St Michael's in Cornhill, London
    St Michael’s in Cornhill, London. Credit: David Iliff

    Bright and sumptuous – St Michael, Cornhill, London

    “In 2003, my daughter got married in London but couldn’t use her local church (it was undergoing renovation), so we found this one in the City, and what a jewel it is. Built by Christopher Wren after the Great Fire, it is easily overlooked from without, but bright and sumptuous within. I think the vicar was grateful for the business, and the choir (who came from all over the Southeast, the City of London having almost no resident parishioners) sang like angels. It was a fabulous day.”

    St Andrew, Alfriston in East Sussex
    St Andrew, Alfriston in East Sussex

    National Trust neighbour – St Andrew, Alfriston, East Sussex

    “Alfriston is a famously lovely village in the heart of the South Downs National Park in Sussex, and the very neat and pretty church of St Andrew’s overlooking the village green is a good part of what makes it so. Next door is the Old Clergy House, which has the distinction of being the first property bought and saved by the National Trust, way back in 1896.”

    The Church of Saint Pancras in Widecombe-in-the-Moor, Devon, England
    The Church of Saint Pancras in Widecombe-in-the-Moor, Devon, England

    Enhancing the landscape – St Pancras, Widecombe in the Moor, Devon

    “I could hardly think of a better example of a church enhancing its landscape (and vice versa) than this treasure in the exquisite village in Dartmoor, Devon. At 120 feet its tower is one of the most striking on a country church anywhere in the country. Go inside by all means, you won’t regret it, but don’t fail also to view the church and village from any of the neighbouring hillsides. It is one of the great views of England.”

    St Andrew's, Whissendale, Rutland
    St Andrew’s, Whissendale, Rutland

    An imposing library – St Andrew, Whissendine, Rutland

    “This overlooked corner of England has an abundance of outstanding churches, but this is my favourite. It enjoys an imposing setting at the top of the village and boasts the tidiest churchyard I believe I have ever seen. Inside, the church is unusually light and capacious, and at one end of the nave is a large collection of second hand books and CDs that locals can borrow or buy, which I think is a most thoughtful touch.”

    St Michael the Archangel Church, Kirkby Malham, North Yorkshire
    St Michael the Archangel Church, Kirkby Malham, North Yorkshire

    Cathedral of the Dales – St Michael the Archangel, Kirkby in Malhamdale, Yorkshire

    “This was our local church during eight happy years I spent in the Yorkshire Dales and it was treasured not only as a place of worship but also as a kind of community centre. It’s often called the Cathedral of the Dales for reasons that become instantly apparent when you see it. It is massive.”

    Durham Cathedral, County Durham
    Stunning Durham Cathedral, County Durham

    One of life’s great experiences – Durham Cathedral, Durham

    “If you haven’t been to Durham Cathedral yet, drop whatever you are doing and go at once. You owe it to yourself. It is one of the most moving and iconic creations of western civilisation. To step through its massive wooden doors and gaze upon its interior for the first time is one of life’s great experiences.”

    Hexham Abbey, Hexham, Northumberland
    Hexham Abbey, Hexham, Northumberland

    Much loved and memorable – Hexham Abbey, Hexham, Northumbria

    Hexham is as handsome a market town as you will find anywhere, and the imposing priory is a central part of what makes it memorable. I did a reading there a few years ago, and it was delightful. You can usually tell when a church is much loved by the locals and that was abundantly evident here.”

    Cartmel Priory in Cartmel, Cumbria
    Cartmel Priory in Cartmel, Cumbria. Credit: Paul Lomas

    A diagonal tower – Cartmel Priory, Cartmel, Cumbria

    “I came across this ancient and memorable priory church by accident years ago when I was exploring the western Lake District by car and I was simply looking for somewhere to spend the night. Cartmel is a lovely village, so it and its church were both delightful surprises and I have returned several times since. The church dominates the village and is notable for its unusual diagonal belfry tower, which gives it an appealingly jaunty air.”

    The Italian Chapel, Orkney, Scotland
    The Italian Chapel, Orkney, Scotland. Credit: Historic Scotland

    Impossibly gorgeous – The Italian Chapel, Lambholm, Orkney, Scotland

    “I once spent a happy month in Orkney doing an article for National Geographic magazine and came across this enchanting landmark unexpectedly while driving across the little island of Lamb Holm. It is simply a lovingly made, and almost impossibly gorgeous, chapel constructed from a Nissen hut and other surplus materials by Italian prisoners during the Second World War. It is one of the most enchanting places I have ever come across, and alone worth going to Orkney for.”

     

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