There are few days out in the countryside that don’t involved passing a rural church. They provide a place to shelter, a chance to learn about the local community and a glimpse into the history of the surrounding landscape.
From towering cathedrals to tiny chapels, here’s our expert guide to some of the best country churches to visit in the UK.
Atmospheric, beautiful and mysterious, Britain’s rural churches are an extraordinary national treasure. Richard Hayman is a buildings historian who has photographed churches for many years. He is author of several books, including, Churches and Churchyards of England and Wales.
Here he shares 12 of his favourite country churches in the UK.
Church of St Mary and St David, Kilpeck, Herefordshire
From a distance Kilpeck looks like a humble village church, but it was built in the 1130s as a private chapel and has some of the most sophisticated decoration in a 12th-century English church. Much of it was inspired by churches in France and Italy seen on pilgrimages to Rome and Compostella.
Church of St Issui, Partrishow, near Abergavenny, Powys
Several country miles across rolling hills will bring you to the small church of Partrishow in the southern Brecon Beacons National Park. The site is idyllic, close to a holy well, and with its own stable in the churchyard. Inside you will find one of Britain’s oldest fonts and one of the most intricately carved medieval wooden screens in Britain. www.visitcrickhowell.co.uk
St Margaret’s, Hales, Norfolk
Norfolk a county of flint walls and round towers. The small 12th-century church of Hales displays both to good effect, and also has a traditional thatch roof. The most richly treated part of the building is the 12th-century doorway. The interior is unspoiled, with medieval wall paintings and font. Cared for by the Churches Conservation Trust. www.visitchurches.org.uk
Church of the Holy Ghost, Crowcombe, Somerset
Nestled down at the foot of the Quantock Hills in Somerset is Crowcombe, a village with a Church House built in 1515, forerunner of the familiar church hall. In the sixteenth century benches were added inside the church for the congregation, the ends of which have rich and often mysterious carving, including two naked men fighting a double-headed wyvern.
St Levan Church, Cornwall
Near the western tip of Cornwall, and within earshot of the Atlantic Ocean, is the isolated church of St Levan, with its medieval granite architecture, and granite churchyard memorials. Near the church are the chapel ruins of the church’s patron saint. Inside, however, is intricate wood carving on the screens and benches. www.stlevanchurch.org.uk
Llangelynin Old Church, Conwy
Solitude is more or less guaranteed at the remote church of Llangelynin in North Wales. It is a small, unspoilt medieval church with a holy well in the churchyard, set in an upland landscape of drystone field walls. The interior was spared the excesses of Victorian restorers and has a sixteenth-century oak roof and painted Welsh texts on the walls.
Holy Trinity, Blythburgh, Suffolk
Blythburgh church is a Suffolk landmark, one of many churches built on the profits of the medieval cloth trade. The large, airy interior of this medieval church is characteristic of East Anglia, but its main treasures are in the woodwork: carved scenes on its bench ends and a beautiful roof adorned with angels. www.holytrinityblythburgh.org.uk
Church of St Mary, Long Sutton, Lincolnshire
Lincolnshire is a county of large churches and at Long Sutton is one of its finest. The core of a large twelfth-century church survives, which is best appreciated inside the building, but the church also has one of the oldest wooden spires in England, built in the thirteenth century and covered in lead sheets. www.longsuttonchurch.org
All Saints, Earls Barton, Northamptonshire
Although most villages had a church in Anglo-Saxon times very little work of that period has survived because churches were rebuilt in later centuries. At Earls Barton in Northamptonshire is an imposing tenth-century Saxon tower that must have been a major spectacle when it was first built. www.allsaintsearlsbarton.org.uk
St Mary’s, Ingestre, Staffordshire
Ingestre church in Staffordshire was completed in 1676 for the politician Walter Chetwynd, who lived at nearby Ingestre Hall. The church was designed by Sir Christopher Wren and is his finest church outside of London. Inside it is a wooden screen, with the Arms of Charles II, designed and made by Wren’s collaborator Grinling Gibbons. www.stmaryschurch-ingestre.co.uk
Church of Christ the Consoler, Skelton-cum-Newby, North Yorkshire
Cared for by the Churches Conservation Trust, Skelton church was built by Lady Mary Vyner in memory of her son Frederick Vyner, who was murdered in Greece in 1870. She commissioned the flamboyant Gothic architect William Burges to design the church, which is a lofty building in French Gothic style, with a vibrant and colourful interior. www.visitchurches.org.uk
St Mary’s, Fairford, Gloucestershire
One of the finest of Cotswold churches is at Fairford in Gloucestershire. It has a wealth of churchyard memorials and is a grand late-medieval building. What makes it exceptional, however, is a complete set of medieval stained glass, made by Flemish craftsmen in about 1500, portraying prophets and disciples and the Life of Christ. www.stmaryschurchfairford.org.uk
More beautiful country churches to explore
Walk: Clare, Pentlow and Cavendish – Suffolk/Essex
Like many East Anglian buildings, the exterior of St Mary the Virgin church in Cavendish is dressed with flint ©Alamy
Set out on a winter’s hike through the Stour Valley on the Suffolk-Essex border, discovering a trio of churches, each with their own fascinating history.
