Category Archives: Churchcrawling

Video: Coventry’s Missing Cathedral

It was looking a bit grim this year, but I’ve got a decent computer I’m using at the moment, so was able to create a new video – my first in over a year – about the Coventry Cathedral that no one talks about! And also the rest of medieval Coventry, which I think was a fascinating place, shame what’s left of it is now in Coventry, really.

I was particularly pleased to be admitted to the beta trial of Google Earth Studio to render high quality 3D fly-throughs, as well including some of my own recreations, both of architecture and hit songs by Coventry artists!

Enjoy! It’s not like you’re doing much else at the moment, anyway!

Why after two decades, you mustn’t rely on Simon Jenkins to guide you around England’s churches


Did anyone ever see the TV series? Seems to have sunk without trace.

Yes, remarkably, 2019 – that year I am somehow in RIGHT NOW – marks two whole decades of being able to have England’s Thousand Best Churches in the car. The book has joined the Pevsner Architectural Guides as “essential” gear for anyone interested in churches. It’s been reprinted so many times you can get it brand-new for mere pounds. So inescapable it is, it was integral to my beginnings in visiting churches. When I graduated onto Pevsners I used to keep it around when on the move to see if I was missing any “essential” churches when travelling long distances. But now, I realise: it really isn’t reliable. At all. And it’s becoming so embedded in the culture of English church tourism, I worry slightly it’s becoming quite dangerous to its future.

Woah, daddy! That might seem a bit harsh, but I’ve had issues with this book for a few years now after initially using it and recommending it, and I’ve had a good look at it the last few months to really pick apart why. And at the end of it, I’m not happy.


The main problem with it is that England’s Thousand Best Churches is not England’s 1,000 best churches. Putting aside that it inexplicably leaves “Parish” out of the title for the time being, it is ultimately a personal, curated list that focuses on variety, and of course has some attempt to ensure consistent geographical distribution. This might seem like a quibble, but really, the one thing you must know about this book is that you cannot rely on it flagging up a must-see church near you. While maybe around a third of the buildings are superlative churches you would expect any seasoned church-visitor to have heard of (e.g. Heckington, Lavenham, Grantham, Melton Mowbray), the other two thirds are pretty random. Believe me, in terms of quality, a lot of Jenkins’ churches are no better than another six churches 10 minutes drive away. That’d be fine if it dropped the objective superlative “Best”, but because of this, people will go out of their way to visit “a Jenkins church” as if they’re special. But they’re not, and in doing so, ignore many churches that are equally or more interesting.


St Peter, Heysham. Objectively not as good as any church in 1000 Best.

And this really does bring in the problem of what a complete hash he makes for some counties off the beaten churchyard path. Lancashire is not great for historic churches by any means, but why include an inaccessible Victorian church in the middle of a goddamned derelict industrial wasteland (we’ll come which one in a minute) when you could be recommending something in the beautiful Lune Valley between Lancaster and Kirkby Lonsdale? That could be Hornby, with its unique double-stage octagonal tower and apse; or Tunstall, with its admirably ancient medieval tracery and lovely continental glass? What about the picturesque, low-pitched, St Michael-on-Wyre, or the self-proclaimed “Cathedral of the Fylde” (bit of a silly name but it is undeniably the biggest medieval church around), St Helen, near Garstang? Heysham, over Morecambe Bay, a candidate for the most attractive view from a churchyard? It’s easy to criticise the treatment of your home turf in something like this, but it is just shocking how poorly distributed and non representational his choices here are, and I suspect many other counties have the same problem.

Now, I realised this very early on in my days. But at first I thought that there was a reason he’d left certain churches out. Maybe they were locked that day? Maybe he was unlucky, or the church’s policy had changed? Wait, no…


No, not really, they are just really weird choices a lot of the time to the point where it all seems a bit random. Let me give him a bit of credit first: there’s one bit of the book I like. The part of the introduction titled “Access” is actually, the best-written part of the whole thing, and in reflection has had a lot of influence on my creeds regarding church access that I still hold. I can only assume, that because of the potential nerves it might touch among custodians, it was copy-edited to buggery and back. Unlike so much of this book, it’s very careful with its language, and as a consequence does not place undue blame on communities or seem entitled. It has respect for the work and dedication by churchwardens and clergy, but also, balanced with righteous disdain for the rude and selfish that occasionally poison the church-visiting experience. The exhortation that his readers should leave a donation is also very effective. This passage, notably, is worth quoting.

But no security is as effective as a regular flow of welcomed visitors. A parish church is a church open to all. A church shut except for services is the meeting house of a sect.


Not the most welcoming presbytery, at Barton-upon-Irwell

I’ll give him credit there, that’s pretty bang-on churchshaming. The interesting thing he reveals in this section about his (alleged) selection process for the book is that Jenkins claims that he set a limit of half an hour to gain entry using his mobile phone (and, quaintly, a copy of Crockford Clerical Directory). I always took this preface being as a vital criterion for whether a church got in the book or not. Now, I really don’t think it was at all.


All Saints R.C., Barton-Upon-Irwell, Greater Manchester

This is the Roman Catholic church of All Saints in Barton-Upon-Irwell in Manchester, which I’m sure he must’ve visited while he was co-chair of English Heritage in the late ’80s. If you bother braving the awful traffic on the M60 around the Trafford Centre to get here, you’ll realise it’s part of a Franciscan convent, with a massive palisade fence around it, and warnings about guard dogs. It’s not even that significant: it’s a pretty alright Catholic church by E.W. Pugin, but it’s hardly a standout Victorian masterwork like St Giles, Cheadle by his father. Regardless: you’re not getting in it. Why are you sending me to a cloistered Victorian church in a brownfield site near an orbital motorway instead of an ancient church overlooking Morecambe Bay?


