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News: 24 June 2019

Focus on Parish Churches
If, on the Images of England site, you were to do a search on the building type �church� you would come back with over 14,000 results. Here, we focus on just some of the reasons why parish churches in particular are so special, using some of the photographs featured on the Images of England website.

14th-Century Church, Marton, Cheshire - IoE Number: 058610 © J M Pickering The parish church is often, geographically and historically, at the centre of a town or village, playing a central part in the lives of the people who live there. A sense of belonging for those families who inhabit the local area, as well as those who moved away years before, is created by previous inhabitants being buried in the churchyard and the records of parish life that have been kept by the church.

The parish church is often key when researching local or family history. The parish records, which generally reside with the local records office, often reach far back in time and allow people to trace their ancestors in a time before national records, such as the census, began.

The oldest church in England is reputed to be St. Martin's in Canterbury which, supposedly, was already in use in AD597 when St Augustine landed in England. Although there are several examples of Saxon churches the majority of parish churches trace their fabric back to medieval times.

The master masons of medieval times filled the roles of both architect and builder with none of today's technology to aid them in their task - no formal method of measuring and no machines to lift and carry the huge blocks of stone that were often used. These churches are a testament to the hard work, ingenuity and dedication of all the people that worked on them.
13th -Century Church, Chalbury, Dorset - IoE Number: 0107469 © Mr Clive Read LRPS
Church of St Peter & St Paul, Northleach, Gloucestershire - IoE Number: 0130544 © Mr Edward Parrott
Although, in England, we have parish churches that date back to medieval times (and in a few cases, Saxon) the buildings haven't remained unchanged. The centuries that have passed have all left their mark on the church building new aisles and enlarged chancels. They have also been subject to changing fashions and peer pressure. If one village built a new tower then often the other churches in the area would hurry to build even taller ones. The Victorians also left their mark on the church buildings as they initiated a period of restoration and church building.

Parish churches can give an idea of the past prosperity of an area. People would often use new wealth to help build or modify their local church. The "wool " churches of the Cotswolds are good examples of parish churches reflecting the prosperity of the area in the later middle ages. St Peter & St Paul in Northleach, Gloucestershire, is a classic example. It is built in the perpendicular style which was prevalent in the later 14th and 15th centuries and puts emphasis on the vertical lines of the building.

Another church which reflects the historical prosperity of the area is Holy Trinity Church in Long Melford, Suffolk. Again, the dominant industries were cloth and wool. Holy Trinity, built in the 15th Century, has an extraordinary number of windows which add to the airy feeling of the perpendicular design of this church. One unusual feature of Holy Trinity is the tower. Although in keeping with the church style, it was not actually built until 1903 when it replaced an earlier brick built one.

As stone was difficult and expensive to transport when most of these parish churches were built, the Master Masons most often used the type of stone that was available locally. In the case of Holy Trinity in Suffolk flint, which is available locally, was inlaid in the stone when the church was built. In the Cotswolds however, limestone was more widely available.

Holy Trinity, Long Melford, Suffolk - IoE Number: 278200 © Mr J M Anderson
St Augustine, Brookland, Kent - IoE Number: 175493 © Mr Vernon Mount

Wood of course was also widely available and played a large part in church construction for example in roof structures. Perhaps more unusually, in the case of the St Augustine's Church in Brookland, Kent, wood was used to construct the detached wooden belfry. This octagonal wooden belfry is thought to have originally been built at the same time the church was built, in the 13th Century and comprises a complex structure which supports the weight of the bells.

Parish churches were not only built on a grand scale to demonstrate the piety and prosperity of an area. The parish church was also used as a hub for the community to meet and to hold recreational activities. Churches are also historically known as places of refuge with entire communities taking shelter in the church at times of danger. This is one reason why, in order to keep a look out for the enemy and for defence, the Saxon's initiated the trend of adding a tower to the church structure.

Churches can also be small buildings. The smallest church in England is thought to be Lullington Church near Alfriston in East Sussex. It seats just 20 people. However, Lullington Church is not an entire church but in fact just a surviving chancel. The rest of the building is thought to have been destroyed around the time of the Civil War.

Lullington Church, East Sussex - IoE Number: 295467 © Mr Michael Nash LRPS
St John the Evangelist, Newbury, Berkshire - IoE Number: 396437 © Mr James A Irving

However, it can not be assumed that all parish churches are centuries old. The Victorians were prolific restorers and builders of churches as the population of England grew at a rapid rate. Church building has continued throughout the 20th Century and continues today as new communities spring up across the country. Some of the 20th Century churches have been listed in recognition of their architectural and historical importance, for instance St John the Evangelist in Newbury Berkshire which was built in the 1950s.

These are just a few of the styles and interesting features of parish churches that are featured on the Images of England website. Why not do a search for a church in your local area, or maybe one that an ancestor may have been married in and see what you can find?

Betjeman, J., Kerr, N., Sir John Betjeman's Guide to English Parish Churches, 1993, Harper Collins

Brabbs, D., English Country Churches, 1986, George Weidenfeld & Nicolson Ltd.

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