You don’t have to be religious, or even spiritual, to enjoy a beautiful old church. The architecture, the stained glass, the history, and the famous graves all make visiting churches a fulfilling activity on any trip.
The UK has a lot of very old churches, and you can enter most of them free of charge, at any time. Sometimes there are guides ready to take you through the most interesting points, and sometimes you’ll find you are wandering at your own pace, the only person in the building. Whether it’s a grand cathedral or a quiet chapel, the UK has some fascinating churches to visit. Here are my favorites.
1. Liverpool Cathedral
Liverpool Cathedral is a truly stunning cathedral. Even the position of it is awe inspiring. This majestic building stands tall at the brow of a hill, leaving visitors in no doubt about its magnificence. It’s the largest religious building in the UK and the second largest cathedral in Europe. It was finally completed and consecrated in 1924 after being planned back in 1901. The interior is stunning, and you can spend hours exploring the carvings, sculptures, stained glass, and dedications. There’s also a large café onsite, probably the best in-church eating facility I’ve ever come across, and an impressive gift shop. There are guides on hand to show you around, or you can wander by yourself. It’s free to enter, but donations are welcome.
Visit in the daytime so you can take a tour of the inside, but don’t miss the beauty of the exterior in the evening when the church is lit up with footlights in an orange glow. The warm hue of the cathedral can be seen from the city at night, like a calming beacon.
2. Bath Abbey
The abbey we see today began construction in 1499, though there has been a religious building on this site for over a thousand years. Bath Abbey is right in the center of town, and you can see it from the streets as you walk around, the highest building in the city. Bath Abbey is an important historical site for England, as it was here that King Edgar was crowned in 973, uniting the individual kingdoms of England into one country for the first time.
It’s free to enter the abbey, but guided tours come at a small cost. The tower tour is especially good, as you get to see the workings of the bell room and stand on the roof of the abbey, giving you a whole new perspective on this incredible building and the city below.
If you want to take a tour, book your tickets in advance. Bath gets busy with tourists, especially in the summertime, and the abbey is a popular attraction for visitors. You can buy your tickets inside the abbey on the day of your tour or before you visit.
3. York Minster
York Minster has a special place in my heart, as my daughter graduated from university in a ceremony inside this beautiful old church. It reportedly took centuries to build and was completed in 1472 in magnificent gothic style. The high spires can be seen from the old streets of the city, and with the minster as a marker, you never get lost in York. Inside, the nave is absolutely stunning and the interior gives a sense of space and awe not easily matched, as the arches seem to reach up and up above you in great yawns.
Entrance to the minster is now on a ticketed basis, and though it might seem expensive compared to others, especially when so many are free, it really is worth it to see inside this spectacular cathedral.
York Minster, like the rest of the city, is especially magical at Christmastime. All visitors are welcome, and you can join in a carol service, a Christingle, or attend midnight mass. For more on York at Christmas, read Why You Should Visit York, England, During Christmas.
4. Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-Upon-Avon
Although there is evidence of monks living in this area as far back as the 800s, Holy Trinity Church wasn’t built until 1210. That still makes it the oldest building in Stratford. Set in a beautiful churchyard by the river, Holy Trinity Church is one of the most visited churches in England, perhaps not surprisingly. Wiliam Shakespeare was baptized here in 1564, and he was buried here in 1616.
There is evidence of the bard all around the church, and at the altar, you can stand right before his grave (and those of some of his family members). Entry to the church is free, but donations are very welcome.
Be prepared to wait in line if you want to see Shakespeare’s resting place at the front of the church. This is a popular attraction, and the church only allows so many in at a time. It’s worth the wait, though.
5. St. Mary’s Cathedral, Haymarket, Edinburgh
I stumbled across this cathedral completely by accident one day while in the west end of the city. For a cathedral of this size in such a popular city, St. Mary’s really is a hidden gem. It was built in the 19th century in a gothic style of architecture, which much of Edinburgh is, and its tucked-away position down a modest side street makes it feel like a secret only those who make the effort to find it will know.
The main focus of this cathedral is the services and private prayer, but anyone can enter and enjoy the beauty of the building. There are volunteers on hand to answer any questions and to guide you, whether you want to pray, join a service, or simply appreciate the beauty of the building.
Don’t miss the Eduardo Paolozzi stained glass window. Born to Italian parents in Edinburgh, Eduardo was a prominent sculptor and created unique pop art stained glass, like the one you can see in St Mary’s.
6. St. James’s Church, Lake Buttermere, The Lake District
About ten minutes’ walk from the atmospheric Lake Buttermere is this little old church on the hill. St. James’s is so small it looks like a cute chapel, but Buttermere is a small place with a small community of residents, so this is the right size for their church. The original building was erected here in 1507 but was rebuilt in 1840.
Buttermere is a quiet place of pure beauty and the perfect place for contemplation, and this little church seems to embody the whole area in one small building. Every time I’ve visited I’ve been the only person there, which makes it a lovely place to sit quietly and think. There’s a box by the door where you can leave donations, and there are sometimes postcards for sale with an honesty box.
As you enter at the top of the stone steps, you’ll see a wrought iron, beautifully crafted shepherd’s gate, and once inside the church you can see two carved angels, one at either side of the alter. These were all sculptured by a local farmer Jonathan Stamper in 1998.
7. St. Mary’s Church, Newchurch, Pendle
There are records of a couple of earlier chapels on this site dating back to 1250, but it’s not known when the tower was built or how much of an earlier chapel still exists here. This is another church I stumbled upon by accident while out walking in Pendle, and I was very glad I did. The churchyard slopes down the hillside, and there are good views over the valley.
St. Mary’s is a typical old English church in a typical English village, and it’s very community focussed, but I was lucky enough to have it all to myself when I visited. If the doors are unlocked (and they usually will be), you can go in and have a good look around. Inside the church is simple and very peaceful.
This area is famous for its witch trials, and though you won’t find any references to that in the church, there are plenty of nods to it around the village. Shops in the village sell witch-themed books and gifts, and you can find a statue of one of the witches, Alice Nutter, in nearby Roughlee.
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