All Saints, Arksey, West Riding of Yorkshire

There are other weird choices for churches that are not usually open. Arksey near Doncaster is absolutely impenetrable (and I’ve tried in advance, too – it’s not even that exceptional, the Churches Conservation Trust-held Kirk Sandall would make more sense round there). Checkley in Staffordshire is also kept locked (I think he just got lucky when he was going to Cheadle to see Pugin’s St Giles). The completely uninteresting Victorian box at Birtles in Cheshire is included for its collection of imported furnishings, but these are precisely the example it’s never bloody left open, and that it’s in the middle of nowhere why there’s no keyholder (there’s a single house next door, presumably they’re not interested). The list could go on. Take it from this: his whole 30-minute test is nonsense. Some of the 1000 Best are not casually accessible and need planning ahead to a level that really isn’t worth it for a tourist that isn’t doing a degree in this sort of stuff. Because I suspect that Crockford’s part is a load of nonsense, and a lot of his visits had a bit of a red-carpet put on because of his connections as a serial management-board-sitter and journalist. Because, basically, Country Life can get you in just about anywhere, and an affiliation with The Times must get even the most miserable custodian excited to wait around to open up a locked church on a request from the head office.



St Botolph, Boston, Lincolnshire

The out-of-five star ratings are also, in retrospect, an annoying distraction and not very consistent or an accurate representation of any aspect of the church. Firstly, a “one-star” rating seems like a bit of an insult, which the implication it only has one thing worth seeing, when actually there are many very high-quality buildings with loads of things to discover that get the one star. Instead, what seems to matter to Jenkins is size. Boston, for instance, is not a bad church by any means. It’s even worth the effort of driving into the town and paying to park (although maybe not on market day). Its tower is uniquely ambitious in the whole country for its excessive height without even resorting to a spire, and the interior is massive and seriously impressive. But five stars? There’s not really that much to look at inside, and there’s more medium-sized churches in the area you’d generally spend a lot longer inside looking around. Do the stars reflect how exceptional these churches are? The aesthetic experience? How much time you would spend there? Their width times their length times their height? I wonder why he even felt the need to star them. If these are the top 5% or so of all historic churches, isn’t that enough of a recommendation? It’s really very puzzling.


Then there’s the whole “church” thing. The books is called BEST CHURCHES. Yet then he says that his “principal definition is that a church be in some sense parochial.” Which essentially comes out of nowhere, because the title does not include the word “parish”. Okay, I see the point of not having the medieval cathedrals in: they’re too complex to sum up in a short entry and would dominate the book. But then he totally scuppers that by saying “monastic foundations which were not made cathedrals at the Reformation but were acquired by their towns” are getting in, because “They may seem like cathedrals, but they are parish churches like any other.” No they aren’t! If your reason for not including cathedrals is that they already get attention, why include Christchurch, Sherborne, Tewkesbury, and Selby? They completely throw the balance of the book off, and by being huge places often suitable for an entire day out, they overshadow the other entries in the way cathedral ones would have done. If Beverley, why not Southwell and Ripon, with which it was essentially equal rank with before the 19thc? And what about St Albans Abbey? That uniquely remained a parish church with a rector after becoming a cathedral in 1877, so very much “in some sense parochial”, as much as Selby Abbey. He also pointlessly declares “Consistency […] leads me to omit a number of former town churches which have been elevated to cathedral status, such as Portsmouth and Newcastle“. Well, St Nicholas in Newcastle is hardly comparable to a medieval cathedral: it’s so boring inside it wouldn’t even make a list of the top churches in Tyne and Wear. Portsmouth wasn’t really a town church, it was a very fancy early 13thc collegiate church, yet it differs from Newcastle Cathedral in that its west end was built up to a cathedral scale from the 1930s onwards, and indeed makes sense to omit.


The much underrated Collegiate church of St Mary, George and Denys, Manchester, aka Manchester Cathedral.

But somewhere like Manchester Cathedral is essentially in its original form as a late medieval collegiate church, and could be adequately described in an entry in this book, and indeed deserves a visit among the other churches of Lancashire . So not all buildings with “Cathedral” at the end are comparable to medieval cathedrals, and not all of them would make the list of 1000 Best Churches either (like Chelmsford Cathedral, which is probably one of the least interesting medieval churches in Essex). All this would be less of an issue if he’d just put “parish” in the title, but instead it’s even more tortuous, arbitrary, and misleading.

So, essentially, as an objective guide to the best churches in England, the book is a total mess. It assumes the reader knows every cathedral city, which from my experience is a big mistake (I remember a hairdresser expressing surprise that Wells had a cathedral once after asking the dreaded “holidays” question), and sends people past loads of outstanding buildings to ordinary churches that can only be explained as places the author happens to have been and liked. To use it as a trip planning aid, as I initially did, is an almost complete waste of time, because you will miss so much, and many of the truly typical parishes selected are, basically, random. But wait, it gets worse!



Simon Jenkins, doing his best “monkey journalist” pose

So, now, the next big point about this book. In trying to actually sit down with it for this reassessment, I can see why people unable to visit England’s churches (if they have no car or live abroad) I’ve recommended it to as an introduction have been really disappointed. Because if you’re not actually using it to plan out excursions, it’s really horrible to actually read cover to cover. The main problem is that, while he tries to be all poetic like Betjeman, Jenkins can’t throw off his journalistic shackles of always writing pedantically in the active voice. That is, he always has to put “Jenkins writes utter crap” instead of just occasionally putting “utter crap is what Jenkins writes” just for a bit of a change. This works for 500-word newspaper columns, it becomes so incredibly weary for a whole book when every single sentence has to start with “The” because he CAN’T PUT THE SUBJECT SECOND JUST ONCE ARGHH. Because of this, he comes off about as well as a musing Romantic as Vanilla Ice did as a gangsta rapper.

