The former poet laureate Sir John Betjeman loved churches – and Yorkshire has some of the best. STEPHEN LEWIS revels in an updated edition of the poet’s classic church guide.

SIR John Betjeman, the former poet laureate, famously loved churches. He loved them so much, in fact, that more than 50 years ago he wrote a classic guide to more than 2,500 of Britain’s best.

His beautifully-written introduction was a hymn to the parish church in all its forms.

He listed them, and what a list it makes. There was the tall town church, he wrote, “smelling of furniture polish and hot-water pipes, a shadow of the medieval marvel it once was, so assiduously have Victorian and even later restorers renewed everything old; the little weather-beaten hamlet church standing in a farmyard down a narrow lane, bat-droppings over the pews and one service a month; the church of a once prosperous village, a relic of the 15th-century wool trade, whose soaring splendour of stone and glass subsequent generations have had neither the energy nor the money to destroy; the suburban church with Northamptonshire-style steeple rising unexpectedly above slate roofs of London and calling with mid-Victorian bells to the ghosts on the edge of the industrial estate; the high, the low, the central churches, the alive and the dead ones, the churches that are easy to pray in and those that are not, the churches whose architecture brings you to your knees, the churches whose decorations affront the sight – all these come within the wide embrace of our Anglican Church.”

More than 50 years on, Collins has republished Betjeman’s classic book, updated by Richard Surman and complete with 350 stunning new colour photos, under the title Betjeman’s Best British Churches.

For those who like nothing more than a drive into the country to nose around a weather-beaten hamlet church – or, indeed, those who prefer a tall town church with its furniture polish and smell of hot water pipes – it is the perfect companion. And, as you’d expect, the churches of Yorkshire feature strongly in this beautiful book.

All the best-known are here – All Saints, St Olave and Holy Trinity in York; St Mary in Whitby; St Peter and St Paul in Pickering; St Mary and St John (better known as Beverley Minster) in Beverley. But there are many, many more, too: each entry a brief thumbnail sketch that picks out, with a poet’s eye for detail, why the church is worth a visit.

The crowning glory of St Peter and St Paul in Pickering, Betjeman says, is the paintings in the nave arcades – an “arresting, long array of 15th-century wall paintings much repainted in the 1880s, but lively and very enjoyable. Here are shown the Martyrdom of John the Baptist and St Edmund, St George and the Dragon, and the Resurrection – a remarkable Bibilia Pauperum (poor man’s bible) used to educate the illiterate congregation.”

The 11th-century monastic church of St Mary at Lastingham, with its fragments of Anglo-Saxon sculpture, its groined stone vaults, its apse and crypt is, he says “unforgettable, one of the most moving places in England.”

St Peter at Hackness, near Scarborough, meanwhile, is a ‘romantically set church in a deep wooded valley, with two great treasures; a carved Saxon cross and a pearwood Oberammergau carving against the 15th century font cover.”

What makes Betjeman’s guide so special is the detail he notices – detail that the casual visitor might easily miss.

Many people are familiar, for example, with the glorious vaulting in Beverley Minster: but how many will have noticed the carved stone minstrels that decorate the capitals, eves and corners of the nave? Betjeman did.

At St Peter and St Paul in Howden, meanwhile, he draws attention to the Saltmarshe chantry, housing medieval tombs and effigies, including one of a knight in chainmail.

Visiting a parish church with Betjeman as a companion is a bit like being shown around by a kindly local parishioner filled with enthusiasm for what makes his church unique.

There are dozens and dozens of Yorkshire churches listed in this marvellous book: far too many to include them all here. So here are just a very few more:

• All Saints, North Street, York: “medieval painted glass of outstanding interest: two windows of note depict ‘Corporal Acts of Mercy’, and the ‘Pricke of Conscience’.”

• St Oswald, Arncliffe: “This church should be visited for no other reason than its breathtakingly beautiful dales setting beside the River Skirfare… Charles Kingsley found inspiration for The Water Babies here”.

• St Mary the Virgin, Studley Royal: “The chancel… is a riot of colour and decoration based on the Book of Revelation; the ceiling has angelic choirs, the floor depicts the four rivers round the Garden of Eden, and there is an Assyrian lion over the sedilia”.

• St Mary, Raskelf: “a 19th century rebuilding around a delightful 15th century weather-boarded timber tower and pyramid, unique in North Yorkshire”.

• St John the Baptist, Kirk Hammerton: “The slender Saxon tower has paired belfry openings – exquisite in its simplicity.”

• St Edith, Bishop Wilton: “Pearson did a wonderful job in his restoration of 1858-9, such as few Victorian architects could have achieved. The chancel arch has original beak-heads and scrolls. The south doorway is a successful reconstruction from old materials, with animals, faces, beak-heads and human forms... and the fine black-and-white mosaic floor in the chancel is by Salviati, based on a design in the Vatican”.

Betjeman’s Best British Churches, updated by Richard Surman, is published by Collins on July 21, priced £35.