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  • Writer's pictureFiona Jackson

Why do Churches have Towers?

(A Church is a great way to access Local History for Primary Schools)

Whilst exploring local history and chatting with a group of children, one of the questions that came up was " Why do churches have towers?", another child suggested it might be for the same reason that castles have towers too.

Great question, and good answer - but we thought it would be fun to look into it and find out.

And this being Arteology meant actually investigating the church tower at St Alkmunds in Whitchurch , Shropshire.

So Why do churches have towers?

Originally churches were simple structures built of wood or stone, a small building with a pitched roof, in fact St Alkmunds church began life just like that.

Built around 900 AD by Aethelflaed, Lady of Mercia and King Alfred's daughter, St Alkmunds would have been a simple timber building, with no tower.

Roll on to the 1100's and the church was rebuilt in white stone from Grinshill - probably giving the town its modern name of White Church ( Whitchurch).

Towers on churches were introduced around this time period.

Towers allow the churches to be seen from a great distance, and point, with a spire added ( The tall pointy thing), towards Heaven.

Many rural churches once had wooden spires or Steeples on top of their towers, but in some cases once the original wooden spire became too difficult or costly to repair, they were demolished and today we just see the stone tower.

Sporting fact - The type of horse racing, known as 'Steeplechasing' or 'Point to Point' was originally a race from one parish church to another, with the jockeys looking out for the church Steeple to guide them to the finnish post.

So a church tower makes it visible and points to Heaven.

What's inside a Church Tower?

What's inside a church tower partly depends on how big it is!

St Alkmunds church is the biggest Georgian church in Shropshire outside Shrewsbury, and it has a MASSIVE tower!

The current church was rebuilt and consecrated in 1712 after the earlier Medieval church tower collapsed on the night of 31st July 1711 and the whole church was demolished and rebuilt.

The tower is around 100 feet high and has (we think!) 120 stone steps... it definitely feels like more when you climb them!

The spiral steps are very very narrow and steep, apparently the choir boys used to sneak into the tower, run up the steps and write their names on the wall at the top of the tower - the names are still there.

The Clock Mechanism.

This is a Joyces clock and was made in Whitchurch by the world famous clock makers

( Joyces also made The Bridge Clock in Chester amongst many others dotted across the Uk and world)

There are two clock faces on St Alkmunds. The clock mechanism makes a great sound.

The Bell House

The Bell House is near the top of the tower, and it was a bit nerve wracking to lean into a tiny doorway to take these photos' ( I don't like heights!)

Thankfully I wasn't near the Bells when the clock struck, that would have been LOUD!

St Alkmunds church has eight bells, the oldest one dates from 1714.

The Bell Ringers practice on a Thursday evening, and can be heard all across the town.

Fun Fact - When the Bells are being rung, due to them being so high up the tower, the actual tower sways from side to side, around an inch in each direction....enough to make some bell ringers feel sea sick!

View From The Top

The view from the top of the tower is stunning ( and a bit scary!)

One of the suggestions from the group of children was that the tower could be like a castle tower. During the English Civil War, church towers were actually used as lookout points and snipers positions.

So yes, a church tower can be used in the same way as a castle tower.

And architecturally many of them do look like castle towers.

The top of St Alkmunds tower has a nice high balustrade around it - much to my relief!

It also has four lightning conductors, one in each corner that look like Weather Vanes.

There is also a small satellite dish that is used to digitally keep the clock time accurate.

The fantastic thing about being on top of the tower is that you can see the history of the town all laid out below, if you look at the building layout along the high street, you can still see the medieval street plan, with the building frontages along the road and the long narrow 'burgage plots' running back from the High Street.

A Quick look inside...and an unsolved crime!

The inside of the church is glorious, with truly beautiful stained glass windows, including one with crosses, created from salvaged medieval glass from the old church.

The church has a gallery at one end, from where you can see it all. The gallery once extended down both sides of the aisle, you can see them in the old photograph.

An Unsolved Crime!

The church originally had two huge chandeliers hanging above the aisle, today there is only one. This is due to the other matching chandelier being somehow stolen in the 1980's - quite how you steal a huge chandelier from such a high ceiling is anyone's guess....but someone did, and to this day the crime remains unsolved!!

( Thoughts of the Trotter Brothers spring to mind! )

Slightly Macabre Fact - The tomb of Sir John Talbot ( who founded the school by that name in the town and was First Earl of Shrewsbury ) is buried in the church, his medieval carved tomb is well worth a look, he died in 1453 at the Battle of Castillon and had his embalmed heart buried beneath the steps in the porch of St Alkmunds Church.

Local History for Local Schools

The great thing about teaching Local History is that it's easily accessible and all around us - Local Museums and Heritage Centres will have a huge array of resources to cover virtually any time period and subject.

Churches are a fantastic local historical resource too, and often overlooked - from looking at St Alkmunds we can access local history dating from the Anglo Saxons, right through to the present day.

Not only is there the physical history of the building, but everything it houses, from parish records to grave stones.

The church building itself offers a comparable timeline with plenty of fascinating related offshoots open for research and side topics.

Churches also tend to have people with an interest in local history, and people within their congregation who are willing to share memories.

Why not have a look at your local Church, see what you can find out.

To find out what Arteology is up to, or book one of our workshops just visit or Facebook

To find out more about the local history of Whitchurch in Shropshire visit Whitchurch Museum and Archives. It's a fantastic little museum with some amazing artifacts covering time periods ranging from the Neolithic to the present, and a brilliant local Archive resource too.

Happy History Hunting - Fee

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