BRITAIN has made two great contributions to world culture, jokes Edward Waterson - the country house, and the parish church.

The sight of a church steeple dreaming amidst gently rolling hills and fields is as English as the sound of leather on willow. Whether you're a churchgoer or not, it's a sight that can lift the heart.

And many of our thousands of parish churches have stories to match their history: the tomb of Edward of Middleham, son of Richard III, at Sheriff Hutton, for example; or the extraordinary medieval wall paintings at St Peter's and St Paul's Church in Pickering.

Yorkshire has more churches than any other English county - something like 3,500 of all denominations, though no-one seems exactly sure of the precise number.

The future of many of them, however, may be at risk.

Maintaining a church is an expensive, never-ending business. And a combination of dwindling congregations and the increasing age of those who do still attend church regularly means that, especially in smaller and poorer parishes, some local church groups are finding it an increasing struggle to maintain the buildings in their trust.

In an society that is becoming more secular, thousands of such churches across the country face being declared surplus to requirements and closed in the coming years, Mr Waterson says. "Hundreds of those will be in Yorkshire."

In 2002, St Lawrence's Church in York came close to being one of them. The huge Victorian church, known affectionately as the 'Minster without the walls', was so cold and damp that engineers even recommended it should be closed and demolished.

York Press:

Close Call: St Lawrence's, the 'Minster without the walls', came close to demolition 12 years ago

The congregation was never going to let that happen. They set out to raise funds for repairs, and today, following an investment of more than £150,000, the church has been transformed: the roof restored, the spire rebuilt, faulty electrical wiring replaced, and underfloor heating installed.

But for a congregation many of whom are past retirement age maintaining a church the size of St Lawrence's is a constant strain, says Caroline Mozley, a parishioner and the church hall manager.

"There's a colossal expense involved," she says. "There's a relatively small congregation, and the cost is astronomical. Without the support of charities we simply couldn't go on."

Step forward the Yorkshire Historic Churches Trust (YHCT), of which York estate agent Mr Waterson is a Trustee.

It was set up in 1988 by a group of what Mr Waterson calls 'Yorkshire worthies' with the sole aim of providing grants - which can range from £250 to more than £100,000 - to help preserve, repair and maintain Yorkshire churches.

Each year, the charity gives out about £100,000 to churches across the county - a total of £3 million to over 800 churches in the last 30 years.

Not just Church of England churches, either. "We aim to help all churches of all denominations," Mr Waterson says.

The grants the YHCT gives out are often not very big. And they're rarely for glamorous projects such as the restoration of important stained glass. They're more likely to be for something that sounds pretty humdrum - such as the £4,000 the YHCT gave to St Lawrence's last year to repair drains and gutters. "That may not be exciting, but it's essential maintenance," Mr Waterson points out. "Every penny spent on repairing gutters saves a lot more money that would have to be spent on repairing damage caused by failing to repair them."

"If you haven't got gutters, you haven't got anything!" agrees Caroline.

With so many churches struggling, the YHCT is now keen to extend its reach. It wants to generate more applications from more churches - even if that means the individual grants it can give out will be smaller. "There are churches that don't even know that we exist," Mr Waterson says.

There's really only key requirement if a church wants to make an application. "They must be used for worship," Mr Waterson says. "We're not there to help somebody do up a former methodist chapel as a private house!"

  • Visit to find out more about the YHCT or make an application. on behalf of your church.

Some churches the YHCT has helped

Holy Trinity, Heworth

Back in 2014, the impressive Rose Window at Holy Trinity church, Heworth was badly damaged in a storm. £11,000 was needed to repair the landmark window and a major fund raising mission was undertaken by the church. The YHCT awarded the church £2000 which enabled the repair work to be begin.

York Press:

The Rose Window at Holy Trinity, Heworth

The delicate job of removing the window was undertaken and the repairs were made, getting the window back to its former glory.

All Saints church, Newton on Ouse

The grade II listed church is a local landmark and has served the communities of Newton on Ouse, Linton on Ouse and Beningbrough for over 165 years. However, with missing roof slates and gaps in the mortar, the church had become badly damaged by damp and was no longer water tight.

The total cost of the repairs was estimated at £258,000, and members of the church embarked on a major fundraising drive to raise the necessary funds.

York Press:

All Saints, Newton on Ouse

A campaign was launched encouraging the local community to sponsor a slate, with a ‘totaliser’ – a mock-up of the church roof with roof tiles signifying the progress of the fundraising appeal.

Thanks to the support of the community, local business and successful grant applications to the Heritage Lottery Fund and the National Churches Trust, by January 2016 the fundraising target was within reach. The final £9,900 was provided by the YHCT.

St John’s, Sharow, near Ripon

In June 2016, the YHCT awarded St John the Divine in Sharow £6000. Built in 1825, this impressive church houses some very important 19th century stained glass, which was in need of urgent repair and restoration.

The church is undergoing an extensive two phase restoration project, not only to preserve the building, but also to adapt it to provide a much needed community space in the local area.

York Press:

St John's, Sharow

The funding from the YHCT followed announcements of grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund and WREN, and is helping ensure St John’s is able to carry out the vital repair works needed to complete phase two of the restoration.

St Mary’s, Askham Richard

This pretty village church, originally built in the 12th century, has a bell turret on the west gable rather than a tower, and it was this turret, along with the vestry chimney and the west end gable, that were in need of urgent repair work. The YHCT awarded £3000 towards the repairs, which were successfully carried out in 2014.

Holy Trinity Acaster Malbis

The YHCT awarded Holy Trinity £1500 in October 2014. This Grade I listed early 14th Norman century church, which underwent restoration and additions in the 1800s, had been well maintained, but by the middle of 2014 the rainwater goods and drainage were in need of urgent repair.

York Press:

Holy Trinity, Acaster Malbis

The YHCT recognised the important role the church played in the life of the village, and awarded £1500 which helped ensure the repair could be undertaken.

All Saint’s, Long Marston

In October 2016, All Saints, in Long Marston, came to the YHCT looking for the final piece of funding urgently needed to mount the upper portion of its timber lych gate onto a new masonry wall. Through contact with the ground, the lower portion of the gate had suffered from wet rot, to the point where it was beginning to collapse.

York Press:

Repairs to the lych gate at All Saints, Long Marston

An inscription on a nearby gable truss records that the gate was erected in memory of Violet Helen York in 1920, who lived in nearby the nearby Hutton Hall. As the lych gate provided the only access from the street to the church, the YHCT were glad to be able to help out.