Church Tourism

Jonathan Taylor


  Carlisle Cathedral
  A model of the medieval layoutof Carlisle Cathedral provides though-provoking historic interpretation for visitos, without distracting from the character of the surroundings  

Historically, the architecture and decoration of religious buildings across Europe have always been accorded the finest workmanship and artistry available, and in the UK today the larger cathedrals and abbeys are among the most visited attractions in the country. Although less well visited, our small parish churches too include world-class architecture, their interiors lined with the finest works of art in stained glass and sculptural ornament. Many are substantially intact medieval buildings, and often they are by far the oldest buildings in their neighbourhood, having been cherished and embellished by the community from one century to the next. No wonder then that historic churches and chapels are loved by visitors from this country and abroad.

Although some churches see it as part of their mission to welcome all visitors, whether they wish to worship or not, others take the view that these buildings are sacred spaces, built to the glory of God. They are not museums or art galleries, so why should they open up their buildings to cater for the needs of agnostics?

Firstly, from a simple, practical point of view, few congregations (if any) have the wealth to maintain these buildings without substantial outside help. Most rely on public funding and the assistance of charitable bodies for essential repairs to keep their buildings water tight, and for the conservation of their works of art. Organisations such as the Heritage Lottery Fund prioritise their grant assistance according to public benefit, so keeping the church open to the public is usually a primary requirement. Likewise, congregations also have to consider whether it is acceptable for them to accept public support without accepting public access.

In areas of the country with high crime levels, it is perhaps understandable that some parishioners see locking their place of worship as the best way to protect it. However, Ecclesiastical, the largest insurer of places of worship in the UK, actually encourages congregations to keep their churches open during daylight hours. As their guidance note Keeping Your Church Open and Secure explains, ‘An open door enables people to find a quiet place to pray, it offers somewhere to sit and think, and it enables visitors to the area to enjoy any historical treasures you may have. A steady flow of legitimate visitors also helps deter those with criminal intent’ ( It may seem counter-intuitive to some, but a locked and deserted church is more likely to attract vandalism, and the best defence is actually to encourage more frequent use.

It is well known that the nave of parish churches was used in the medieval period for a wide range of secular activities, and not solely as places of worship. As the Bishop of Worcester explained in the 2017 edition of Historic Churches; ‘Over the years, however, a pietism crept in which tended to exclude everything but public worship from them, all other activity being transferred to places such as halls and community centres. Far too many churches remain locked and stand like mausoleums except when open for worship and are increasingly marginal to the life of the communities they exist to serve.

’Encouraging visitors is one of the simplest ways in which the use of places of worship can be extended, and if done well it can have minimal impact on the character of the building or its use by the congregation. Furthermore, promoting wider appreciation of the building’s architectural and historic value can help to safeguard the building’s fabric in the future.


It is common for historic churches to provide a leaflet which outlines the history of the place and the stories behind some of the key features. However, while a good, well written guide to the history of the building, its contents and its surrounding is perhaps the minimum requirement for encouraging people to visit historic places of worship, it is not the only issue. Heritage interpretation requires careful consideration of the needs of the visitors, why they are there, and what is likely to interest them.

Art galleries and historic houses which are open to the public generally cater for a wider variety of needs and engage people in different ways. Having something for small children to do is particularly important. In a National Trust property this might take the form of a leaflet specifically written to keep children active and engaged, and in most churches this approach can work too. But it might also be useful to consider allocating an area in which children can sit and play safely while their parents and grandparents enjoy the art and architecture of the place.

Assigning an area of the church to visitor information and children’s activities can be particularly welcoming for visitors, and it may be designed to serve the needs of worshipers and the community too. However, if using display boards to interpret the historic and architectural interest of the place, the quality of the design and the scale needs to be carefully considered so as not to harm the setting itself. Something small, engaging and thought-provoking may be all that’s required to encourage visitors to use the printed guides and to create a sense of welcome.

Art galleries often provide an audio guide, enabling visitors to access key information about each work of art in their own time as they walk around. In historic churches and churchyards, information may be delivered in much the same way using the visitor’s smart phone. Info-point ( for example, allows the visitor to see information using the web browser of their phone while within the church or its churchyard, without having to connect to the internet (and avoiding data-roaming charges). Systems such as this can provide a wide range of content from a simple PDF or video guide to highly interactive augmented reality. Earlier phases of construction or wall paintings for example could be brought to life in front of the visitor using digital 3-D models, and content can be tailored to the age group and interests of the visitor.

Digital content, if well designed, can transform the visitor experience, and is well worth considering despite the relatively high cost of the initial hardware and installation.


The visitor experience in each church is important, but a broader strategy is required to encourage existing visitors to visit more churches and to attract new visitors. Networks provided by organisations such as the Historic Religious Buildings Alliance and the Church Visitors and Tourism Association are vital for sharing information and for promoting best practice.

  Champing with the Churches Conservation Trust at St Michael and All Angels in Booton, Norfolk
  Champing with the Churches Conservation Trust at St Michael and All Angels in Booton, Norfolk (Photo: Joseph Casey)

One approach is to develop trails so visitors can enjoy interesting days out in the countryside visiting several churches. The CVTA’s website lists a variety of schemes ranging from short walks to long distance pilgrim trails and cycling routes. In the Church of England’s diocese of Warwick for example, a series of 53 short walks has been developed to help promote visits to the historic churches and churchyards in south Warwickshire, while the Church of England has teamed up with the cycling charity Sustrans to produce a series of ‘Towers and Spires’ cycling tours linking English cathedrals and historic churches.

One of the most interesting recent developments, by the Churches Conservation Trust, enables visitors to camp in historic churches overnight. ‘Champing’ as it is known, has proved to be extremely popular with 16 churches added in 2018 to bring the total number available to 21 churches across England and with one in Orkney. The churches are equipped with camp beds, chairs, lanterns, candles, tea and coffeemaking facilities, as well as toilets, and sizes vary from those that offer accommodation to just two people to those suitable for large groups.

The extraordinarily rich heritage represented by parish churches and other places of worship in the UK remains a largely undeveloped resource. However, imaginative solutions such as these, and with growing support for individual parishes from church authorities, charitable bodies and the private sector, church tourism seems set to grow.

Historic Churches 2018


JONATHAN TAYLOR is the editor of Historic Churches and a director of Cathedral Communications.


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