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Church spotlight: St Laurence's Church in Ludlow - the Cathedral of the Marches

South Shropshire | News | Published:

It is known as The Cathedral of the Marches and attracts 65,000 visitors from all over the world every year.

And when the Ven Colin Williams got the chance to become rector of St Laurence's Church in Ludlow five years ago, it wasn't a hard decision to make.

"I knew Ludlow a little bit because I used to live in Liverpool, and that was just about near enough for me to get to for walks across the Long Mynd," he says.

"So when I saw this job advertised, I thought it seemed ideal."

St Laurence's, which has stood in the market town for 800 years, is one of the greatest parish churches in Britain.

In 1999 it became one of just 18 churches to be given a five-star rating in Simon Jenkins' acclaimed book England's Thousand Best Churches.

It is also the 13th most popular free visitor attraction in the whole of the West Midlands.

"We get people from most of the countries in the world, and we also get visitors from all over the UK," he says.

"I think places like Canada and the US are where the largest number come from, but we also get quite a few from Western Europe."

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Mr Williams, who worked as a solicitor before training as a priest in the early 1980s, says it is both daunting and rewarding being responsible for such an important part of English history.

"Thousands will have gone before us in over 800 years, and many will go after us.

"We are just the custodians, and it falls to us to pass it on to the next generation."

Anybody who visits the church will immediately marvel at the stunning array of windows which flood the building with light of various hues.

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"We believe we have the finest collection of medieval stained glass in England," he says.

One of his favourite features is the Jesse window, which dates back to 1330.

The imposing century east window tells the story of Roman martyr St Laurence, to whom the church is dedicated. Laurence was one of seven deacons who died for their beliefs during the persecution of Emperor Valerian in 258AD.

Also impressive is Thomas Willement's west window, which was added in 1860, and tells the story of the unfortunate Prince Arthur. Arthur, the eldest son of Henry VII, died at Ludlow Castle in April 1502, at the age of 16.

His body was taken to Worcester Cathedral for burial, but his heart was taken across the road to St Laurence's.

The "heart" actually is thought to be euphemism, referring to all his internal organs which could not be embalmed, and had to be buried close to where he died.

It is also where the heart of Sir Henry Sidney was buried, following his death at Worcester in 1586.

Sir Henry, who was President of the Council of Wales and the Marches, is remembered by a monument bearing his arms; the rest of his remains were buried with his wife Mary Dudley at Penhurst, Kent.

The ashes of poet AE Housman — author of A Shropshire Lad — are buried in the church grounds and marked by the stump of a cherry tree.

The parish church was established when the town was founded by the Normans in the late 11th century.

After its initial construction the church was expanded and rebuilt in 1199 to accommodate a growing town population.

Ludlow's growing prosperity, built on the back of the wool trade, provided the funds for considerable redevelopment during the 15th century, with a virtual re-building of the nave, tower and chancel.

In 1540 the King's agent John Leland paid a visit, and described it as: "Very fayre and large and richly adorned and taken for the fairest in all these quarters."

But while St Laurence's is a big draw for tourists, Mr Williams is keen so stress that it is first and foremost a place of worship.

"Our services on an average Sunday are attended by around 150 people , but we get something like 700 for special occasions, such as Christmas, Easter or Remembrance Sunday," he says.

Today, visitors to the church are guaranteed a warm welcome, by an army of more than 100 volunteers who are on hand to greet people coming to the church for the first time.

Mr Williams says: "Jesus said 'I call you as friends' , and we want to receive everybody who comes into our church as a friend, and we hope people who leave will want to know a little bit more about what we're about."

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