The Yorkshire Wolds is one of England’s best kept secrets – rolling hills, stunning views and historic sites dating back thousands of years.
But in the 19th century it was also the centre of an extraordinary episode of church building quite unlike anything seen before or since.
Between 1856 and 1913 father and son, Sir Tatton Sykes, 4th baronet (1772-1863) and Sir Tatton Sykes, 5th baronet (1826-1913) of Sledmere, built, rebuilt or restored 18 rural churches in East and North Yorkshire, chiefly on the Wolds.
Not only did they finance this vast effort from their family fortune – spending £15m in today’s money - but they also employed the greatest architects of the day such as John Loughborough Pearson, George Edmund Street, who designed the Royal Courts of Justice in London, and Temple Moore.
The result is what experts believe to be the most important collection of small rural churches anywhere in the UK.
The 100th anniversary of the death of Sir Tatton Sykes II is being marked during Bank Holiday weekend, from Saturday May 4 to Monday 6, when all of the celebrated Sykes churches on the Yorkshire Wolds will be open to the public.
In North Yorkshire they 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, but all will provide a rare opportunity to experience the splendour of these nationally important buildings.
Catharine Otton-Goulder, QC, from Bainton, who jointly founded the East Yorkshire Churches Trust nearly 10 years ago, said: “Sir Tatton Sykes II has been called England’s greatest 19th century church builder. 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. We would love to see more people discovering them for the first time.”
Highlights of the churches include wall paintings at Garton, a lavish interior at Sledmere, Weaverthorpe’s hill-top location and floor mosaics at Wilton, copying those in the Vatican.
Sledmere House is also staging an exhibition on the Craftsmen of the Sykes Churches until October 27 featuring stained glass, wall paintings, mosaics, woodwork, stone carving and ironwork.