He loves the following words in his patter: “glory” (as in “the kneelers are Little Piddle’s glory”), “soar”, “fine”. Yeah, he loves “fine”. Seriously, get your copy and start circling it. It’s crazy how often he uses it. Most of us now use “fine” to mean “satisfactory”. Probably because it was overused by people like Jenkins to mean “I know this is a good example of what it is, but I can’t actually articulate why because I’m a lazy hack”.

People say that Pevsner tells you just about everything about a church except what it looks like. Jenkins however, manages to do even worse, by  wasting space with vapid introductions that detract from the thing he’s supposed to be inspiring you to visit.

On a warm summer’s day, Fotheringhay is a magic place. The church seems to float on its hill above the River Nene, a galleon of Perpendicular on a sea of corn“.


A boat, in front of the former college of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary and All Saints, Fotheringhay, Northamptonshire. … or is it the other way round..?

So, wait a minute, the hackneyed metaphor of a church looking like a boat aside, the River Nene is made out of corn? No, you must mean there literally is corn on the hill above the river? How can a sea be hill-shaped? That’s not much of a metaphor, really. Is it only magic if it’s summer? How warm does it need to be for it to be magic? Is it magic because the sea is shaped like a hill?

You might think this is pedantic nitpicking (which it is), but the point is that this is just completely uninteresting fluff, like you just asked a robot to write some vaguely poetic metaphor about Fotheringhay to waste space at the beginning of its entry. Or you’re just a hack journalist crapping out journalese while looking at photograph from the Country Life archive… oh.


Now, I might seem to be getting a bit ad hominem here. And yes, if this book hadn’t become so bloody iconic, I wouldn’t be so grumpy and virulent of what could be seen as good-intentioned doggerel. But much worse than this book being so tedious to actually try and read for pleasure, is that some of the off-hand remarks Jenkins wantonly chucks around are really quite irresponsible and sow potentially harmful seeds. Yes, sometimes Pevsner was rather acerbic, which eventually led to interesting buildings being demolished (e.g. Christ Church, Blackpool). But at least he was consistent, and also kinda funny. But Jenkins says things that are so utterly, incredibly, mindbogglingly dumb, so misinformed and poorly thought-through, it’s frightening they are coming from someone who had so much clout in the heritage sector.

Consistently infuriating is his completely paradoxical stance on whether our churches should preserve the past, or change for the future.

Churches whose walls were scraped down to bare stone by the Victorians would be much improved by the reinstatement of their plaster. They would also seem less like archaeological sites like meaningless fragments of wall painting were not left stranded like flotsam in a sea of whitewash. A wall should have some visual integrity. If wall paintings are wanted, let us paint new ones […]”


The repainted rood screen at Harpley, Norfolk, that Jenkins decides is “insipid”

So this makes me particularly enraged. Here he’s deciding some ancient mural decorations should be got rid of because he can’t tell what they’re supposed to be. Where do we draw the line? Did he think of the consequences of what saying this might inspire in people? What drastic actions these words could excuse? And to end it with his complete fantasy about a society largely detached from Christianity being able to suddenly create artists able of producing genuine, inspired artwork on the walls of our churches is just absolutely absurd. Usually when he encounters Victorian painting that covered space with perfunctory reflections of what was probably there (e.g., the saints on the screen at Harpley, Norfolk above) he dismisses it as “insipid”. So what the hell does he expect we’d create now now? It’s like for all he goes on about quality, he doesn’t actually understand art very well.


Rood at St Michael and All Angels, Bishop’s Cleeve, Worcestershire by PJ Crook, 1987. A triptych by the artist was installed in the church in December 2018, but Jenkins probably thinks that’s rubbish too.

Usually modern art is ignored completely by Jenkins. When he does, he’s nearly always snooty about it, unless it’s a recognised “proper artist” such as Stanley Spencer or Marc Chagall. One piece he hints an opinion of the “new” is the rood by PJ Crook at Bishop’s Cleeve (1987, actually, so it had been there 13 years) , of which he can only bring himself to say “its material [acrylic paint] alone is out of place“. Without even touching on form, he turns his nose up because something was made by an artist using modern paint instead of oils, which seems to me snobbery to the point of utter arrogance. If not that, then he’s just being an arsehole, because even the Pevsner revision gives it a rare “good”. And quite frankly, if you can’t see at least excellent composition of space, colour and figures in this, then you’re just wrong. If anything, it could be criticised as being an extremely safe, traditional interpretation.

Despite this apparent revulsion of the contemporary, and his constant pops at “bad” Victorian glass (which he never really seems to define, beyond “gloomy”) he gets somehow gets even worse, into objectively downright stupid territory:

Empty niches, inside and outside a church, are as much an offence to the eye as to architecture. They look like paintings from which the faces have been removed, a triumph of archaeology over aesthetics.


An empty niche on the tower of St Walburge R.C., Preston, Lancashire, which must have had its statue removed between now and um *checks Pevsner* c.1857.

This is Jenkins trying to have an original thought but instead coming out with complete and utter unadulterated bollocks. Primarily, because the buildings that are most covered in empty niches are not victims of iconoclasm, but High Victorian churches by the likes of Gilbert Scott, that never had any statues in, and it’s questionable whether it was ever thought that they would. Certainly not by Scott himself, who was hardly smells ‘n’ bells when it came to churchmanship, but then there are plenty of modern Roman Catholic churches dotted with empty niches too. A niche sanctifies the space within, a mini-ciborium: emptiness made holy. Nevertheless,  while you can admire the detail of a medieval niche for its own sake, but also you can ponder on what has been lost from within. Much like such subtlety that would appear to be utterly lost on Jenkins. Suggesting we should waste our time filling them with any old crap for the sake of it is just incredibly reckless to the point of madness, and just encourages absolute garbage like David Wynne’s feckless Virgin in Ely Cathedral Lady Chapel. It’s like insisting that the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum put A4 inkjet print-outs of Jack Vettriano pictures in place of their stolen paintings because the empty frames are such an “offence to the eye”. You utter plank, Simon.

