Rural Tourism in England

Published: Tuesday, September 6, 2016


The National Churches Trust has submitted written evidence to the Rural Tourism in England Inquiry 2016, being held by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee of the House of Commons.

The National Churches Trust is the independent national charity dedicated to supporting those who care for our nation’s churches, chapels and meetings houses. We work with churches of all denominations, all ages and across the whole of the UK.

Below, you can read a summary of the key points made in the National Churches Trust’s written submission to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee of the House of Commons. You can download the full document here

Churches, chapels and meeting houses in England

There are an estimated 15,000 rural churches in England only. This is broken down as: 10,199 Anglican churches (the only figure we know exactly based on Defra definitions) around 3000 Methodist churches, 400 Baptist churches, 250 United Reformed Churches and the remaining number made up from the Salvation Army, Congregational Federation, Roman Catholic Church and independent churches. In terms of UK coverage, the Arthur Rank Centre has a working estimate of approximately 20,000 churches in rural areas.

A majority of church buildings (around 70%) in rural areas are Grade I or II*, making them the largest group of most important historic buildings in the country.

Churches, chapels and meeting houses are literally 'treasure houses' of heritage, history and community. They are also the keepers of community heritage. Churchyards, in particular, are a veritable ‘who's who' of the area. In addition, they are also keepers of traditions and rites practiced for generations.

There are around 10,000 faith sites of medieval origin in the UK, all built for the same purpose but no two alike. They are tangible expressions of the evolution of British culture, local heritage, family history and tales of human events and achievements, embellished with architecture, art and craftsmanship.

Every church has something to see, or a story to tell. Most have both.


For churches, there is no comprehensive visitor facing information about why, what and where to visit, how to get there, what to see and how to interpret it.


Two key visitor groups for rural churches are walkers and cyclists. Therefore, the ongoing development and maintenance of England’s network of footpaths and bridleways is essential.

Many footpaths follow traditional pilgrimage routes, tying them to local heritage and stories. These could be used to create easy to find and follow routes, with engaging stories which encourage visitors to discover the countryside, and its churches.

Funding and fiscal policies

The UK Campaign for Reduced Tourism VAT calls for a reduction in the rate of VAT on accommodation and attractions. Whist this may not directly benefit income to churches, it does affect where and how long visitors stay, and how much they spend, which has an indirect effect on all the places they visit.

DCMS cut the funding of VisitBritain for 2014/15 by 5%. The sector receives just 3% of the DCMS budget yet contributes 9% of UK GDP. Rural tourism, especially free to visit, non-profit and part-day attractions common in rural areas (including churches), would benefit from targeted funding to market areas and themes.

Planning and regulation

Recent changes to the regulations governing the placement of tourist signage, making them locally managed and more affordable, is welcomed. However, many churches are unaware of the opportunities available to them, and perhaps consider tourism signage to only mean a brown sign off a main road. We would welcome clear and concise advice from Defra on the various options available, which we can share with churches.

Infastructure and skills

The huge and varied stock of incredible heritage churches is cared for almost entirely by volunteers. Many struggle to manage repairs and maintenance, and whilst they recognise the heritage value of their building and that visitors are keen to come, they lack the skills or time to welcome visitors and interpret heritage. One issue is the lack of suitable inventories, images and film to promote churches, which would help churches contribute attractive marketing materials to DMOs.

Opportunities exist for people of all ages, abilities, backgrounds, faiths and levels of mobility to get involved, whether or not they attend church. The National Churches Trust would welcome the opportunity to develop a comprehensive training package, in partnership with others to train local volunteers and also engage with work experience or back to work programmes. Defra could work with the Department of Works and Pensions to offer bursaries for unemployed people to volunteer in churches and develop tourism related skills

There is also a need for wider tourism training within rural areas. This should include welcoming, researching heritage, producing interpretation, IT, tour guiding, events planning, maintenance and networking with other attractions.

Local environment and character

 ‘Heritage is one of Britain’s special defining assets’ - Heritage Lottery Fund, 2002

‘Churches and cathedrals are such a familiar part of our landscape that it is possible to take them for granted. They do, however, make a vital contribution to Britain’s heritage, attractiveness and economy.’ Andrew Duff, Inspired Northeast

Churches are an essential part of our rural landscape and can define and underpin the character of a place. It’s easy to see the widespread acknowledgement of this, both informally by looking at the number of village signs or local companies who use the church to define their place/brand, and formally by the fact that the largest group of listed buildings in England are churches. It is hard to imagine the English countryside without its churches and they should be included in all rural tourism consultation and development.

Defra role

VisitBritain’s ambition to attract 40 million visitors by 2020 is challenging. Rural churches can play a role in helping to achieve this, but only with the support of volunteers, and by working with local communities and other attractions to develop and market unique and sustainable visitor experiences.

Defra supports and understands our local rural communities and should engage with other government departments and the tourism sector to help them appreciate the unique opportunities and needs of rural communities and rural tourism organisations.


Churches are already a key part of the tourism sector in rural England.

However, they need ongoing support from organisations like the National Churches Trust, and greater engagement with the tourism sector and government agencies such as Defra in order to reach their potential.