Churches in Britain comprise the greatest collection of historic buildings and works of art that our country possesses. From the grandest cathedral to the tiniest parish church, they are filled with innumerable treasures, illuminating every facet of our nation's history. We wanted to see if there was anything that couldn't be found inside one of our churches, so we have set ourselves a Christmas challenge: to see if we can find everything mentioned in the song The Twelve Days of Christmas. All together now! On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me...

A partridge in a pear tree

OK, OK: we couldn't find a partridge in a pear tree. But a rather good partridge can be found in this church in Norfolk. When the church was restored in 1954, the children's book illustrator Margaret Tarrant designed a delightful set of armrests for the pews, featuring a rich variety of animals and birds. One of the armrests depicts a beautifully carved partridge looking out watchfully across the aisle.

Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, West Barsham

Two turtle doves

A dovecote, also called a columbaria, can be found in the roof space above the chancel in the church of St Michael, Compton Martin, in Somerset. Dovecotes were built for the benefit of the priest at a time when doves and pigeons were an important food source (their guano also made a useful fertiliser). The church has Norman origins and contains impressive stone carvings.

St Michael, Compton Martin

Three french hens

To find a hen, or at least a cockerel, in many English churches, you need only look at the very top of the spire, where you are likely to see one turning in the wind. If you want to see a particularly splendid cockerel weather vane, you might like to visit the parish church of Newark on Trent, in Nottinghamshire, whose 18th century cockerel has recently been regilded and returned to the top of the spire following restoration works.

St Mary Magdalene, Newark on Trent

Four calling birds

When 'The Twelve Days of Christmas' is sung nowadays, the fourth day's gift is usually 'four calling birds'. Originally, however, the song referred to 'colly birds', colly meaning literally 'like coal'. Among the birds that would have been included in that general description were starlings, and you will find a murmuration of starlings carved on one of the superb misericords in Norwich Cathedral, where they are pictured mobbing an owl.

Norwich Cathedral, Norwich

Five gold rings

Inside this gorgeous Surrey church, every surface is covered in colour and pattern, from the nave walls on which glittering fish leap in golden nets, because St Peter was a fisherman, to the rood screen on which every roll of the moulding bears a different motif. It all culminates in an astonishing chancel with a reredos thronged with saints and angels, whose halos (gold rings) glitter in the candelight. It’s |unforgettable.

St Peter, Hascombe

Six geese a laying

Amongst the many treasures of this church in Etchingham, in East Sussex, is a superb set of 14th century carved misericords. One of them depicts a fox, dressed in clerical garb, preaching to geese. Drawn from the folktales of Reynard the Fox, it is a warning against corrupt and hypocritical clergymen who have their own interests at heart and do not practice what they preach.

Assumption of Blessed Mary & St Nicholas, Etchingham

Seven swans a swimming

Every July, the ceremony of 'swan-upping' is held on stretches of the Thames. The annual census is said to date back to the 12th century, when swans were eaten, but the purpose today is to monitor the health and welfare of swan populations. In 1915, the artist Sir Stanley Spencer was sitting in this Berkshire church when he heard the sound of the swan uppers at work on the river, and was inspired to create his painting 'Swan Upping at Cookham'. It now hangs in the Tate.

Holy Trinity, Cookham

Eight maids a milking

Christ Church was designed by James Pigott Pritchett, and the foundation stone was laid in 1853. Among the interesting features in the church are the carved stone bosses on a pillar, one depicting a cow eating grass (a green man!?) on one side and the face of a milk maid on the other side.

Christ Church, Brampton Bierlow

Nine ladies dancing

The Hospital of St Cross, Winchester, has been described as one of the most beautiful groups of buildings in the country. Founded in the 12th century, it consists of almshouses, a hall, and a magnificent church. It was recently featured in the BBC adaptation of Wolf Hall! Within the church, the wonderful 16th century choir stalls feature figurines of dancing ladies.

Hospital of St Cross, Winchester

Ten lords a leaping

For our Lords a Leaping, we turn to the Norman church of All Saints, Claverley, in Shropshire. Astonishingly, the building still has its original wall paintings, which date back to the year 1200 and are almost as clear and bright as the day they were painted. Above the columns on the north side of the nave, two troops of knights clash in combat, their horses leaping and rearing. They are said to represent the battle of the vices against the virtues.

All Saints, Claverley

Eleven pipers piping

To Cornwall, and the parish church of St David, Davidstow, for a piper piping. He can be found on one of the church's surviving 15th century bench ends.

St David, Davidstow

Twelve drummers drumming

Finally, to glorious Beverley Minster in Yorkshire, whose medieval minstrel carvings feature more than seventy images, including twenty different instruments, in wood and stone. It is the largest such collection in the world. In addition to drummers drumming, there are fiddles, trumpets, lutes, cymbals and many more.

Beverley Minster, Beverley

By continuing to use the site, you agree to the use of cookies.

The cookie settings on this website are set to "allow cookies" to give you the best browsing experience possible. If you continue to use this website without changing your cookie settings or you click "Accept" below then you are consenting to this.

Close