Northern Lights

How Innovative Rural Churches in Cumbria are Showing the Way Forward

Jemma Metcalfe-Gibson


St Bridget’s and its graveyard on a sunny day  
St Bridget’s Church, Beckermet, Cumbria (All photos: J Metcalfe-Gibson unless otherwise stated)  


Sixty per cent of churches in England (around 9,600) are in rural areas. This means that the smallest communities are supporting
a high number of churches.

Cumbria, a largely rural county, has more places of worship per head of population than most other counties, and almost 40 per cent of its 250 churches are listed. Most are Anglican, and the majority of these are in the higher categories of Grade I and II*. If these buildings are not properly maintained, repaired and funded,
a significant part of Cumbria’s historic resource will be put at risk.

Cumbria’s historic churches need to diversify in order to survive
but this can be difficult because of the complexities of finding additional viable uses, successfully adapting and altering the church to accommodate them, financing the projects and having sufficient local capacity to sustain them. Happily, a number of churches in the county have negotiated these obstacles and they are acting as beacons for others


Try for a moment to picture Cumbria in your mind’s eye. More than likely, you are visualising rising fells and broad expanses of water; the dramatic and inspiring landscape of the Lake District. Cumbria’s buildings might not come to mind at all. Many of the traditional buildings of Cumbria blend into the landscape. They were built from local materials to provide shelter from the weather and because they are practical, robust and ‘fit for purpose’, many remain standing centuries later.

Our historic churches have served their communities for generations. But in some areas where congregations and church councils are dwindling and ageing, where there is little thought to leadership succession planning and where finances are limited, a potential crisis is looming.

The problems facing our rural churches aren’t necessarily indicative of changing attitudes towards religion; sometimes they emerge merely from local demographics. Insufficient affordable housing and poor job prospects affect many rural areas, making some villages the preserve of the retired, second-homers and holidaymakers. Sometimes, the post office and pub have closed but the church remains, albeit in a vulnerable financial position.

In such circumstances, churches are having to rethink their role within their communities and to consider whether they really are fit for purpose.


Just as farms and country houses have had to diversify in order to survive, rural churches must also adapt. This means adjusting to changing social and economic conditions, and to the specific needs of local communities.

Meeting all the varied needs of a community, however, may not be possible so it is especially important that churches should complement rather than compete with one another. This may mean working ecumenically and with other partners and facilities such as the village hall. One way to investigate the possibilities is by conducting a community plan. This allows the whole community to consider what changes they would like to see in their area now and in the future. These changes might include meeting housing, education and other social needs. Faith buildings can play a crucial role in accommodating some of these requirements by being accessible, welcoming community spaces.

One church that has successfully adapted to a challenging local situation is St Oswald’s (right) in Burneside, a village close to Kendal. When the post office stopped functioning in the village shop, it looked to the church, which is centrally located and easily accessible.

  A customer uses the St Oswald’s Church post office  
  The post office in use at St Oswald’s Church, Burneside  

The post office operates out of the church’s kitchen, which used to be the vestry and has access independent from the church so that very little alteration was required. There is also a disabled toilet which is made available for public use and is a welcome facility for walkers following the long-distance Dales Way walk. While the additional post office function hasn’t increased the congregation size, it has added to the role of the building with at least 30 people a day using the post office.

Gosforth Methodist Church, on the west coast of Cumbria, serves as an important link for people of all ages within the village and surrounding countryside. Regular activities include Young Farmers’ meetings, fortnightly lectures, frequent exhibitions for local schools and a chiropody clinic provided by Age Concern, which has become a very popular social event for the elderly.

These are excellent examples of outreach services and partnership working. Thanks to the determination, commitment, energy and imagination of volunteers, examples of good work such as this can be found across the entire country.

Other churches in Cumbria such as St John’s, Bigrigg and St Mary’s, Windermere have maximised the use of their buildings by turning lesser-used areas into community spaces. These two churches were able to sell their church halls to fund the works. Bigrigg also installed ground source heating; a sustainable energy source which helps to sustain the building’s future by reducing its energy bills.


Some urban churches have extended their use with cafés, conference and sports facilities. But such additional uses may not be appropriate or feasible in less populated areas. It is important to respond to local needs, but finding additional complementary uses which will help to sustain the building’s future and the church’s role isn’t always easy. For some churches there seems to be no obvious additional use that could help to fund the building’s upkeep. Sometimes churches remain isolated and poorly used either due to location, over-provision of churches in the area or a lack of comfort. However, these churches can be too historically significant to lose.

Old St Bridget’s Church near Beckermet, West Cumbria (see title illustration) is an example of this. It is a simple, single-celled medieval church without heating or lighting. It is in need of repair but with two other churches nearby, the PCC struggles to raise funds to maintain all three. Unlike a number of rural churches in Cumbria, particularly within the Lake District, St Bridget’s doesn’t currently attract or benefit from tourism. At Beckermet, the PCC has applied to English Heritage and the Heritage Lottery Fund for a repair grant, and perhaps once stable and dry, the cost of maintenance will be greatly reduced and further options for the church might arise including opening the church, providing interpretation and encouraging people to visit and enjoy its peace.


