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Our churches are a thrilling link with our past. And 10,000 will open their doors today .

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If we have no sense of the past, our sense of the present is diminished. Of the many gateways to our past the churches and chapels of Britain offer the most profound insights. Grand houses and castles may be more impressive but the simple parish church usually outdates them all.

I live in a Sussex hamlet right under the Downs. There are some traces of old houses, but nothing earlier than the 16th century. Our church, on the other hand, dates back to the mid-13th century and probably before that. Our first rector, Gervase, was worshipping here in 1226.

The church was described by Sir John Betjeman as “ancient and rustic”. The entrance is along a short path, with banks of primroses on either side in spring, through a Victorian porch and down steps into a simple nave. It is cool, musty and a little damp. The white of the walls is broken only by the stone surrounds of the windows. On high days there are flowers on the window sills and the altar.

There are rows of seats at the back of the church but in front of them there are superior box pews, each with its own door. They date from the 18th century and still belong, as of right, to the grander houses in the hamlet.

Undemocratic it may be but our church observes this tradition along with others. No Bible is read here except the King James version and no Matins or Holy Communion allowed except if it comes from the Book of Common Prayer. Woe betide a visiting priest who strays.

On Sundays there are usually 10 or 12 worshippers, friends who drink coffee together after the service is over and exchange a little light gossip. At any other time it is a tranquil place to pause and rest. I sometimes go in at the end of a walk across the Downs, along a chalk path through the woods until ahead of me I see the low, wooden belfry which seems to squat on the strong flint and stone walls of the church itself. Inside, calm descends. The busy world is hushed.

I wander about, transported through time by the tiny tomb of a child squeezed in sideways just by the chancel, and the two flamboyant memorials to a family long gone. They have left their mark with brilliantly coloured coats of arms and an inscription on one which reads like the perfect example of Christian virtue: “She was one of the best of wives. Her devotion was constant and regular, her charity extensive, her conversation courteous and obliging. Godliness was her employment and heaven is her reward.”

Maybe this inscription was not entirely deserved but it gives an insight into the aspirations of a different era. I pause and reflect on what life must have been like then, in the 17th century, when this monument was erected, and all the centuries before, of the great host of people who have stood in this place and prayed and hoped for some sign of salvation or some respite from their cares and their pain.

That is what is so thrilling about our churches and chapels – that they allow us, encourage us, to think back, to lose for a moment our obsession with our times and our troubles and put them in a wider context.

This is the foreword to ‘Exploring Churches and Chapels’, to be published Nov 10. Today’s National Churches Trust event, Ride+Stride, aims to raise money for the upkeep of churches in 35 counties

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