Centuries of glorious art and architecture are on show in these churches and cathedrals, all reachable by rail. They are spread around the UK and listed very roughly in chronological order. From tiny ancient chapels to grand Victorian halls, decorated with murals, mosaics, carvings and stained glass, these buildings and hundreds more like them are worth a pilgrimage. Look out for more churches later in the year – next time in more rural places that you can only reach by bus or on foot.
1. St Illtud's, Llantwit Major, Glamorgan
With medieval wall paintings, eighth-century carved Celtic stones and crosses, an ancient oak ceiling and more, St Illtud’s church stands on one of oldest and holiest sites in Britain. It’s sometimes described as the Vale of Glamorgan’s cathedral. A college for priests, founded here around 500AD by St Illtud, was Britain’s earliest centre of Christian learning and may have included Saint David and even Saint Patrick among its alumni.
- Open: The Gallilee chapel, at one end of the church, with a collection of intricately carved Celtic stones, is open 10am-4pm daily and is free. The church itself is also generally open and hosts numerous community events, from coffee mornings to concerts.
- Don’t miss The little carved animals hiding in the wooden foliage above the door in the porch.
- Nearest station: Llantwit Major is on a scenic branch line from Cardiff to Bridgend, which are both on the GWR mainline from Paddington.
- And the walk there is a ten minute, waymarked stroll through the town. Look for signs and maps as soon as you leave the railway station.
- Nearby: Cardiff is a forty-minute train ride away with lots of things to see and do, including a host of interesting churches like the white wooden Norwegian church arts centre, facing the Welsh parliament across the bay. For more car-free ideas in the area, see our guide to Cardiff.
2. St Laurence, Bradford on Avon, Wiltshire
The Saxon church of St Laurence was re-discovered in 1856 after centuries as part of a school and warehouse. Uniquely among England’s Saxon churches, it has never been altered and was built way back in the early 8th century.
- Open 10am-4m daily, free.
- Don’t miss: the tall, narrow Saxon arch inside, still decorated with carved angels.
- Nearest station: Bradford on Avon
- And the walk there is a delightful five-minute stroll. Follow handsome St Margaret’s Street from the station into town. Turn left after house 48, over pedestrian McKeever Bridge, and left again onto Church Street.
- Nearby: Norman Holy Trinity, with its tombs and Flemish glass, is just over the road; St Nicholas (aka the Lock Up) is three minutes’ walk away on the scenic Town Bridge. For more car-free adventures in the area, see our guide to Bath and look out for a guide to car-free Frome, coming later in the year
3. St Bene’ts, Cambridge
Cambridge has a ridiculous number of brilliant churches and other places of worship, including the iconic college chapels. St Bene’ts is the city’s oldest church – in fact the oldest building – and dates back to the early 11th century. With a rose growing over its door, it stands opposite the Eagle pub, where Watson and Crick announced their discovery of DNA in 1953.
- Open Daily 10am-6pm (Sunday 12-4), free
- Don’t miss: The tall arch underneath the Saxon tower dates back to the eleventh century and is decorated with carved stone animals.
- Nearest station: Cambridge, about a mile away
- And the walk there: is twenty minutes or so along a busy street, but with plenty of interesting things to see. Turn right at the end of Station Road along Hills Road, past the Neo-gothic Church of Our Lady (great gargoyles!), left into Downing Street past a lot of brilliant museums and right up Free School Lane.
- Nearby: Several other churches nearby are worth visiting: All Saints on Kings Road, with its William Morris windows, or Great St Mary, where you can climb the tower for views as far as Ely cathedral. You can even have tea in a former church in the Michaelhouse centre, now a thriving café. Trains from Cambridge head directly to Ely, Peterborough and on to March, where St Wendreda’s church has a ceiling full of carved angels.