'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.'
Everybody loves Bill Bryson. His best selling travel books extol the glories of our country and he is a Vice President of the National Churches Trust.
Here he chooses 14 of his favourite churches, including Durham Cathedral, The Italian Chapel in Orkney and London’s St Martin’s in the Fields. Click on the links to find more information and photos of each wonderful building.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This is a splendid Norman church in a village within the city of Oxford, and it is worth visiting for its rich interior and the story of its anchoress (or pious hermit) named Annora, but its particular glory is that it serves as a perfect destination for a walk along the Thames from the centre of the city.
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.
The glory of All Saints is its commanding position on a hillside overlooking the very pleasant town of Bakewell and the exquisite Derbyshire valley in which it stands, but the interior, with a wealth of Saxon carvings, is rewarding, too.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
This is my favourite church of all, not because it is especially ancient and comely, though it is both of those things, but because it is my local church in Hampshire, so it is where I go for quiet contemplation, a wonderful candlelit Christmas carol service and other village gatherings. You probably have a place just like this yourself. Aren’t we lucky?