IT WAS during a visit to Canada that it struck me once again how lucky the British are to live among such an abundance of well-preserved ancient churches. While stocking up on a few essentials, I asked the shopkeeper what the principal tourist attractions were in what was quite a large town.
“Well, if you see only one thing, make sure it’s the church,” he replied. Then he added in a confidential tone, brimming with parochial pride, “It dates all the way back to the 1920s, you know.”
I put on a suitable show of admiration at this feat of longevity, and shuffled out before he asked me what was the date of the oldest church in my own home town. Had I tried to downplay the fact that even the nondescript village I grew up in sported a 12th-century church by adding that it was, “Quite late 12th century,” I would, I fear, still have cut a figure as a thoroughgoing braggart.
What is perhaps all the more extraordinary about the historical architecture in Britain is that a large number of very small and insignificant churches have managed to survive into the 21st century, often having weathered several plagues, the Reformation, changing tastes in building design, plummeting attendances, and the tender ministrations of Victorians.
For me, there is something particularly attractive about these ecclesiastical underdogs. They are seldom caught making a grandiose political statement about the power of a particular regime (we’re looking at you, Durham Cathedral, booming out, “We Normans are in power now.”). Very few were built to prove that some diocese was richer than its neighbour, or, if they were, they were not very convincing evidence of it. Yet many make up for their lack of stature with rich decoration, an unorthodox design that sets them apart from the rank and file, or simply a beauty intrinsic in their miniaturised form.
Dixe WillsSteetley Chapel, near Worksop, Derbyshire
The earliest British churches would have been very small affairs indeed, and not built to last any great span of time. Many, like St Andrew’s at Greensted, began life as mere wooden shelters from which missionaries would preach while their congregation was ranged about them at the mercy of the weather. Even self-styled cathedrals such as the early-Saxon St Peter-on-the-Wall, on the Essex coast, are mere chapels by today’s standards.
OF COURSE, by no means all tiny churches are ancient. The miniature basilica of St Fursey’s, in Norfolk, was built in a back garden in 1998 by an Antiochan Orthodox priest with help from a few members of his congregation. Other fine examples, such as Canna Church, in the Hebrides, and the Friends’ Meeting House at Dolobran, in mid-Wales, prove that the art of creating aesthetically pleasing sacred buildings was not lost when the last medieval mason cut his final stone.
When it comes to declaring which place of worship holds the coveted title of Britain’s Smallest Church, the waters are somewhat muddied, and the competing claims are voiced with surprising verve by the parties involved. As is explained below, while Bremilham Church, Wiltshire, is technically the most diminutive, there is only one service a year, and the congregation sits outside.
The smallest truly active church in Britain is thus ancient St Trillo’s, at Rhos-on-Sea, which contains the added bonus of two tiny stained-glass windows bearing representations of St Trillo and St Elian, and a bijou garden outside tended by faithful congregants.
Dixe WillsSt Peter’s, Linlithgow, Lothian
Also deserving of a special mention in the arena of the micro-church is the aforementioned St Fursey’s, whose builder — the excellent Fr Stephen — conducts nearly 30 services each week in a space not much larger than a bus shelter. Meanwhile, the nation’s smallest parish church is almost certainly the beguiling St Beuno’s, lost in the woods among the ghosts of charcoal burners near the North Somerset coast, and accessible only on foot.
On my research trips around the country, from Cornwall up to Orkney, it was always a joy to meet older congregants who had memories of their church in former times, and who could, perhaps, slip me some interesting snippet that hadn’t made it into the guide.
On one occasion, for example, I happened to visit the exquisite Norman chapel at Durham University at the same time as an elderly alumnus from that august seat of learning. Contrary to official histories, which declare that the long-abandoned room was recognised as an ancient chapel during the Second World War, and reconsecrated soon afterwards, he told me that, during his time at the university in the 1950s, it was still being used by the students as a bicycle shed.
It just goes to show that you never quite know what you’re going to learn when you enter a tiny church.
- Church of the Good Shepherd, Lullington, East Sussex
There is a mystery about this tiny flint chapel, surrounded by trees, high up on the glorious South Downs. It owes its diminutive size to the fact that all that is left of it is its chancel. No one knows how, when, or why the nave of this 12th-century church came to be destroyed by a fire. What is clear is that this wonderful hidden sanctuary fully repays the climb to see it.
Visit: Open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. or dusk.
