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Heritage church wins tourism award

25 January 2013

KEITH BLUNDY/AEGIS ASSOCIATES

On the map: the Revd Canon Sue Pinnington with the Mayor of Sunderland, Councillor Iain Kay 

On the map: the Revd Canon Sue Pinnington with the Mayor of Sunderland, Councillor Iain Kay 

A CHURCH built on a site that has been a place of worship for at least 4000 years has been presented with a tourism award more usually given to venues such as Alton Towers.

St Michael and All Angels, Houghton le Spring, in Co. Durham, dates from the 12th century, but excavations in the chancel disclosed evidence of a Roman temple, and whinstone boulders that once formed a Neolithic stone circle. The building also includes fragments of Saxon and Norman architecture.

This week, the church's efforts to open up its history were recognised by the presentation of a Red Rose award from the national tourist agency Visit England.

The Rector of St Michael's, Canon Sue Pinnington, said that developing the church's attraction as a heritage centre had also allowed them to open it, outside service times, to a wider population. "It was closed until 18 months ago for the classic reasons," she said. "Now, we have a team of more than 20 very devoted and loyal stewards who have gone through a special welcome training-programme.

"It has been about making the church more accessible . . . but primarily to build on our ministry of hospitality, and develop the church by actually opening it. It allows us to have the building open for those who are seeking a spiritual or emotional connection with God."

Since the Roman and Stone Age artefacts were discovered in 2008, the Grade I listed church has had a heritage trail for both adults and children. "We tell visiting school parties that there was a kind of church here when the pharaohs lived, and they are just amazed," Canon Pinnington said. "People here were worshipping their gods when Abraham left to seek the Promised Land. It's mind-blowing."

The church is also on the Cuthbert Trail, which links churches where the saint's body is said to have rested when it was carried around the north-east in the ninth century. "No one really understood why Cuthbert's body came to Houghton le Spring, because there wasn't a church, but we now know through these discoveries that there was," Canon Pinnington said.

 

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