No fewer than 18 rural churches in East and North Yorkshire were built or restored by Sir Tatton Sykes of Sledmere House. Next weekend, to mark the centenary of his death, they will all be open to the public. STEPHEN LEWIS reports

THE Yorkshire Wolds are often described as one of England’s best kept secrets, with their rolling hills, stunning views and historic sites dating back thousands of years.

But in the 19th century they were also the centre of an extraordinary episode of church building.

Between 1856 and 1913, no fewer than 18 rural churches were built, rebuilt or restored in East and North Yorkshire, chiefly in the Wolds.

It was the Sykes family of Sledmere House we have to thank for this, specifically the fourth baronet, Sir Tatton Sykes, and his son the fifth baronet, also Sir Tatton.

They financed the building and restoration of the churches from their own family fortune – spending £15m in today’s money – and employed the greatest architects of the day: men such as John Loughborough Pearson, George Edmund Street (who designed the Royal Courts of Justice in London) and Temple Moore.

The result is what some believe to be one of the most important collections of small rural churches anywhere in the UK.

They include St Michael and All Angels at Garton on the Wolds, with its stunning Victorian wall paintings telling the story of the Bible – a church featured in The Press just a couple of weeks ago.

Then there is St Andrew’s at Weaverthorpe, a superb Norman church standing high above the village, which was restored by GE Street with lavish furnishings and decorated roofs; St Mary’s at Sledmere, with its lavish interior and stained glass showing St Edwin of Northumbria; and St Edith at Bishop Wilton, which has floor mosaics modelled on those in the Vatican.

“The church of St Edith is a jewel,” notes an official guide to what is known as the Sykes Church Trail, a route which takes in many of the churches. “Come and be dazzled by the sheer opulence of Victorian ornament inside this medieval church.”

It was the younger Sir Tatton who was chiefly responsible for this astonishing legacy of churches. “Sir Tatton Sykes II has been called England’s greatest 19th century church builder,” says Catharine Otton-Goulder, from Bainton, who jointly founded the East Yorkshire Churches Trust nearly ten years ago and who has worked tirelessly to protect the Sykes churches.

“His aim was to create centres of ‘Christian Art and Worship’ and there is nothing quite like them anywhere else. Indeed the family effort invested in raising rural church architecture to another level is probably unique in Europe. “Over recent years interest in them has revived and we have been able to save many from closure and also raise about £5m to restore and repair them. You do not have to be religious to appreciate the beauty of these places – they are works of art in their own right capable of lifting the spirits.”

She would love to see more people discovering these churches for themselves. And next weekend could be the ideal opportunity to do so.

Sir Tatton Sykes II died on May 4, 1913, at the grand age of 87. And throughout the Bank Holiday period next weekend all of the celebrated Sykes churches on the Yorkshire Wolds will be open to the public, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of his death.

• In North Yorkshire, the churches that will be open include: St Andrew, Kirby Grindalythe, St Andrew, Weaverthorpe St Andrew, East Heslerton, St Hilda, Sherburn St Mary, West Lutton St Peter, Helperthorpe St Mary, Thixendale

• East Yorkshire’s churches are: St Edith, Bishop Wilton, St Mary, Cowlam, St Mary, Fimber, St Mary, Fridaythorpe, St Michael, Garton, St Mary, Kirkburn, St Peter, Langtoft St Mary, Sledmere St Mary, Wansford St Nicholas, Wetwang.

Some will offer refreshments and special exhibitions – and all will provide a rare opportunity to experience the splendour of these nationally important buildings.

• To find out more about the open weekend, or to get guides to the trail, visit

• Sledmere House is also staging an exhibition on the Craftsmen of the Sykes Churches. The exhibition, which features stained glass, wall paintings, mosaics, woodwork, stone carving and ironwork, opens next Saturday (May 4) and runs until October 27. The usual Sledmere House entry fees apply: £8 adult, £7.50 concessions, £3.50 children.

For further details contact Sledmere House on 01377 236637 or visit