Crumbling churches find guardian angel

Catharine Otton-Goulder outside St Andrew's church, Weaverthorpe
Catharine Otton-Goulder outside St Andrew's church, Weaverthorpe
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Cathy Otton-Goulder may have found quiet sanctuary in the Yorkshire Wolds, but as Sarah Freeman discovers, the area has also discovered a champion for its historic churches.

Not many people can claim to have had their likeness immortalised in stone on a 14th-century Grade I listed church.

However, if you look closely at the imposing Gothic architecture of St Andrew’s Church in the East Yorkshire village of Bainton, staring straight back down from one of the corbels is a figure which looks neither particularly cherubic nor angelic. Just a couple of carvings down from the Lamb of God is the face of Cathy Otton-Goulder, a barrister from London, who 20 years or so ago came to a decision which would unexpectedly see her become a champion for the Wolds and in particularly its churches.

In the 1990s when she was looking for a rural bolt hole, away from the pressures of the capital and her day job, Cathy had just two requirements. The garden needed to be private and the property had to be close to a reasonable number of historic churches. It wasn’t the kind of wish list most estate agents were used to, but as it turned out Cathy wasn’t your average buyer.

“I just thought ‘right what do I like?’ I like the countryside, but not that carefully manicured countryside they have in the south of England and I like churches,” she says in the same no-nonsense tone that has won her respect in her Brick Court chambers. “That’s what was important to me, everything else came second.”

Plotting a route around the country, Cathy eventually stumbled on the Wolds and could hardly believe her luck. Not only did it meet her requirements for rolling, yet slightly untamed, countryside, but it was also home to a special group of 18 churches which had all either been built, rebuilt or restored two generations of the Sykes family from nearby Sledmere House.

Cathy was sold and, having put an offer in on a former rectory (where else?) she began delving deeper into the area’s religious history.

She soon discovered that while the churches had once been regarded as among the best in England, many had seen better days with crumbling masonry, chipped paintwork and leaky roofs.

Given the number of churches and the scale of the restoration work, less resolute souls might have been put off. Not Cathy, who had already secured funding for repairs to her own village church. It wasn’t one of those which had benefitted from Sykes money, but it is nevertheless historically significant and it was those early fundraising efforts which resulted in Cathy being given her very own corbel.

“Traditionally, clergy dedicated corbels to people they knew and who were important in the life of the church,” she says. “There was a bit of umming and ahhing, but in the end the architect decided to make one of the Lamb of God, one of the former rector, who sadly died before the restoration was complete, and the last two he made of me and my cat.”

Buoyed by the success of that first £150,000 fundraising project, Cathy decided to cast her net a little wider and helped found the East Yorkshire Churches Trust. In the decade since she has been instrumental in raising the profile of the area’s Sykes churches and through relentless form filling, a little cajoling and boundless enthusiasm has raised an impressive £5m.

The result of that work will be seen this weekend when to mark the the 100th anniversary of the death of Sir Tatton Sykes II, all 18 churches the family put their mark on – including Cathy’s own personal favourite, St Andrew’s, perched high on a hill in the village of Weaverthorpe, will be open to the public for the first time since anyone can remember.

“Isn’t it beautiful?” she says, a well thumbed copy of Pevsner’s Architectural Guide to the area in hand. “Look at how glorious that stained glass is and how much work has gone into the roof timbers. The Sykes family didn’t just throw money at these churches, they invested it. They brought in the very best craftsmen and architects working in England at the time, people like Clayton and Bell who were responsible for the stained glass windows to George Edmund Street, who designed St Peter’s at Helperthorpe and John Loughborough Pearson whose work on St Michael’s Church in Garton-on-the-Wolds really does have to be seen to be believed.”

Cathy is on a roll. Within the space of a few minutes she has delivered a potted history on St William’s links to East Yorkshire – he was Archbishop of York in the 12th-century and a man of slightly dubious morals – challenged me to a treasure hunt and given a persuasive argument for why the Sykes churches deserve to be much better known.

“The story of the Wolds churches began in 1856 when Sir Tatton Sykes, the fourth baronet of Sledmere, began his programme of restoration. His legacy was continued by his son and by the end of 1913 when work was completed on St Hilda’s in Sherburn, it had cost the family the equivalent of £15m in today’s money. No one is quite sure why. It may be because at the time Methodism, which was related to popular left-wing politics was on the rise and the right-wing Sykes family saw investing in these Anglican churches as a way of redressing the balance. Or it could have been that they simply liked churches.

“They believed in churches as centres of Christian art and worship and crucially they had the money to realise their vision,” says Cathy. “Also unlike a lot of wealthy Victorian families who wanted to put their stamp on buildings, they were completely respectful of what had gone before.

“I know when people look at these churches today, the instant reaction is, ‘well the congregation must have been a lot healthier than it is now’, but actually that’s not the case. At St Peter’s in Helperthorpe when Sir Tatton Sykes II moved in there was just one person taking Holy Communion. What you have to remember is that back then there were very different ideas in terms of the use of church buildings. As well as being places where religious services were held, they were the centre of the community and that’s really what we want it to become again.”

Since last Easter, when St Andrew’s began opening its doors every day, there have been 300 signatures in the visitors book. For every message left it is reckoned another 10 people will have passed by its altar and gazed up at the ceiling decoration.

“In the past I think some churches have been guilty of being inaccessible,” says Cathy. “Not everyone wants to go to a Sunday service, but most people do really value having it there. We’ve seen that time and again with people who are not regular church goers really embracing the fundraising.”

It was perhaps inevitable that Cathy would become a defender of the faith. Her father was the renowned biblical scholar Michael Goulder. Eton-educated, he spent almost 30 years as an Anglican clergyman in Manchester and, though when Cathy was in her 20s he declared himself an atheist, she believes that by the time of his death in 2010 he had regained his faith.

“He was incredibly proud when I told him I had become a reader in the church and he also insisted I conduct his funeral service. He had his reasons for leaving the clergy, but at the end I think he had come to terms with his faith.”

This weekend will be a busy one for Cathy and the rest of the trust volunteers, but there’s still more to do. Currently on a sabbatical from her chambers as she completes a PhD at Oxford University on the effect of the Reformation on East Yorkshire churches, she is also organising workshops to pass on the secrets of writing successful grant applications to others and having taken part in sponsored cycle rides, launched her own fundraising magazine and organised countless fetes and musical weekends, remains something of a force to be reckoned with in the Wolds.

It makes you wonder whether anyone she has approached to donate an auction prize or man a refreshment stall has ever dared say no.

“What to me?,” she says incredulously. “No, never.”

The centenary celebration across all the Sykes churches takes place today and tomorrow. For more details visit


St Mary’s, Sledmere: The largest and grandest of the Sykes churches, designed by Temple Moor and completed in 1898 at a cost of £60,000.

St Andrew’s, Kirby Grindalythe: Dating from the early 12th-century, in the 1870s the chancel was reconstructed and a new nave built.

St Peter’s, Helperthorpe: Designed by the renowned architect GE Street, the church is known for its intricately decorated ceiling.

St Andrew’s, Weaverthorpe: The Norman church was restored by Street and boasts impressive stained glass windows.

St Michael’s, Garton-on-the-Wolds: Another Norman church which was restored in 1857 by JL Pearson and Street, its wall paintings are some of the best of their kind.

St Hilda’s, Sherburn: The last of the churches funded by Sir Tatton Sykes II, the work was completed in 1912, just a few months before his death in 1913.