  The cavernous empty interior of Holme Cultram Abbey  
  Holme Cultram Abbey in its current un-refurbished state  

The churches which have the greatest chance of a viable future are those that are well maintained and well used. This relies on the willingness of committed members to engage with the wider community and providing them with a valued service, or by seeking help from their community.

A number of villages have retired architects, project managers or other suitably skilled people who are able to give significant support to the local church whether they are churchgoers or not. The role of the Churches Trust for Cumbria (CTfC) is to encourage this outward-looking and forward-thinking approach.

The CTfC was set up in 2008 to help all faith communities in Cumbria to ensure that their buildings are viable and sustainable for the future. We work to recognise, value, enhance and highlight to others the contribution that church buildings and church communities make to society in Cumbria beyond their core purpose as places of worship.

The economic and social contribution they make is considerable. Faith groups contribute approximately £10 million a year to the local economy, mostly from the work of their volunteers and also by encouraging visitor spend in the area. According to a report by the Northwest Regional Development Agency, over 45,000 volunteers from faith communities work on non-worship related projects throughout the North West.

Faith communities in Cumbria have also played a vital role in helping others during recent times of adversity and loss such as the floods of November 2009.

The CTfC offers support to faith groups through its website (, by directing people to ideas, services and partners who can help. The trust is continuously developing relationships with public, private and voluntary sector organisations in order to highlight the value and potential of Cumbria’s faith buildings and to create links between them. It also organises regular training events and offers direct support to a number of individual churches. Two examples are St James’, Tebay and Holme Cultram Abbey, which are within small rural communities off the beaten track.

Holme Cultram Abbey, a former 12th-century Cistercian monastery, stands beside the Solway Plain in the north west of Cumbria. This enormous building serves a congregation of about 20 people. Following a fire in 2006 that left the building a roofless shell, it is being repaired and refurbished. The loss of the internal fittings has allowed the church interior to be redesigned to maximise its vast, flexible space. This now presents a unique opportunity to look to new complementary uses.

The trust is working alongside the Diocese of Carlisle, the local community and Lancaster University to explore what these potential uses might be. It is hoped that they will have a ripple effect by contributing to the local economy. Together we have carried out a scoping exercise to explore possible uses and held an event to show the local council, politicians and businesses what Holme Cultram Abbey’s potential is, and to invite and discuss ideas and build partnerships.

  The patterned brickwork of St James’ interior  
  St James’, Tebay: ‘the Railway Church’  

One of the joys of faith buildings is their capacity to surprise the visitor and St James’, Tebay is no exception. Its solid Shap granite facade belies its lighter brick interior. Built in 1880 for the railway workers, St James’ church incorporates elements of railway architecture such as the colours of the LNWR company livery in its brickwork, railway benches for pews and a railway engine wheel cover as a font lid.

Although trains no longer stop at Tebay, once an important railway hub, enthusiasts often visit when steam trains travel on the line. To celebrate Tebay’s transport history, St James’ hosts an exhibition which has been created by the vicar, the local history society, school and other community members, and was supported by an Awards for All grant (funded by the National Lottery). The CTfC is working with the PCC, local community, businesses and other organisations to promote the exhibition and to widen the use of St James’ as ‘The Railway Church’ by developing further exhibitions, events and a local archive.

Tourism plays a major part in Cumbria’s economy and the generosity of visitors helps to keep some Lakeland churches ticking over. While most tourists are concentrated in the Lake District, the rest of the county has much to offer and churches can take an active role in encouraging people to visit. Each church in Cumbria has a page on the CTfC website on which to advertise events and inform visitors about other places of interest in the area. The trust is also working with the North West Multi-Faith Tourism Association to develop church trails and improve the welcome and interpretation that churches provide to visitors.


To help faith communities identify opportunities for their churches, the CTfC is working alongside various denominations, particularly Anglicans and Methodists, to carry out a strategic review of all the faith buildings within two deaneries. It will involve bringing a number of churches together to explore how they might work in partnership or with members of the wider community as well as with visitors, businesses and others.

  Wild flowers, trees and a verdant hill-side frame All Saints Church, Watermillock  
  A rural idyll: All Saints Church, Watermillock (Photo: Carl Bendelow)  

The review will consider potential additional uses for the churches, how to adapt the buildings to suit these new needs including making sure that the buildings are accessible to all, how to promote the buildings to others, and how to ensure they are well maintained and energy efficient. The findings of the review will help the CTfC, the Diocese of Carlisle and the Methodist District to understand what the churches need and to identify how best to assist them.

Depending on the findings, the trust hopes to help, for example by providing support for specific projects, improving the presentation and interpretation of churches to visitors, or through maintenance schemes and tailored training courses. The experience gained from the pilot studies will also be used to roll out the strategic review across the rest of the county.

For inspiration and advice the trust is fortunate to be able to look to a number of Cumbrian churches that have already undergone successful changes. By broadening the use of Cumbria’s churches, celebrating their importance and increasing local support for them, the CTfC aims to ensure that they will continue to serve their communities for many generations to come.



Historic Churches, 2010


JEMMA METCALFE-GIBSON is the historic church buildings support officer for the Churches Trust for Cumbria. Her role is supported by the Diocese of Carlisle and English Heritage as part of its Inspired! campaign.

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