But then for all his “let us paint new ones” blowhard guff there’s the remarks about modern urban developments around churches. I know, I make fun of England. People get so cross of me making fun of Selby not having a Marks and Spencer (oof, that hasn’t aged well, has it, listeners?), or whatever. But I like to think gentle ribbing of shit towns is all part of being English. But the problem with Jenkins, it’s not in a self-deprecating way, but instead, he has to show off how he always knows better, doesn’t he. 

The closer we get to the church however, the more disappointing [St George, Doncaster] becomes. Its setting is miserable, besieged by traffic and stripped of townscape. The exterior is remarkably unkempt. The place desperately needs environmental first aid.”


St George, Doncaster, West Riding of Yorkshire

The church has indeed got the slightly ignominious situation of the ring road separating it from the town. But it’s fucking Doncaster, mateDo you think the church would really benefit from the Primark being 20 metres closer to it? Then he’d probably moan it was swamped by “ghastly modern development” or something. As it is, the churchyard is a bit of an oasis, and makes the best of the environment that it can to frame Scott’s magnum opus to its benefit. Like come on mate, be positive about it. I don’t know what condition the exterior was in when Jenkins saw it (the church was and is indeed still on Historic England’s heritage at risk register) but this whole entry just seems to shame the church itself. There’s such an awful “if only you listened to meeee, everything would be wonderful” attitude running through so much of his polemic. Because look at his great wheeze for Doncaster, everyone:

Why not gather other glass from Yorkshire’s too gloomy churches and open a stained glass museum here? Do something!

Ah, yes, here he is, just throwing it out there: that Victorian stained glass across a vast region, nearly always with memorial inscriptions to local people, to be taken from the tracery that it was designed specifically for over a century ago, and put in a light box in a museum. That’s somehow going to be in a church with a fairly healthy congregation who worship there. In DONCASTER, where I’m sure people would fall over themselves to go and visit to see Victorian glass you think made Yorkshire’s churches too gloomy. A museum of gloomy glass. Another champion idea there Simon, I can see you’ve really thought that through while typing it on your Thinkpad in First Class while you travel to another board meeting with your complimentary breakfast. Quite frankly, if I had anything to do with St George in Doncaster, I’d rather he’d never came to my church in the first place.


In the acknowledgements Jenkins reveals, among the fact that he had many “suggestions” so he probably didn’t even visit all 1000 himself, that he had two editors: a researcher and a copy-editor, I guess. Still, like most parish churches, this loves to spread mistruths and understands some concepts quite poorly. The worst is when Jenkins predictably uses the stylistic shorthand of Norman, E.E., Dec, and Perp, invented by Thomas Rickman and absolutely cemented by Pevsner’s use of them in the Buildings of England. Fair enough, we all do. But, unfortunately, he tries to one-up the BoE…

Only Rickman’s Early English has been queried as appropriate, since the style was emphatically French. I have followed recent usage and refer to it more correctly as Early Gothic.

English medieval architecture.png

Just stick to this, mate

This might seem like a small thing but damn it is annoying. It appears to be totally based on his misreading of something and subsequently trying to be clever, as I can’t think where anyone queries “Early English” as appropriate for architecture c.1200-1290s, and instead uses “Early Gothic”. Rickman’s treatise was called An attempt to discriminate the Styles of English architecture. Therefore he referred to the three phases as Early English, Decorated English, and Perpendicular English. The “English” only stuck for the first one. Early Gothic is the generally-accepted name used to refer to the style developed in France in 1130-1200, with limited influence in England before they fully developed their own peculiar style of Gothic around 1200 that we overwhelmingly call Early English. Anyway, therefore, anything that Pevsner calls “E.E.”, Jenkins consistently calls “Early Gothic”. Why he thinks he knew better than the editors of the Pevsner Architectural Guides at Yale on the nomenclature of Gothic architecture, God only knows. But then this is someone who can actually say British Empire “was a remarkable institution that dismantled itself in good order” with a straight face. Really Simon? The Bengal Famine was “good order”? You’re not a historian, stop pretending. You’re a hack journalist with a strong dash of jingoism.


Definitely a Victorian mural at St Peter, Titchfield, Hampshire

There’s other errors too, let’s choose the one where he says, rather prosaically, that the W wall of Titchfield church has a “Victorian mural of the draft of fishes”. Which he must have got from an outdated source rather than actually looking at it, because post 1952, it’s extremely modern-looking after being reworked by students of the Portsmouth School of Art. It stinks to me of a filler paragraph written without actually looking at the building – and the more you scrutinise it the more stuff you’ll find but quite frankly at the moment I’d like to just throw this book into the sea, so let’s finish this.


So really, all this book is a list, the rest is just mechanically-written, error-ridden, tedious piffle, with prose as flat as the Norfolk Broads. You might as well use the quick lists at the back of Parish Churches as Works of Art by Alec Clifton-Taylor (Clifton-Taylor has a similar authoritative tone that grates a bit, but at least he has good prose, knows what he’s talking about and is at least very consistent on things he hates, especially Victorian stained glass). The slick presentation of 1000 Best is the key to its success, and totally what’s suckered in for the last decade or so. That is, the really lovely and plentiful Country Life archive photos in the original edition (much reduced to a few plates in the paperback), the excellent maps (showing the churches in adjacent counties is fantastic for tourism), and above all the “Gotta Catch ‘Em All” mentality. And of course, without his contacts in journalism (Country Life) the publishing trade (Pevsner Architectural Guides, Penguin), he would have never been able to pull it all together. Now of course, its popularity led to endless more advances for him to crap out <Bit of Britain>’s <number> Best <thing>. From the initial sequel of Houses, to now, Railway Stations. No doubt soon he’ll be doing 400 Best Public Toilets.

