By the C19th many parish churches were in poor condition and would have fallen down if they hadn’t been restored by the Victorians. The Sykes family of Sledmere House were responsible for restoring or rebuilding eighteen churches in the Yorkshire Wolds. Their achievement is unparalleled elsewhere in Britain.
The work was begun by Sir Tatton Sykes and continued by his son, Sir Tatton Sykes II, who has been described as “England’s greatest C19th church builder”. The family money had come from shipping and finance as well as through marriage. Between them, they spent the equivalent of £15 million pounds in modern money. A bust of Sir Tatton is on display in all of the churches.
They employed the best architects and craftsmen of the time, including LJ Pearson, GE Street and Temple Moore. Stained glass came from the workshops of Clayton and Bell, Burlison and Grylls and Kempe. The architects were known for keeping as much of the original fabric as possible. Cowlam Church is the exception. This was restored by Mary, daughter of Sir Tatton I and here much of the interior was destroyed during the restoration. Fortunately the lovely carved Norman font survived.
The churches are all small parish churches set in the open rolling countryside of the Yorkshire Wolds and there are two tourist trails visiting them. We have spent the last few months visiting some of the churches that are unlocked. All are very different and all are worth visiting.
The churches include small Norman churches like Kirkburn, with its beautifully carved Norman doorway and chancel arch and glorious Norman font. With its chevron decoration, this must be one of the best small Norman churches in Yorkshire.
Weaverthorpe Church, set high above the village with open views across the Wolds, has a very tall slender tower which feels Saxon rather than Norman. The church has a Norman font and chancel arch but lacks the decoration of Kirkburn. It does have a painted roof, typical of many of the Sykes Churches.
The almost stark exterior of the Norman church at Garton-on-the-Wold gives no indication of the glories inside. Every surface is covered with exquisite Pre-Raphaelite style wall paintings. These were restored in 1985 and glow on a bright sunny day.
Bishop Wilton Church set in a lovely Wolds village with a beck flowing down the centre, has a carved Norman doorway and chancel arch although the rest of the church is medieval. It has a painted roof and a most unusual mosaic floor said to be based on a design in the Vatican.
Fridaythorpe is a lovely intimate Norman church with a splendid carved doorway, chancel arch and font. Above the altar is a beautiful carved wooden triptych which was brought here from the old Sledmere Church. The usual picture of the church shows the Norman tower with its really ornate clock.
Kirby Grindalythe is a well loved parish church set above the village. The church needed a massive rebuild by Tatton Skyes and the nave was completely replaced. Unlike many other Sykes churches it has an unpainted roof, said to have been the result of a fit of economy. No money was spared on the mosaic covering the whole of the west wall showing the risen Christ surrounded by angels with the Virgin Mary and the eleven apostles.
Langtoft Church also has a splendid carved Norman font, brought here from the redundant and now derelict Cottam Church. The rest of the church is medieval and although it is a pleasant parish church is nothing special.
Wetwang Church has Norman origins and still has a Norman font. The church is medieval and unremarkable apart from some nice C19th Burlison and Grylls stained glass.
Other churches have been completely rebuilt. Sledmere Church rebuilt on the site of an earlier church, cost £60,000 and is one of the best examples of Victorian Gothic architecture with a richly carved interior and ornate woodwork.
Fimber is a complete contrast. A small medieval style church with an unusual tower, was built to replace a small chapel of ease. It has a painted ceiling and ornate painted brass screen across the chancel.
The small church at Thixendale with the former vicarage and school (now the village hall) forms an important group of buildings in the centre of the village, all designed by GE Street. Compared to the other churches, Thixendale is a bit uninspiring inside although the stained glass is of outstanding quality.
There are pictures of all the churches “here.”:http://wasleys.org.uk/eleanor/churches/england/yorkshire/sykes_churches/index.html