DECADES ago, it was a common pleasure in Britain to find a
little church in the countryside, or between urban buildings, and
to push open the door and step inside. Today, however, more and
more churches remain locked, except during service times, for fear
of theft or vandalism.
Many people still share a love of visiting churches, but finding
a church closed - often without information on where a key can be
obtained - can be frustrating and disappointing. Yet, even if
people cannot go inside, there are some extraordinary stories,
insights into Christian faith, and knowledge about the natural
world that our buildings reveal, if we know how to read the
And it would be extremely helpful if those churches that are
unable to keep their doors open were to make information available
to visitors, so that they can "read" the church from the
This is a practical outline of how to discover meaning and
history in a church and its setting, and how you might produce a
guide to the outside of your church. This could be available in the
porch, or mounted on display boards. These days, of course it is
possible to make the information available as a QR code (the new
matrix bar-code, which can be read by a smartphone). In this way,
visitors go away having learnt something, having had an adventure,
and perhaps wanting to return when the next service is on.
1 Name of the church
THE old names of our churches had much more significance than
just remembering a saint. For example, a St Michael's church is
probably on a hill, and possibly to the north of some big town or
city, or old religious site such as a monastery. In Christian
tradition, St Michael is the archangel who threw Satan out of
heaven, and who will fight Satan again in the Last Battle at the
end of time.
For Christians, north is the direction of evil and danger,
because, in the Bible, invasions always came from the north. So it
made sense for a St Michael's church to be to the north, protecting
the people below.
If the church is named after a local saint -Cuthbert, say, or
David, Swithin, or Petroc - then it would be worth starting a guide
by outlining the basic story. And it would be helpful to point to
local features that are associated with the saint or the setting,
such as a holy well, a river used for baptism, and so forth.
There may be particular reasons why a church received its name.
For instance, St Mary is often linked to markets, as she was seen
as a protector against corruption and falsehood.
St Peter, on the other hand, opens the door to paradise in
Christian legend, and therefore is often associated with death. In
Christian tradition, the east is the direction of both Eden and
paradise, and churches named after St Peter are often to the east.
Telling the story gives people a sense of "Oh, I see," right from
2 Physical setting
USUALLY, churches are on a prominent piece of land. Why is that?
Is it on a hill? (often St Michael, or St Catherine). Was it near
water, for baptism (St John the Baptist, perhaps). Was it beside
the castle, and part of the feudal world-view? Was it built by a
long-gone monastery, to be the people's church, standing close to
the monks' church? Was it built by a 19th-century industrialist, or
philanthropist, as part of town planning?
3 Significance of direction
ANY church older than the mid-18th century will almost certainly
be orientated to the east; so the church runs from the west door to
the east window. Some are orientated to the rising sun at the
equinoxes, and others to sunrise on the saint's day.
It is worth pointing out that the north side was the side of the
Devil. Therefore, the oldest burials will be on the south side -
the holy side. Only in the past 150 years or so have we buried on
the north side.
The usual entrance is the south porch. But all medieval churches
had a north door so that, when a child was baptised, the devil
could flee to his own side. Many such doors still exist, or their
outline can be spotted on the north wall.
The eastern end of the churchyard was where the clergy were
traditionally buried, and, to this day, few burials will take place
4 Shape of the churchyard
IF IT is more circular than square, then it probably predates
the Norman invasion, and may have a Celtic or early Anglo-Saxon
link, as this was their design style and symbolised the circle of
God's love and protection.
5 Sign of the cross
DOES the church itself make the shape of the cross on the
ground? Are there the remains of a preaching cross? Is there a
clearly visible cross anywhere (not including tombstones)? If so,
it is worth pointing out to visitors why the cross is so important
in Christian faith. It will be news to many.
6 Ship shape
It may be worth pointing out that the church will probably look
a little like a ship. The tower or spire is the mast, and the
church narrows down to the east end like a prow. Churches were
often designed to remind us of a sailing vessel, representing the
ship of faith, which carries you through the troubles of this world
to the joys of the next. That is why the central aisle of a church
was called the nave: from the same word as "navy".
