Historic churches as visiting destinations

Churches haven’t always been readily associated with the word tourism, but increasingly more and more tourism managers are realising their potential as part of the ‘tourism offer’ for their local area. We at the Churches Conservation Trust (CCT)  have been welcoming visitors to our churches since 1969.

© Chana James - Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon

The CCT has saved over 340 churches, which attract over 1.5 million visitors per year. The support that our organisation gets through donations, people joining our supporter’s scheme, our volunteers and visitors is a testament to how highly people value the historic English church. However, many churches continue to be at risk and our estate is growing, with new churches vested with (given to) us every year.

Reconnecting churches and communities

So why does the CCT need to save so many churches? There are a number of reasons why churches become redundant, but a key factor is that fewer people than ever now regularly attend church services. Also many of our churches are in rural locations and people no longer live near them.The Trust is now seeking to remedy this with projects to regenerate the links between communities and their local CCT church. Although many of our churches have ancient origins, we try to make people recognise that these churches can contribute to modern life and new uses for them can be found. Promoting them as a destination for visitors is one important method and provides an opportunity to help people understand them better.

Visiting highlights

There is such a wide variety of churches in the CCT’s care, which is hardly surprising seeing as they are spread over the whole of England and represent over 1000 years of history. Each building is completely different and has its own unique stories and associations. There are so many to choose from, but let me share with you a few of my favourites:

St Paul’s Church, Bristol was handed over to the Trust in 1997, this late 18th century church was in a terrible state of repair caused by theft, vandalism, water ingress, arson, pigeon infestation – it had it all. However, an amazing transformation has since taken place and the church is now used by Circomedia, the leading centre for circus skills in Europe.  It now has a high-flying trapeze and sprung dance floor. The building is open every day to the public and the circus activities can be seen through a glass screen in the vestibule which is now a viewing area and cafe.

St Peter’s Church Wolfhamcote, Warwickshire is a typical example of a medieval church that is the sole survivor of a deserted village. St Peter’s has been referred to as ‘The church that refused to die’ as it has faced many challenges over the years, the most recent being terrible vandalism in the 1960s. However the church is now a well-loved and visited part of the local landscape and its unspoilt medieval interior and 14th century pew benches are well worth a look.

Some of our churches have famous people associated with them. We have All Saints’ Church, Billesley, Warwickshire, which is reputedly the location of the clandestine marriage between William Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway ...and to keep with the literary theme, there is St James’s Church, Cooling in Kent. The churchyard of St James was used as inspiration by Charles Dickens for the opening chapter of Great Expectations. Both of these churches have used the famous people linked to them to promote themselves. At Billesley a recent Heritage Lottery Fund grant was used to create an exhibition about Shakespeare’s marriage and a strong partnership with the Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust was formed. At Cooling, a production of Great Expectations is planned for next summer.

Benefits of church tourism

However it’s not just redundant churches that are becoming more tourism focussed. Many working churches are recognising tourism as being a key part of the life of the church, particularly in tourist ‘honey pot’ areas that attract a lot of visitors. As well as raising vital funds, opening up to tourism can generate great potential in terms of better links with the local community and educating and engaging with visitors. A good example is Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon, burial place of William Shakespeare, which attracts thousands of visitors every year. The Churches Tourism Association is an organisation which provides advice and support for working churches in how to open themselves up to visitors. This kind of advice can be really helpful for churches, where tourism hasn’t been considered a priority before. 

‘Ancestral Tourists’ and ‘Church Crawlers’

People visit churches for a variety of different reasons. A growing number of visitors are categorised as ‘Ancestral Tourists’ and are researching their family trees. I’m currently making links with a local family history group in Northamptonshire to promote a family history day at one of my churches and my volunteers are armed with information for local genealogists. Others may visit churches as part of a walk, as some are located on walking trails or because of a church’s association for famous people associated with the building or for spiritual reasons.

The English parish church tells us so much about ourselves and in many ways the history of the everyday person, so it’s vital that these treasures are preserved and made accessible to all. As we learn more about why people visit churches, we are able to market directly to them. Whether it’s ‘Church Crawlers’ (people who regularly visit historic churches) or the ‘Ancestral Tourist’ doing their own family tree research, it’s vital that they are made to feel welcome and that the true potential of these wonderful buildings is able to shine through.