Trent Valley Church Heritage Trail

Staunton Harold Church in Leicester, managed by the National Trust

As part of Church Tourism Week, six local churches are opening their doors on Saturday 28 July from 1pm to 4.30pm, for the Trent Valley Church Heritage Trail. Drive, cycle or walk the ten-mile circuit between each church – or simply visit one or two that you’ve never seen before.

Each church has a fascinating history, which our guides will be happy to share with you. Please note that some churches are not owned by the National Trust, and may have uneven floors – contact the churches directly for full access information. Four-legged friends may be asked to wait outside. You can download a map of the full circuit below.

Prayer, protest and power

The Trent Valley, situated between Derbyshire and Leicestershire, was dominated by the local landed gentry until the nineteenth century. Local families such as the Hastings, Shirleys, Beaumonts and Harpurs established their estates, including Calke Abbey, Coleorton and Staunton Harold, and were the patrons of their local churches.

Through their patronage, these families shaped local churches to display their power, to reflect their religious views, and to be a place of worship. Stepping into each church, you’ll see evidence of prayer, protest and power as you discover the history and heritage of local churches.

St Michael and St. Mary’s, Melbourne

This remarkable twelfth century Romanesque church is one of the finest Norman churches in England. Probably of royal patronage, it may also have been an Episcopal Church built for visits by the Bishops. Look out for the ‘Melbourne cat’, and carved Norman arches.

The church will be open on Sat 28 July, but there will be no guides attending. There are tea rooms in the village with toilet facilities.

St Mary and St Hardulphs, Breedon on the Hill

Situated at the top of Breedon Hill and possibly built over an Iron Age hill fort, this church houses one of the best collections of Saxon carvings in the country. It was known as Breedon Priory before the Reformation, and was bought to house the Shirley family monuments.

The Shirley family had remained Catholics and the monuments, made of local alabaster, can be seen as a proclamation of status, at a time when other positions of power were not available to the family. The Shirley pew, built in 1627, was another show of protest – the church had been converted into the parish church and this pew sat in the middle of the nave.

There will be guides on hand to share the church’s history with you as part of the trail. You can also view the Breedon Angel, a Byzantine-style Saxon sculpture, at 1.30pm and 3.30pm. Parking is available, and there are toilet facilities at the church. A great place for a picnic, there’s also a local café in the village. Please contact the church directly for more access information.

Chapel of the Holy Trinity, Staunton Harold

This is one of the few churches built in the seventeenth century during the Commonwealth. Robert Shirley was the grandson of George Shirley, who commissioned the monuments at Breedon. The Chapel of the Holy Trinity is now managed by the National Trust.

Robert Shirley was a high Anglican and a Loyalist. Living in ‘calamitous’ times, he did ‘the best of things in ye worst of times’ – as described by the inscription above the church doors. Shirley commissioned the building of the church in 1653 as a protest against the Commonwealth and Puritan church practices, and his beliefs are much reflected in the lavish design of the church.

An inscription describing Sir Robert Shirley at Staunton Harold Church
Staunton harold Church, Leicester, Midlands
An inscription describing Sir Robert Shirley at Staunton Harold Church

Robert Shirley died of smallpox in the Tower of London where he was imprisoned for his involvement in various up-risings against the Commonwealth, and his efforts through ‘The Sealed Knot’ to return King Charles II to power.

There is a small parking charge at Staunton Harold. There are toilet facilities close-by at the Ferrers Centre, and a café to refresh and refuel.

St Helen’s, Ashby

Situated in the middle of Ashby close to the castle, this medieval church contains many important monuments to the Hastings family, including one to Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon.

The Heritage Centre will be open with a display exploring the history of the church and the town. Visit the St Helens Heritage website (click on the logo at the top of this page) for more details on activities, access and general information. Refreshments and toilet facilities will be available.

The Huntingdon Tomb at St Helen's
The tomb at St Helen's Church in Ashby
The Huntingdon Tomb at St Helen's

St George’s, Ticknall

This twelfth century church was destroyed with gunpowder and remains can still be seen in the church grounds.  Built in 1842, it is a Gothic Revival church with two William Morris and Co. windows. The church is always open to the public.

St Giles, Calke Abbey

This small estate church had a medieval beginning, but was built anew in Georgian form between 1827 and 1829. As part of the church’s refurbishment, new ceilings were installed, galleries built at the west end, new box pews and plain glass were fitted, and the walls white-washed. The church stands on the Calke Abbey Estate, the former home of the Harpur-Crewe family, and is now managed by the National Trust.

The Calke Estate has a per-person park admission charge, which helps to fund vital conservation work around the estate. Non-members can access the parkland and church (which is in the gardens) for free on 28 July if taking part in the Trent Valley Church Heritage Trail, by informing our teams upon arrival that you’re part of the trail. 

The Church of St Giles at Calke Abbey
The Church of St Giles at Calke Abbey, Derbyshire, Midlands
The Church of St Giles at Calke Abbey

This event is part of #ChurchTourismWeek, an initiative from The Churches Conservation Trust. Download a map of the full circuit here:

Trent Valley Church Heritage Trail (PDF / 3.2MB) download