29 Nov 2021
by Rebecca Whewell

A family with one adult male and two small children excitingly walking out from a church porch adorned in HODs bunting.
The church in Matlock Dale welcomes new friends over the festival. (© Oscar Proctor / Heritage Open Days 2021)

We always enjoy participating in Heritage Open Days, but it was particularly inspiring this year to see so many historic buildings open again after an extremely challenging year for heritage.

Why we take part

As a tiny charity, our resources are limited, but our remit is broad: we cover the whole of England and Wales, and our churches are scattered far and wide. HODs is an opportunity to showcase the work we do both to local communities and to visitors from further afield, raising awareness of our charitable objectives and our need to fundraise.

We rescue and repair ancient and beautiful churches because we believe they represent important architectural and cultural heritage and should be conserved for the enjoyment of all. Ultimately, we want people to visit these buildings and appreciate them! HODs is a great way to do this, as it increases our reach beyond those who already know a lot about historic churches and brings them to a much wider audience.

A long queue of visitors lining up through a graveyard towards a stone tower with a bell on top. Surrounding the graveyard are trees.
Festival visitors stream in to see the tower at Old St Matthew’s, Lightcliffe, in 2019. (© John Vigar)

Furthermore, making and sustaining volunteer contacts is vital to us. HODs gives our local volunteers a chance to show off the building they care about so much, which may see very few visitors during the rest of the year. Because our churches are redundant places of worship, there is no active congregation to help look after and fundraise for the building, so we treasure the local people who step forward to do this. HODs is an important opportunity for local friends to meet and recruit potential new volunteers.

In the last few years we decided to make a day of it and have an event. It has been really rewarding. The events have opened the eyes of local people to the church and its beauty.



Person sat outside the open door of a small square stone structure with tall chimney surrounded by trees and bushes.
The whole village of Papworth St Agnes works together for the festival, including the local Bakehouse seen here opening up for visitors. (© Friends of Friendless Churches)

What we do for HODs

We try to include as many of our English churches as possible in Heritage Open Days and we’re dependent on local volunteers to help us do this. Each church has its own special features, and volunteers are really important in sharing these - they can open your eyes to the architectural curiosities of a church.

Events can be simply volunteer-run open days, talks, or larger occasions that link up with other local historic buildings. Lately, of course, it’s not been possible to host many large events, but we hope to see even bigger and better events happening for HODs in future years.

A slate sign pointing to a public foot path. On the sign written in chalk reads 'St Denis Church Open 10am-12 noon & 2pm-4pm'.
Bright marketing materials for the festival help visitors find these, often rather hidden, gems. (© Peter Mann)

The difference it makes

HODs is brilliant for historic places of worship because it gives people of all backgrounds who wouldn’t normally visit historic religious buildings the opportunity to go inside their local church and appreciate the art and architecture within. It’s also a great free day out for families, and by holding child-friendly events we can introduce younger generations to the beautiful buildings we look after.

We know from the buzz on our social media during the festival, as well as volunteer feedback after each event, that lots and lots of people discover the beauty and history of our churches and learn about our work nationally, because of HODs. Many of these first-time visitors come back again, and some become passionate supporters of our work.

The oriel window! The views! I've offered to volunteer here in the future! Such a special place and I can't wait to return!



Inside of a wooden vaulted ceiling hall, with yellow stone walls and arched windows. To left is a baptism font and chairs lining the centre.
At Papworth St Agnes this beautiful church is just one part of the community's festival offer. (© Adrian Powter)

Community hub highlight

A highlight of our Heritage Open Days listings is the family-friendly Open Day at Papworth St Agnes in Cambridgeshire. The village is tiny, with only one road in and out, and has no pub, shop or post office. The locals have adopted the church as their community centre, though, and hold harvest suppers and carol services there despite it no longer being an active place of worship.

Heritage Open Day is a real landmark in the village calendar when they welcome visitors from far and wide. In 2021, volunteers embraced the theme of ‘Edible England’ and opened the church with an array of homemade cakes and bread, jams and chutneys for sale. Classic and vintage cars and tractors were on display, along with a treasure hunt for the children. The village bakehouse near the church was open too, with interpretation on its traditional role in producing food for the village. It is so wonderful to see all this come from a church that used to be ’friendless’ and could have been demolished.

Rebecca's top tip!

Don’t assume people won’t be interested – they will! Take advantage of opportunities to promote the event locally in advance; e.g. local Facebook pages. You may well find your local paper will run an article about the event, or even send a photographer or reporter along on the day. It’s always worth asking.

A women with brown long hair in a red patterned shirt is opening an old wooden door.
Rebecca liaises with volunteers, registers events and coordinates marketing materials. (© Friends of Friendless Churches)

Inspired? Find out more