Jenkins lives in absolute fantasy world, where paintings always have little red ropes between gold poles in front of them, and pinecones always lie on chairs to keep common people’s bums off them. He doesn’t seem to appreciate – which is bloody amazing for someone who got so far in the heritage sector – that our heritage is not “frozen in time” for him to stumble upon, but instead is preserved through diligent restoration, conservation and curation, with many important choices being made. Many of his criticisms of the condition of churches are snobbish at best and irresponsible at worst. But the thing with Jenkins is that he knows how to write for print (unlike me, who writes 4,000-word hatchet jobs on crappy guide books for no real reason), has iron-clad media connections to keep getting plum freelance columns in The Guardian and spouting off on Radio 4, but has very little of worth to say. He is inert and unimaginative at best, reckless and downright stupid at his worst. I worry that this list will only damage people’s experience with churches, by sending them on wild goose chases to churches they haven’t a chance of getting into, and passing lots more worthy ones on the way that slip into obscurity and ultimately dilapidation. And just in case you think my criticisms of him are little unfair on the man, I offer a column of his moaning about how awful it is to be mocked as a white male (which is actually more boring and predictable than it is offensive), then in its defence said on TalkRadio, “I do sometimes feel a bit like it must have been like to be a black person 20 or 30 years ago”. Maybe you should wait until a person of colour has had a chance to be chair of the National Trust, eh, Simon? Anyway, I suppose I ought to go back to trying to post some of those Churchcrawling Trails so at least you have an alternative source.


p.s. To Penguin. Give us an advance and I will write England’s Four Hundred Best Public Toilets for you.

Video: Is Danny Dyer really directly descended from Royalty?

Spoiler: yes but you probably are just as much too

My computer runs like garbage so I really need to get a new one before I try to edit anything this long again. There’s plenty of text content I need to make live so yeah, look forward to that instead.

Since I put this together I actually ended up in The Bear pub in Oxford which features in this. Very nice cask.

Video: Great Mistakes at Lincoln Cathedral

It’s finally here! The next amazing building for me to nitpick about!

Let’s hope I didn’t go too George Lucas Episode One on the special effects this time. But believe me, I spent more time thinking about how the transept might link up with the Romanesque nave than recording that Osmonds song at the end. Or, um, maybe that’s not too hard to believe.

A practical guide to the Cathedrals of England

Whereas in France, their great cathedrals receive government funding, in England, it can be a shock to tourists that many of our cathedrals charge an entry fee. This can range from £6 to a whopping £22.

The funding situation for our historic buildings notwithstanding, of course visitors should donate to these great buildings to keep them alive if it is within their means. As well as maintaining these huge buildings, cathedrals also maintain choral and musical traditions, and professional choirs and organists can’t work for free!

But on the other hand, required entry fees can put people off visiting, especially if they are backpackers making a quick stopover, or families who aren’t going to spend more than a few minutes looking around. Sometimes visitors wandering in can be put off by the hassle of a cashier’s gaze if they just want a very quick nosy about. So here’s a guide on what to expect when visiting cathedrals in England.

The Medieval Diocesan Cathedrals

All of these are definitely worth a visit if you’re in their city. English medieval dioceses were relatively large, and their cathedrals always on an impressive scale. Therefore I’ve kept my descriptions fairly short because they’re all worthy of many paragraphs to details their architecture and fittings. Of the 19 original medieval cathedrals, 7 of them have mandatory admissions fees as of 2018.

Carlisle (Cumbria)


No charge, unrestricted entry.

Photo permit £2 (no tripods caveat)

The smallest medieval cathedral in England since most of its nave was demolished in the mid 17thc. The vast presbytery, partly 13th century but reconstructed in the early 14thc is uniquely light and perfectly proportioned.

Durham (County Durham)


No charge as of 2019, but have recently lifted their very strict ban on photography. Previously you had to prove academic status to get a permit is £15/£7.50 for students, but now it’s free to take photos for all, but they’re still funny about tripods.

World-famous for its rich Romanesque nave and high vaulting, but the 13thc Nine Altars east end is spectacular also.

York Minster (The city of York)


£11/£9 concessions on the door. Automatically valid for a year. Also includes access to the crypt museum which makes it a great value day out.

One of the best collections of medieval glass in the world. Also the biggest medieval cathedral in England by volume. Nave is enormously wide.

Lichfield (Staffordshire)


Welcome desk but no charge.

Very restored after Civil War ransacking but architecturally extremely impressive. Nave incredibly richly adorned with sculptural embellishment.

Coventry (Warwickshire)


Base of the north-west tower of the nave of St Mary’s Priory – the first of three buildings called Coventry Cathedral

Access to excavated nave of St Mary’s Priory, the only English cathedral to be totally demolished, open any reasonable hours. Visitor centre for St Mary’s Priory also free but only open Wed-Sat. See below for post-1918 cathedral (bombed out 1940) and the Basil Spence replacement.

Lincoln (Lincolshire)


£8/£6.40 concessions. Free unrestricted entry outside when the cash desk is open (9.30-4.30 Mon-Sat) The big drawback here is the ticket is valid for a year, but only for one further visit. Annual passes are £24.

A contender for best English cathedral, but not really “on the way to anywhere” so not much tourist footfall, sadly. Also the town is a bit grim when you get down the hill.

Hereford (Herefordshire)


No charge, unrestricted entry. Charge to see the chained library/Mappa Mundi: £6/£5.

Its nave very badly damaged when the west tower fell down in the 18thc, but still a fine place, better than the sum of its parts.

Worcester (Worcestershire)


No charge, unrestricted entry.

Quite restrained, architecturally, but soaring vaults and lots of interesting sculpture.

Ely (Cambridgeshire)


£9/£6 concessions. Unrestricted access outside 9-5 Mon to Sat. Slightly more permissive than most about free entry if you really cannot afford in those hours.

If you ask, they will give you a one-year pass.

Luscious 14thc lady chapel, electrifying east end, world-famous octagon crossing.

