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St. Olaf Church at Wasdale Head

The wonders of the hidden churches of England

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posted September 17, 2019
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Have you ever wanted to see a thatched-roof church? Visit St. Mary’s at Sisland in Norfolk to see a 13th-century church whose whitewashed walls and enormous thatched roof are hard to miss.

What about heading to a quaint church located on a beach in Cornwall? Nestled beside a small headland is St. Winaloe, the aptly nicknamed “Church of the Storm,” a small pre-1400s building.

Interested in stained glass installments by pre-Raphaelite masters? Head to London to visit Christ Church in Southgate to see the windows, a wall painting that includes ginger-bearded textile designer William Morris, and some fabulous reredos, including a Last Supper designed by Italian glassmaker Antonio Salviati.

When traveling in England you can visit beautiful, unique churches such as these, and many more. A good resource to start your planning is ExploreChurches.org, the travel site that includes information about thousands of the country’s fascinating churches.

Launched in 2016 as the online guide to sacred places across Britain, ExploreChurches.org was created by a team that works directly with the churches to thoroughly understand what makes them special places to visit. The team also trains staff and volunteers on how to welcome and create great experiences for visiting groups.

When asked about their favorite churches, members of our team mentioned the tiny Church of St. Olaf at Wasdale Head in the Lake District. More than 1,000 years old, this remote church rests alongside Wastwater, England’s deepest lake, while Safell Pike, England’s highest mountain, soars above it. The picturesque surroundings are unmatched.

This year, ExploreChurches.org has received funding from the £40 million Discover England fund administered by VisitBritian/VisitEngland, which delivers world-class, bookable English tourism products to the right customers at the right time. The funding has allowed us to provide information about more than 2,000 churches and unique cultural experiences for tour groups. Some examples of those experiences include:


Lincoln Cathedral
Lincoln Cathedral (Photo by CC Flickr/Karen Roe: bit.ly/2Qe2qxg)

John Wesley and the origins of Methodism

For the 75 million Methodists worldwide, visiting the origins of their denomination in England is of great interest. ExploreChurches.org maps the story of John Wesley, founding father of Methodism, and introduces you to the churches and outdoor pulpits. Wesley grew up in Lincolnshire where his father was rector.

Our experiences will take you to Lincoln Cathedral, the tallest building in the world for nearly 240 years, where you can have a private viewing of the priceless cathedral pallium orpheries and vestments, including the Bishop Edward King surplice. Your visit will also include an embroidery demonstration, followed by afternoon tea. Alternatively, you can enjoy a guided tour of the cathedral, view Wren’s library and Tennyson’s statue, and have afternoon tea in the chapter house, followed by evensong.

A short walk away is Lincoln Castle, where you can see an original copy of the Magna Carta, preserved in a temperature-controlled vault, and enjoy an incredible view of the city and the cathedral from atop the castle walls.


Literary Tour

For tour groups visiting England for a literary-themed experience, Wordsworth country in Cumbria offers spectacular landscapes and the opportunity to visit Rydal, where poet William Wordsworth lived. What better place to have a private poetry reading for your group?

Architecture and Industry Tour

A tour focusing on England’s famous architects and industry leaders can include sites associated with Augustus Pugin, who brought back Gothic architecture in the 19th century and is famous for designing parts of the Houses of Parliament. He also designed buildings across England, including the amazing towers at family theme park Alton Towers, and Alton Castle in the Staffordshire Valley. While there, you can travel through the Cheadle Valley and visit St. Giles Roman Catholic Church, thought to be his most iconic design.

Pottery Tour

A visit to Staffordshire should include a tour of the potteries. On a trip to Stoke Minster, you can discover the burial place of famous potter Josiah Wedgwood. The hands-on design and paint-your-own-plate program at a nearby pottery is popular and can help you discover how Wedgwood and other potters fought for their workers’ rights.

Glouchester Cathedral
Gloucester Cathedral (Photo by Jerry Varner)

Gloucester Tour

Travel to Gloucester for the “tale of two potters” at Gloucester Cathedral, with a guided tour of the medieval cloisters and the crypt, followed by afternoon tea for your private group in the Parliament Room. Visit the Beatrix Potter Museum to discover the inspiration for Potter’s “The Tailor of Gloucester,” and finish with a choral evensong at the cathedral.

Movie History Tour

You can also experience movie history in Cambridge and understand the significance of round churches with a private Christian Heritage tour of one of only four such buildings in the country. Explore the references to the Round Church in “The Da Vinci Code” movie while sampling local produce from around Cambridge.


Pilgrimage Tours

Why not follow in the footsteps of our forefathers? Many pilgrimage routes across England offer tour options, such as the trail from Yevering to Lindisfarne. The St. Oswald’s Pilgrimage visits an Anglo-Saxon hamlet, the Holy Island and a medieval castle.

For those seeking a challenge, try the Cornish Celtic pilgrimage, from St. German’s to St. Michael’s Mount. Rev. Nigel Marns will guide you along a part of the tour and take you to three historical churches.

He can take more energetic groups on a four- to five-night pilgrimage along the route, staying in the churches themselves and discovering Celtic crosses, standing stones, holy wells and hidden churches. Both end at St. Michael’s Mount for a private welcome and entry into the chapel for a Cornish cream tea.

Throughout the coming year, staff will continue to add tour experiences as new partnerships are established, so be sure to check the site frequently for updates, including links to accommodations, historical and leisure attractions and the best restaurants near our churches. For your convenience, look for an online booking portal on the site in early 2019.

Step into the enriching and enhancing world of ExploreChurches.org to plan the best trips for your group.

Emma Clarke works for National Churches Trust Heritage Services, the national, independent charity dedicated to promoting and supporting church buildings of historical, architectural and community value across the U.K. She brings 20 years of experience in the tourism industry to her role as project manager for ExploreChurches.org, the go-to website for tour operators looking to add value to their U.K. itineraries.

Top photo: St. Olaf Church at Wasdale Head
Photo by Scott Sworts