- St John’s, Little Gidding, Cambridgeshire
Some churches have a single collision with history. This austerely beautiful chapel has managed no fewer than three. It became the focus of a famous 17th-century religious community, founded by Nicholas Ferrar. Then it harboured a fleeing Charles I after his defeat at Naseby. Not content with that, it went on to inspire “Little Gidding”, the closing poem in T. S. Eliot’s much loved Four Quartets.
Visit: Open daily. If it is locked, enquire at neighbouring Ferrar House, or ring 01832 293357.
- Bremilham Church, near Malmesbury, Wiltshire
It is surprising to find that the smallest active church in Britain stands in a farmyard, many of whose buildings are business units, including one that is a tanning salon. “Active” is perhaps stretching it a bit, because there is just one service a year, on Rogation Sunday. It customarily attracts about 50 worshippers, but, since the church is just 13ft by 11ft, they are obliged to spend it seated outside on a suitably tiny patch of grass.
Visit: Always open, but call Mrs Collins on 01666 823173 beforehand.
- Steetley Chapel, near Worksop, Derbyshire
There is so much to enjoy at this immoderately handsome church that it is difficult to know where to begin. It contains a hugely impressive restored Norman doorway, and a riotously colourful 20th-century stained-glass window depicting the risen Lamb of God. A further highlight is the 14th-century tombstone of Lawrence le Leche. When the plague arrived, this priest of Steetley heroically chose to stay put and offer medical help and comfort to the dying, before succumbing to the disease.
Visit: Open daily 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
- St Leonard’s, Chapel-le-Dale, North Yorkshire
Sitting at the junction of an ancient trackway and a Roman road, high up in the Yorkshire Dales, St Leonard’s probably started life as a chapel of ease for isolated farmers. It later served as a graveyard for the Settle-to-Carlisle railway workers and their families, who lived in a disease-ridden shanty town while building the magnificent Ribblehead Viaduct, and nearby Blea Moor tunnel. Look out for the refreshingly human stained-glass window, depicting Jesus with the woman at the well.
Visit: Open daily.
- St Govan’s Chapel, Bosherston, Pembrokeshire
Spectacularly jammed into cliffs on a remote section of coastline, St Govan’s is beset by innumerable myths and legends. The sixth-century Irish saint is said to have hidden in a crevice in the cliffs, whose rocks closed around him until pursuing pirates had passed by. The late Norman chapel is on the site of the cell which he built, where the miracle occurred.
Visit: Always open, although access is occasionally barred by the Castlemartin firing range. Check firing times at tinyurl.com/9wkzz73.
- St Trillo’s Chapel, Rhos-on-Sea, Conwy
The smallest church in Britain to hold frequent services stands on a promenade on the north Welsh coast, and is frequently mistaken, at first sight, for a public convenience. The stone chapel has room for just six people inside, and yet is a popular wedding venue — presumably because it demands that the guest list be kept to a minimum. The functioning holy well inside is the same one said to have been used by St Trillo, one-and-a-half millennia ago.
Visit: Open daily.
- St Fillan’s, Killin, Stirlingshire
Only about 60 of the mass-produced, pre-fabricated “tin tabernacles” erected in Scotland in the 19th and early-20th centuries remain with us today. Built in 1876 by the 7th Earl of Breadalbane as a chapel of ease for his shooting parties (spawning its nickname, “The Grouse Chapel”), St Fillan’s is not only the oldest surviving example in Scotland, but also the most beautifully preserved. A surprise awaits within, however: the pine-clad walls give the place a profoundly Scandinavian air.
Contact: Jill Stroyan on 01567 820252
- St Peter’s, Linlithgow, Lothian
A narrow space between a chip shop and a hairdresser’s in a small Scottish town is not the first place one might look for a Byzantine-style church. Even more baffling, St Peter’s was not thrown up by a community of homesick Eastern Orthodox refugees, but is the home of a congregation of 20th-century Scots who had led a peripatetic existence rivalling Moses and the Israelites in the desert. Recently renovated, it is a stunning slice of old Byzantium come to Linlithgow Loch.
Visit: Contact the Revd Christine Barclay on 01506 846069 to arrange a visit.
- St Michael of the Rock, Brentor, Devon
Set high on a tor, its west end just three feet from the cliff edge, St Michael’s is as dramatic a church as you could wish for. It was built by a local lord in 1130, apparently in gratitude for being saved by St Michael from a storm at sea. If you visit for Christmas Day carols (3 p.m.) and there is snow, you can join in the traditional post-service sledge down the tor.
Visit: Always open. Audio tours available on the Viewpoint app.
Tiny Churches by Dixe Wills, published by AA Publishing at £12.99 (CT Bookshop £11.70) is out now in paperback.