7 Living churchyard?
A CHURCHYARD maintained in such a way as to encourage wildlife
and flowers can tell many stories of how we relate to the rest of
nature, in what has always been called God's Acre. In this case, a
written guide could double as a nature trail, including pictures of
the butterflies, and stories of the bats and bees which are
pollinators for so many flowers and fruits in the
8 Yew tree
YEWS are the oldest living things in Britain, and, at the
Millennium, more than 10,000 saplings, grown from the 200-or-so yew
trees alive when Christ was born, were distributed to churches
throughout the country. Ancient yews tell us that this was probably
a sacred place before the coming of Christianity.
THESE were part of the drainage system, and made sure that water
did not run down the walls. Many are of ferocious and hideous
design, because the church was saying that these disturbing
elements have no power over us any longer. The story that these
extraordinary carvings tell is that even these strange beasts have
been tamed by Christ, and therefore should not be feared. It may be
worth telling visitors how the phrase "fear not" appears in the
10 Following the sun
VISITORS should be encouraged to walk round the church,
following the sun.For millennia, in the West, clockwise has been
the sacred direction around holy places. We walk the pattern of
birth to death, and then resurrection, as the sunrise and sunset
remind us every day.
11 Start by the tower
THERE may be empty saints' niches - beautifully carved places
where, before the Reformation, a saint's statue would have stood.
This is a useful way to discuss the impact of the Reformation, and
perhaps speculate which figure would have been where - the patron
saint, for example, or Mary, or Christ.
12 Former windows and chapels
THERE may be places where there was once a window, or even an
entire side-chapel. There is a simple technique for dating these.
If the window or door is narrow, with a small arch over it, it is
Saxon or Norman - windows were small because glass was so rare. A
larger arch with a point at the top will be from the 13th to 14th
century. An arch that sharply reaches up to a point will be from
the 14th to 15th century. A squared top will be Tudor to 17th
century. Thereafter, builders take one of these styles and reinvent
13 Odds and ends
IT IS worth paying attention to whatever quirky details there
might be, such as an old sundial carved into the south side,
usually with a hole for the stick, and then a circle or semi-circle
with lines marking the set prayers of the medieval Church.
There may be a pilgrim cross, showing that this was on a
pilgrimage route. Some of these were carved with daggers with small
roundels at the ends of each line of the cross. There may be
18th-century graffiti, perhaps by bored servants waiting for their
masters and mistresses to come out.
14 Finish at the south side
THE word "porch" comes from the same Latin root as "port". This
is where we go to set off on the adventure of faith, the journey
through life and beyond. This could be used as an invitation to the
visitor to return when the church is open, or as a place to reflect
on how faith can help us to make sense of, and survive, the storms
and the wonders and joys of our lives.
15 Place for prayers
THE porch could be a good place to locate something - a
noticeboard, or a post box, perhaps - to allow visitors to leave
16 Somewhere to pray
SOME people may have come to the church to find a solitary
moment of quiet and contemplation. A small prayer-garden with a
bench could be helpful, or directions to a neighbouring church
which may be open.
17 Inside out
IF VISITORS cannot get inside the church, it would useful, none
the less, to show them what they are missing. People will want to
see what the inside looks like, and what they can find. They will
also want to know where they can find out more; so a web address
(if available) is vital.
VISITORS will want to know if there are other locations near by
that will help them continue their journey - another fascinating
church, an ancient pilgrimage pub, a historical site, an alleyway
where monks once walked.
19 Giving notice
FINALLY, too many church noticeboards make you feel the church
is not just shut, but dead. Old notices of events long gone;
peeling paint; the name of the last vicar painted out but nothing
new put in its place: these all tell a story of failure and
irrelevance. What the noticeboard looks like - as with the exterior
of the building - tells a story about the church, what it does, and
Martin Palmer is the author of Sacred Land published by
Piatkus Books at £16.99 (CT Bookshop £15.30 - Use code CT941 );
Photographs by Nick Mayhew Smith come from Britain's Holiest
Places, published by Lifestyle Press at £19.99 (
CT Bookshop price £18 - Use code CT941); 978-0-9544-7674-8.