Norwich (Norfolk)


No charge, but in visiting hours (9.30-4.30ish) they will make you walk past the welcome desk and ask for a suggested donation.

Most complete Romanesque cathedral in England, second-tallest steeple, late medieval vaulting throughout with hundreds of finely-carved bosses.

London (St Paul’s)

£18/£16 concessions on the door. Access to nave only after cash desk closes. Also access to crypt (café) unrestricted.

If you Gift Aid your admission, you can ask for a one-year pass, which makes it much more reasonable.

Before 2019, forbid photography, but have since rescinded on the ban.

Of course, this is all Wren now, with William Blake Richmond’s mosaics on the choir domes. You can see the outline of the medieval chapter house on the south side. There’s absolutely nothing medieval to see inside. The oldest thing on display is the monument to John Donne (although there are bits of medieval stonework kept in the lapidarium in the galleries, which are not open to the public).

Canterbury (Kent)


£12.50/10.50 concessions. In fact, the only cathedral you need to pay to see the exterior, as the gatehouse is the cash desk. Free entry for local students. Ask for your ticket to be upgraded to an annual pass for free (or Gift Aid).

Extremely important architecturally, and the vivid history of St Thomas Becket, its destructive fire, and Becket’s internationally important shrine.

Rochester (Kent)


No charge, unrestricted entry.

Unusual Romanesque nave with false tribune (no vaults to the aisles) and the uniquely unaisled late 12thc presbytery.

Chichester (Sussex)


No charge, unrestricted entry.

Often forgotten, a little smaller than some of the giants, but much to admire, especially the post-Canterbury retrochoir. Slightly spoilt by the steeple collapsing in the 19thc, but meticulous replacement of what was destroyed by G.G. Scott.

Salisbury (Wiltshire)


No charge, but in visiting hours you will go past a cash desk who will ask you for a recommended entry fee.

The most consistently built of the English cathedrals, constructed on a virgin site in the 13thc, but still quintessentially odd.

Winchester (Hampshire)


£8.50/£6.50 concessions, automatically valid for year.

Extremely long and packed with stuff. The transepts very early Norman work and extremely brutal in their scale. However I don’t think I’ve ever been when big chunks of the building aren’t frustratingly covered in scaffolding.

Wells (Somerset)


No charge, but you may be ushered past a cash desk that asks you for suggested donation. Sorry, last time I was here was like 2011 and I was in there at 6 am because that’s how I rolled.

Often passed over by tourists (it’s essentially in a small market town), but as important as Canterbury as far as the architecture goes.

Bath (Somerset)


No charge, but you will go past a entry desk with a suggested donation during normal hours.

Not usually considered a medieval cathedral, since it is now essentially a grand but small late-medieval abbey church. The original Romanesque cathedral was so overshadowed by Wells, it became so dilapidated it was all but totally demolished and replaced by the current Tudor-Gothic building in the early 16thc.

As of 2018/19 undergoing serious work restoring the foundations under the floors in its Footprint project. Visitor experience will be transformed after this, as currently the admittedly fine G.G. Scott pews do restrict the movement of the hordes of Bath tourists and make it feel uncomfortably cramped a lot of the time.

Exeter (Devon)


£7.50/£5 concessions. Gift Aid for annual pass. Free for residents. Unrestricted access early morning/evening.

Unique for its 14thc high vault running between two mighty Romanesque transept towers. Towering early 14thc carpentry in the Bishop’s Throne canopy which practically touches the vault.

The “Henry VIII” Cathedrals

At the Dissolution of the Monasteries, six abbey churches were chosen to be the cathedrals of new dioceses. They are essentially the same architectural quality as the medieval diocesan cathedrals.

Chester (Formerly Benedictine Abbey of St Werbergh), Cheshire


£6 entrance fee introduced 2004 abolished in 2013. Cash desks still there, and you need to get a ticket from them even if you choose to pay nothing.

Very restored, like all the red sandstone cathedrals (Lichfield, Hereford), but still impressive. Definitely the least well-known of the Henry VIII cathedrals and frequently forgotten.

Gloucester (Formerly Benedictine Abbey of St Peter), Gloucestershire


No charge, unrestricted entry. Entry to crypt by tour only.

Interior of the presbytery – a Romanesque apse retrofitted with mid-14thc panel tracery – is brittle, complex, and overwhelming. Gigantic medieval east window with its original glass. One of the very best medieval churches.

Bristol (Formerly Augustinian Abbey), City of Bristol


No charge, unrestricted entry.

Only the east end is medieval, but it has a unique vaulting system, and lots of other weird architectural quirks. Perhaps interesting rather than beautiful a lot of the time.

Oxford (Formerly Augustinian Priory of St Frideswide), Oxfordshire


Currently £8/£7 concessions, rising to £10/£9 in July 2019. Includes visits to the rest of the Christ Church college grounds (but not the picture gallery, which is an extra £4/£2).

Free entry for parishioners of Oxford diocese on completing a form.

Often referred to as Christ Church cathedral, which is very confusing for Kiwis. Unusual place for being inside a university college complex (Cardinal Wolsey had dissolved it in 1520 with a view to turning it into a secular college like Bishop Alcock had done with Jesus College, Cambridge), but essentially it is a late Romanesque priory church with lots of later fancy bolt-ons. The cathedral was going to be the much bigger Osney Abbey outside of Oxford, but then there was a change of mind and the executed Wolsey’s college was picked instead, and Osney was almost entirely demolished.

Peterborough (Formerly Benedictine Abbey of St Peter), Huntingdonshire


No charge, unrestricted entry. Photography permit £3.

Nearly as well preserved as Norwich for muscular Romanesque, except the formerly cavernous ambulatory was replaced with the bright and fan-vaulted New Building in the early 16thc.

Westminster Abbey, London

Ooh boy. Here we go.


