Accessibility is the single most vexing topic among church enthusiasts. Nothing is more infuriating after a long drive or even longer walk than to feel the cold, unyielding iron of the handle of a locked door. This guide would be useless if readers did not feel its churches could be entered and enjoyed in person. I found roughly half my recommendations were open at reasonable times of the day and year. Most of the rest had a key at an easily discoverable location. Of those that were locked, most indicated the location of the key, though not always the presence of the keyholder. As a general rule I set myself a limit of half an hour to gain entry, with the aid of the latest siege equipment, usually including a car, a mobile phone and a copy of Crockford’s Clerical Directory. If a church resisted even such assault, I have left it out. In particular, a church that demands prior written notice of a visit, as if it were a private house, is in my book ‘not open to the public’.
On this subject the Church of England is institutionally unsympathetic. Almost no church has a sign outside giving opening hours, which might at least preempt a fruitless walk to the door. Vicarage phone numbers, if they are publicised, are frequently on answering machines. Notices giving the address of the keyholder, when they exist, are often illegible and lack a map. I know of no diocese that publishes a list of opening times and keyholders’ addresses, even those, such as Lincoln, that produce admirable guides to their churches. (The Open Churches Trust does publish opening times in London.) The buildings in this book are all outstanding and eagerly sought by a growing band of enthusiasts. None should be inaccessible.
The customary excuse for locking a church is the threat of vandalism and the cost of insurance. Vandalism can be most distressing for those victimised. Fortification may be justified in a few inner city churches, though even they capitulate to vandalism far too easily. Most insurers do not insist on churches being locked, only on their being periodically supervised. In my experience, the chief difference between an accessible and a shut church is not its location or the value of its contents but the attitude of the vicar and churchwardens. Some are true enthusiasts who rightly regard the opening of their church as a pastoral and community obligation. To them and their frequent welcome, I offer heartfelt thanks. To a minority of vicars, sadly a substantial one, I and therefore the general public was a nuisance to be kept at bay.
To close a church is not to forestall trouble - closed churches are almost as vulnerable as open ones - but to let the vandal win. Churches have been ‘robbed’ throughout history: this was once a common reason for deportation to Australia. Rural England is nowadays wealthy enough to afford a keyholder or ‘dropper-in’, or at least the elementary courtesy of clearly displayed instructions on access. One effective defence, security cameras, is not expensive. 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 private meeting house of a sect.
In return, I believe that visitors should pay. Nobody should visit and enjoy a church without contributing to the cost of that enjoyment. I cannot see why popular churches should not charge something for entry, as most cathedrals now do. The only churches in this list that charge are Stratford-upon-Avon for its chancel, and (half-heartedly) the magic shrine of St Clether’s Well
(Cornwall), where a faded 1913 notice still requests threepence to be left on the altar. Churches used to be less shy about asking for donations. As for how much to leave, I can only cite the chapel at Swell (Somerset). Even before the days of inflation and decimalisation, it exhorted visitors:
If aught thou hast to give or lend,
This ancient parish church befriend.
If poor but still in spirit willing
Out with thy purse and give a shilling,
But if its depths should be profound
Think of God and give a pound.
© Simon Jenkins, England’s Thousand Best Churches.