Why the Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart is on a mission to save Yorkshire’s empty churches

Eurythmics founder Dave Stewart is on a mission to bring empty churches back into use. Picture by Simon Godsave.
Eurythmics founder Dave Stewart is on a mission to bring empty churches back into use. Picture by Simon Godsave.
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He’s sold millions of albums and recorded with music’s greats, so why is Dave Stewart now on a mission to turn empty churches into rock and pop venues? Sarah Freeman reports.

By the time Michael Eavis was surveying the muddy aftermath of this year’s Glastonbury most critics were agreed on the festival’s highlights. From Damon Albarn’s politically charged performance in the wake of the EU referendum result to Coldplay’s feel good finale, it had been a vintage year.

The Lake Poets will perform at Holy Trinity Church in York.

The Lake Poets will perform at Holy Trinity Church in York.

However, just a few days before the hordes began to arrive, a spot a few miles down the road from Worthy Farm witnessed another significant musical event. All Saints’ Church in the pretty village of Langport, which apparently boasts the largest collection of Medieval stained glass in the whole of Somerset, became the inaugural venue for a project, which aims to provide a new chapter for dozens of the country’s empty churches.

Masterminded by Eurythmics founder Dave Stewart and the Churches Conservation Trust, the idea is to exploit the buildings’ natural acoustics by turning them into venues for rock and pop concerts.

For the inaugural gig, Stewart, who fittingly performed There Must Be An Angel (Playing With My Heart) - one of his old band’s biggest hits - brought along a couple of friends. Nick Kershaw and Chris Difford from Squeeze also did a set and this weekend will see the Church Keys project rolled out to Yorkshire.

“This is about breathing life back into these beautiful buildings and turning them into a new kind of community centre,” says Stewart. “I can’t think of a better way to bring the community together to celebrate these historic churches than with music.

“Artists have been transforming neighbourhoods and cities for centuries - just look at Notting Hill or downtown New York City. This is our chance to do something meaningful with some of our most beautiful buildings, which are no longer in regular use by parishioners.”

While the project is still very much in its infancy, on Sunday The Lake Poets, aka Martin Longstaff, will perform at York’s Holy Trinity Church. The Sunderland-based musician signed to the record label run by fellow Mackem Stewart a few years ago and Church Keys is as much about promoting new music as it is about finding a new lease of life for redundant places of worship.

“New artists have such a hard time getting noticed,” added Stewart. “There used to be a simple route, which was to play in your local town, make a recording, and then people bought it – which is a rarity now – and that allows you to move and play. Often for a band to play now it costs them money.

“The Lake Poets are one of the most exciting new talents emerging from Britain right now, and Marty’s origins in Sunderland make this a really meaningful association for myself.”

Those behind Church Keys know that some will balk at the idea of rock and pop replacing hymns and psalms, but the Trust has insisted that they will remain consecrated buildings.

“Music and churches are just so closely intertwined,” said the Trust’s chairman Loyd Grossman, still best known as the original presenter of MasterChef. “ The phrase ‘a capella’ literally means ‘in the chapel’ and music has always been one of the most important forms of participation; these beautiful churches are custom designed and tested over centuries to produce music.

“Wherever you go, usually the parish church is going to be the most impressive, beautiful, inspirational place, and we want to make sure that communities use and love these buildings. The introduction of these musical acts is the most wonderful way of putting new wine in some very old and beautiful bottles.”

The Lake Poets acoustic, candlelit set will take place at York’s Holy Trinity Church on July 3 at 6pm. To book tickets go to tinyurl.com/churchkeys2