£22/£17 concessions on the door. £5 extra for the new Gallery museum.
Free entry for residents of the City of Westminster (like they need it!)
If you really do want to visit multiple times in a year (because you’re researching the building or teaching on it) then you can get an annual pass for £50 (£40 direct debit). It used to be photo ID but now it just has your name on it. Other joint and guest memberships available. Also you get access to occasional private evening visits.

This is just about the only church here (except perhaps St Paul’s) that you can not visit for free on a Sunday and wander around after the service. If you go to a service (which to be fair, nearly always will have high-quality music) you will be watched like a hawk afterwards and ushered out promptly.

Westminster was only briefly a cathedral between 1540-50, but it remains so central to the nation it essentially is one. It often comes as a shock to people that is not like Notre Dame de Paris where you can just pop in. Not only is the entrance fee the highest of any church in the country, but there are often long queues in the rain and fumes of Westminster Square to endure for an hour or two. Bring a bin-bag to put on. It’s appropriate because you will feel like a piece of rubbish by the time you’ve been fleeced at the cash desk.

The big thing about the Abbey is that you can NEVER get permission to take photographs. Even for personal research. If you really needed a photo of something for a book, and they don’t have an image of it in their library, it would have to go through the Dean and Chapter. They’re extremely strict to the point of pettiness about it.

One top tip if you don’t have much time is that because they used to be owned by English Heritage, an agreement still exists that members can get in the chapter house, cloisters and pyx chamber for free. Go in the gate to the school by the west front and ask to see the cloisters and chapter house (this used to work even if you weren’t an EH member but sadly since the Abbey acquired the trust of the cloister complex back in 2016, they closed this loophole).

The York Diocese medieval “Pro-Cathedrals”

These three were essentially built on a great-church scale in the Middle Ages as pro-cathedrals to the massive diocese of York and are medieval cathedrals for all intents and purposes (Southwell and Ripon were made true dioceses in the 19thc, Beverley is still only a parish church).

Southwell Minster (Nottinghamshire)


Free, unrestricted entry. Photo permits are £5 which is a bit steep if you just want a few snaps.

Well-preserved Romanesque nave and crossing, stunning early 13th east end, but it’s the chapter house, with the famous foliage carvings on the capitals, that is justly famous here.

Ripon Minster (Yorkshire, West Riding)


Free, unrestricted entry. Photo permit £4.

Ripon has the earliest Gothic fabric of any cathedral, but most of it fell down, but that’s all part of the fun, innit? Although it is still called a cathedral, it no longer has its own proper bishop: along with Wakefield and Bradford it being amalgamated in the Diocese of Leeds in 2014.

Beverley Minster (Yorkshire, East Riding)


Free, unrestricted entry. Volunteers walk around politely selling photo permits for £3 – a reasonable price. They’re quite iconic stickers now. Essential souvenir to own one.

The only one on this list that is still nothing more than a parish church (with of course, support and advice from the Greater Churches Group on funding and maintenance). Therefore it is run by a parochial church council rather than a proper dean and chapter. I got told off a couple of years ago by some lady who reckoned they had copyright on the interior of the building and would sue me if I published any pictures of it. I was assured later this is not official line. But yeah. Be careful of whoever she was.

Unusually consistent Early English interior, a post-Lincoln design that is one of the most thoughtful elevations in English architecture. 14thc nave even continues the design quite pedantically. The Percy Tomb is one of the finest sculptural ensembles surviving in England.

Abbey/priory churches made parochial at Reformation that became diocesan in the 19thc

Southwark (formerly Augustinian Priory of St Mary Overie), London


Unrestricted access, photo permits only £1. Group visits can be rather expensive though (particularly when you’re trying to teach a class and have a limited budget).

The nave was demolished in the mid-19thc and crudely replaced: the current nave is a late 19thc replacement that copies the 13thc choir, which is quite a surprising survival, right next to the Shard. The retrochoir is a very nice space away from the hustle of Borough Market. A good alternative to Westminster Abbey if you’re in London and want some medieval architecture.

St Albans (Formerly Benedictine Abbey of St Alban), Hertfordshire


Free, unrestricted entry.

Spoilt by bully-boy Lord Grimthorpe’s ham-fisted and naff restorations in the mid 19thc, but extremely long and also in some places, very early Romanesque using looted Roman building material.

Medieval parish churches which became diocesan largely in their original form

St Martin, Leicester (Leicestershire)


Free, unrestricted entry.

Originally the parish church of St Martin, not even the most interesting church in Leicester (see Mary de Castro or St Nicholas for that title), as the crossing steeple was entirely rebuilt from the ground up by Raphael Brandon in the 19thc. Of course most people go here to gawk at Richard III’s cheese-slicer tomb now. But it’s still free at least.

St Nicholas, Newcastle (Northumberland)


Free, unrestricted entry.

The steeple with its stone crown is justly famous, but despite its size, the late-14thc interior is incredibly dull, even for someone like me who loves the ordinary. The Victorian high altar enclosure is the most impressive bit. If you don’t go in here while you’re in Newcastle, you really aren’t missing much.

Former collegiate church of Our Lady, St George and St Denys, Manchester, South Lancashire


Free, unrestricted entry. Photo permits £1.

Manchester suffers because it doesn’t feel like a cathedral at all. But it is an exceptionally fine collegiate church, with some of the finest choir stalls in the country. If it was still just a parish church it’d be top of many more lists.

Medieval parish churches which became diocesan and architecturally upgraded

These are average-sized medieval churches (except Blackburn, which has no medieval fabric left, and instead has an early 19thc nave) that were given massive upgrades to their east ends in the interwar and postwar periods to make them more “cathedral-like”. None of them charge.

Bury St Edmunds (“St Edmundsbury Cathedral”), Suffolk


Free, unrestricted entry.

The nave is quite an important work by John Wastell, mason of King’s College Cambridge. The Victorian chancel was replaced with a crossing tower and full-blown presbytery by Stephen Dykes Bower who is not one of my favourite people and frankly it looks a bit plastic, childish and underwhelming.

