By the late 1840s many of Preston’s churches had become very overcrowded, so a decision was made to found a new one dedicated to St Walburge. It was designed by the architect Joseph Hansom, the famous designer of the original two wheeled horse drawn Hansom Cab. A huge fundraising push took place, where it was said that even the poorest gave a penny a week. Building began in 1840 and the church was opened four years later. The famous spire was added in 1867 and at 309 feet it is thought to be the tallest of any parish church in England (only a handful of cathedrals have a larger one). The colour of the spire contrasts to that of the main body of the church because it’s made of a different stone- a limestone full of fossils.
In 1873 the far end of the church was extended and a curved aspe was created. Today the volunteer guides will tell you that during the building work bodies were found that dated back to the former use of the site. The Medieval leper hospital of St Mary Magdalene once stood here and for the full history of this lost building see the blog post here. St Walburge’s has been restored over the years and on one occasion, the statues of the saints were put back in the wrong order on their roof plinths, and their names painted over. All their identities have still not been sorted out- but it’s hoped they will be during the current restoration. Intriguingly, the statue of King David has been cut down the middle, with one half of the king on one side of the church and the other half on the opposite side. Each half of King David looks across the aisle at its missing part.
One of the most interesting pieces in the church is the war memorial. The oak crucifix at its centre is from Medieval Germany, dating sometime around the 1300s. It was salvaged from a French abbey that had been destroyed in the First World War. From there it went to Belgium, until finally ending up at St Walburge’s. For more on this fascinating memorial see World War 1 Cemeteries website here .
The interior of the church is stunning, and before you visit, why not have a look at the 360 degree tour on the church’s own website here. If you are going to visit, then on many Saturdays the church tower is open. The views over Preston and beyond are fantastic and you may see or hear the resident Peregrine falcons which live in the tower.
The future of the church was in doubt in recent years, but has now been assured after the Bishop of Lancaster has declared that it is a ‘shrine’ for pilgrimage. The running of the shrine has been entrusted to the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest, a Catholic missionary society. All visitors are welcome.
The church is open every day. On Saturdays their are also guided tours and the steps up the tower and steeple are often open then.
To see more about the Lost Leper Hospital of St Mary Magdgalene which used to be on this site, click here
Nearby, just a short walk away the Site of the Preston’s Medieval Friary
Look at St Walburge’s Church, (1989) Preston Bessacarr Prints. Booklet currently in print and available when you visit the church.
The Spire Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest website – http://www.stwalburge.org
Historic England list website https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1207341 (accessed 12/12/16)
This blog post also makes use of on site interpretation at St Walburge’s Church, and conversations with the church’s volunteer guides.