Ruined churches

Ruined churches are a treasured feature of our countryside.

For some parishes, they can be an expensive headache.  But for others, they represent an opportunity.

We can help you understand how to deal with ruins in your care.

Download our guidance

Archaeological ruins of a church building

What is a ruin?

There are two basic types of church ruins:

  • “Flat” sites with no visible remains above ground
  • And those where some structure survives

Some are scheduled ancient monuments and most are listed buildings.

Our research shows that there are between 150 and 250 ruins within the faculty jurisdiction. Please contact your Diocesan Advisory Committee if your ruin is not included in our database.

Now we see shattered walls, broken columns, trees thrusting through crumbling floors... All this makes for that melancholic delight we seek so eagerly and treasure gratefully in our brief passage through time.

Rose Macaulay, Pleasure of Ruins (1953)

Who is legally responsible for ruins?

Finding out who is responsible for these structures and sites can be difficult.

It often involves time-consuming research at the land registry and elsewhere to establish title.

  • If the site is not owned by any Church of England body, then the bishop has the power to remove the legal effects of consecration (if they still apply). The presence and status of any burials should be considered
  • If the site was closed by Order in Council, then it may now be vested in your Diocesan Board of Finance
  • If the site is in Church ownership, then it technically remains consecrated and subject to the faculty jurisdiction. The only way to remove the legal effects of consecration is through closure under the Pastoral Measure (2011)

Find out if your ruined church was formally closed. Or see how to close it under the Measure.

Opportunities for new uses

Ruins are a resource which you and your community can use:

  1. People often feel a sense of attachment to them and there is always a great story to tell
  2. They occupy a plot of increasingly valuable land, and developers are beginning to appreciate this
  3. You can re-use the surrounding churchyard as a burial ground

Causes of decay

Once a church is ruined, it becomes vulnerable to decay at a faster rate. Decay is often a long-term process but it can lead to partial or total collapse.

Causes of decay include:

  • Wind, rain and frost can wash out mortar and erode masonry
  • Birds, animals and insects burrow into and undermine the walls
  • Vegetation can undermine foundations and level walls apart
  • Roots of trees can run inside the core of walls
  • Climbing plants penetrate and cloak masonry

But these natural developments are not just a problem. They may be of great significance in themselves, and can contribute to the beauty and interest of the ruin.

Conservation methods

Get the advice of an experienced conservation professional to assess the condition of your church ruin and decide on the best action to take.

First, they will do an audit of the site’s ecology to see if you should remove all forms of vegetation from walls or if that would damage the ruin itself.

 Then, they will advise you on the best way to deal with encroaching vegetation.

Kill and remove it
Trim it
Use it

Repair

The exposed masonry may need to be restored.

If so, then you should use visually and structurally appropriate and sympathetic materials. Poorly chosen materials or solutions can make the problem worse.

We recommend you take a proportionate response to repair. Ask yourself if you should:

  • Record what is there before reducing the fabric to a sustainable state
  • Invest considerable resources into a single ruin
  • Or use your resources to maintain several ruins

This is a complicated and often controversial case-specific problem. There are no hard and fast rules. Always contact your diocese for advice.

Find practical advice on repairing ruined churches in our booklet, Stonework: Maintenance and Surface Repair

Health and safety issues

Unconsolidated and uncared for ruins can quickly become dangerous. They also attract vandals.

Signs and robust fencing are unlikely to deter such people from entering the site.

As a Parochial Church Council, if you neglect the maintenance of your ruin, you could be held liable for injuries to visitors (and trespassers) under the Occupiers’ Liability Act (1984).  

If the ruin is listed (but not scheduled), the local authority may force you to carry out repairs or take it from you with a compulsory purchase order.

If the ruin is scheduled, you can approach Historic England for help.

Management models

The best way to make sure that a ruined church is properly maintained is to make use of it.

We can suggest the three following models:

Closure and alternative use
Management agreements and grants
Keep and use them