Blackburn (North Lancashire)


Free, unrestricted entry.

There was a medieval church here, but it was replaced in 1826 by a surprisingly “correct” Gothic nave designed by John Palmer. It became a cathedral in 1926 and the rather clunkily Gothic transepts built in the 1930s. The whole plan was scaled back after the war, and a centrally-planned approach taken, accentuated by John Hayward’s underrated furnishings.

Bradford (Yorkshire, West Riding)


Free, unrestricted entry.

A rather ordinary chunky late medieval nave with proud Perpy tower you might expect in any northern market town. The off-the-peg cathedrally 1950s east end by Edward Maufe is perfunctory but the Morris and Co. glass is good.

Chelmsford (Essex)

Free, unrestricted entry.

Cathedral from 1913. Essentially late medieval but had much restored beforehand. The least ambitious of the upgrades. It’s very clean-looking now. Which is more than you can say about most of Chelmsford (oooOoh!).

Portsmouth (Hampshire)


Free, unrestricted entry.

The east end of the church is a really important example of early 13thc architecture, and quite beautiful. Its crossing tower collapsed in the Civil War, and hence the choir is late 17thc. In 1927 it was made a cathedral, and from 1935 all the way unto 1991, the new west block, in a Neo-Byzantine style, was built. It’s actually pretty nice.

Sheffield (Yorkshire, West Riding)


Free, unrestricted entry.

Became a cathedral in 1919. The most ambitious of the upgrades. Architect Charles Nicholson tried to pull off what Siena tried to do with their cathedral in the 14thc, reorientating the building with a new nave and presbytery, turning the crossing spire, chancel, and its aisles into a transept and building a matching transept on the other side. Which is insane, frankly. The 14thc nave he would have demolished is rather interesting. So what you have is a big medieval church with a weird modern west end and the intended new chancel stuck on the north side, scaled back and looking rather lost.

Wakefield (Yorkshire, West Riding)


Free, unrestricted entry.

Made a cathedral in 1888. Medieval nave and aisled chancel, but east wall pulled down and new east end designed by John Loughborough Pearson undeniably impressive stone vaults. The west steeple, although much restored, is one of the tallest in the country and can be seen from miles around.

Post medieval parish churches which became diocesan


Free, unrestricted entry.

Built 1710-25 by Thomas Archer in a Baroque style. Became a cathedral in 1905. If it didn’t have the Morris and Co windows designed by Edward Burne-Jones, it wouldn’t be worth a look, but they are some of the finest 19thc glass in the world and make the building a must visit.

Derby (Derbyshire)


Free, unrestricted entry.

A 16thc tower, but the body was rebuilt by James Gibbs in 1725. The wrought-iron chancel screen is quite unusual. Became a cathedral in 1927, and extended a bit eastwards 1967-72. I mean worth a visit if you’re in Derby, I guess. Because you’re in Derby. What else are you going to do?

The entirely modern cathedrals



The bombed-out church of St Michael, made a cathedral in 1918, is free to explore in reasonable hours because it’s just the outer walls that are left, essentially. The Basil Spence building next to it had a £6 entry free introduced in 2010, but it was abolished in 2018.

It’s a strange building, to be honest, but the Sutherland Tapestry – reportedly the largest in the world – is quite something.

Guildford (Surrey)

Free, unrestricted entry.

Constructed 1936-61 to the design of Edward Maufe. It has its admirers, but I think most would agree: worth seeing, but hardly worth going to see.

Liverpool (South Lancashire)


No charge, but welcome desk that may ask for donations.

Constructed 1904-1978 largely to the design of Giles Gilbert Scott. By volume, a contender for the largest cathedral in the world. It depends how you calculate it, but the sheer space under the central tower and transepts is phenomenal.

Truro (Cornwall)

Free, unrestricted entry.

Constructed 1880-1910 to the designs of John Loughborough Pearson. Essentially it’s a very big Victorian Neo-Gothic church that owes more to French architecture than than anything English. Incorporates a small part of Truro’s medieval parish church. Probably worth seeing if you’re this far down Cornwall (it’s a long way from anywhere!)


There are of course Roman Catholic cathedrals too, and while they vary tremendously in architectural quality, at least you can be sure they won’t be taking money off you to have a look around. No parish church charges for entry (exceptions in London of course: Temple Church and St Bartholomew the Great, Smithfield charge a mandatory few pounds) but even the great former abbeys such as Selby remain free. English Heritage sites are another matter, and perhaps for a future post.

Video: Introduction to Medieval Monasticism, around Morecambe Bay

It’s here! After being put on the back burner while I went to Norwich! Bit longer than usual because there are four sites I wanted to compare. I’m quite pleased with how the Furness reconstruction effects came out.

In this episode around Morecambe Bay, I visit the (probably) Anglo-Saxon monastic cell at Heysham, the great Cistercian Abbey of Furness, the middle-rank Augustinian priory at Cartmel and the almost totally demolished Cockersand Abbey; explaining the daily life of a monk via the universal medium of 8-bit graphics! (remember the ’80s!?! etc.)

Obviously all shot on the same day in the order presented because I have the SAME SHIRT ON!!!

Music is Mass for Four Voices by William Byrd, performed by Ensemble Morales, licenced under CC 3.0.
I feel I obliged to say no English medieval monastery could ever have sung Byrd (since he was almost certainly born just after the Dissolution), but then they’d never have heard Vaughan Williams either, and nobody complained when I used that.


Video: The Three Titans of Derbyshire




Production is much better on this and I shortened the theme song (even 15 secs is quite long for YouTube!)

As you see, I’m keeping to schedule. Hope to continue this “pilot run” up till Christmas then see how things stand. Next one should be about monasticism, then maybe another Great Mistakes if I can get to a cathedral.