Day out: St Catherine’s Oratory, Isle of Wight
St Catherine’s Oratory, Isle of Wight ©Alamy
If it wasn’t for a boat-full of wine, the iconic tower of St Catherine’s Oratory – nicknamed the ‘pepperpot’ by Isle of Wight locals – may never have been built.
Walk: Tideswell, Derbyshire
Worship has taken place on the site of St John the Baptist church in Tideswell since the 11th century ©Getty
Take a winter wander from Tideswell’s ‘Cathedral of the Peak’ into the depths of Miller’s Dale and Monk’s Dale in the Peak District National Park.
Day out: Chapel Stile, Cumbria
Holy Trinity Church, Chapel Stile, Cumbria ©Getty
Holy Trinity Church is built on the northern flank of the dramatic Great Langdale valley in the Lake District National Park; pause beneath its stained-glass tapestry then head for the glory of the fells.
Walk: Glenfinnan, Highland
The Church of St Mary and St Finnan ©Alamy
Seek refuge from the cold inside one of Scotland’s most majestic churches, then venture into the Highlands past the wizards’ railway to a lonely mountain pass.
Walk: Mwnt, Ceredigion
Mint church, Wales
Surrounded by hill, sand and sea on the Ceredigion coast in Wales is Eglwys y Grog – the Church of the Holy Cross – at its most magical on Christmas Eve.
Day out: Heptonstall, West Yorkshire
Heptonstall church ©Getty
Historic Heptonstall has a hilltop view over West Yorkshire’s snow-dusted fields. Amble along its cobbled alleyways, pause in its church, then warm up by a fire at a local inn.
Day out: Brentor, Devon
Stunning winter light illuminating the snow covered slopes of Brentor on the western edge of Dartmoor ©Alamy
This famous medieval church – St Michael de Rupe – is the fourth smallest in England. It is also the highest, and comes with its very own legend.
Day out: Salisbury Cathedral
Salisbury, Wiltshire, England ©Getty
Salisbury is technically a city, but its diminutive size makes access the the countryside easy. The 34-mile Avon Valley Path runs north to south from the Cathedral city of Salisbury along the border of the New Forest National Park to Christchurch on the south coast. Walk a small section of this historic waymarked path, or take on the whole lot over several days.
Day out: Knaresborough, Yorkshire
The wayside shrine, Chapel of Our Lady of the Crag, Knaresborough ©Alamy
Carved from a sandstone rock in 1408 by a man called John the Mason, this Marian shrine was once a popular pilgrimage halt on the way to Knaresborough Priory. The priory fell victim to Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries but the charming little chapel survived.
Day out: Culbone, Somerset
The isolated church of St Beuno at Culbone in the Exmoor national park in Somerset ©Alamy
Deep in Lorna Doone country, this church once served woodland-dwelling charcoal burners who lived in nearby shacks. There’s no road here so the faithful heading to advent services must trek along the South West Coast Path to the wooded hollow where the church hides.
Day out: Llanrhychwyn, Conwy
Llanrhychwyn Church, Conwy ©Alamy
The oldest surviving church in Wales, Llanrhychwyn sits shyly behind a screen of trees in a farmer’s field. Services here are rare, but everyone is welcome on the second Sunday in December for carol singing. Check out one of the south-aisle windows: it contains the oldest glass in the Principality.
Day out: Frenze, Norfolk
St Andrew’s ©Evelyn Simak
ThE humble rubble-and-flint St Andrew’s church – of which only the nave and porch survive – sits in a field of buttercups. One of just two services a year, ‘Carols by Candlelight’ on 18 December is quite the event, and you can enjoy it from pews enlivened with delightful carvings of monkeys.
Day out: Croick Church, Sutherland
Croick Church ©Alamy
Ten miles up the lonely Strathcarron valley, this humble utilitarian church is forever linked to a group who became refugees in their own land – a fate echoed in the Christmas story. Evicted in 1845 during the notorious Highland Clearances, 80 people lived temporarily in the churchyard. Cryptic reports of their sad story were later etched on the church windows by unknown hands.