Every weekend and every holiday, Cameron Newham is from sunrise to sunset, in rain, sun, hail and biting wind, to fulfill his quest to photograph all 12,000 rural parish churches in England.
He always works alone – “other people are quite bored” – he takes photos of, well, pretty much everything. A nice view from the gate and all exterior facades.
Then it’s inside for a few dozen snaps of all the monuments from before 1900, all the brass from before 1800, the font, altar, royal arms, pulpits, chairs, and murals.
But no church chests, “unless they are exceptional.”
Cameron Newham (pictured) is looking to photograph all 12,000 rural parish churches in England
Among the churches photographed by Mr. Newham at St. Remigius Church in Long Clawson, Leicestershire (photo)
Or organs, “because I don’t know anything about it.”
Or bells, “because who wants to lie around in the belfry?”
He will only ‘do’ Victorian glass if it is mentioned in historians Nikolaus Pevsner’s guides to English buildings.
And strictly no digging. “I have to have limits,” he says. “I’ve taken half a million photos in almost a quarter of a century!”
At the time, he braved angry preachers (“someone almost hit me, but I might rather push his buttons”), unruly church masters and ghostly apparitions.
In St Mary the Virgin in Bucklebury, Berkshire, where the Duchess of Cambridge grew up, he was once shocked by an elderly couple who entered the church – and then disappeared.
In Cornwall, he nearly drowned in quicksand while attempting to photograph a 15th-century well. An owl almost knocked him out when he flew at him and hit his head in a ruined church.
But, fearless, Cameron – in his mid-fifties – has stubbornly pursued his goal.
Mr Newham (depicted in Weston Church, Otley, Yorkshire) is from dawn to dusk, in rain, sun, hail and biting wind, to fulfill his quest
The photographer (at All Saints’ Church in Otley, Yorkshire) has now ticked over 9,000 churches
Pictured: The ruins of the old church in Colston Bassett, Nottinghamshire taken by Mr Newham in June 2016
He has now ticked off more than 9,000 churches and developed a smartphone app, Keyholder For Parish Churches, to make churches more accessible, both personally – with all possible information for visitors – but also online, with thousands of great photos, especially useful right now, with everyone at home.
After 23 years, he is more involved than ever. “This is my gift to the future.
“I expect these photos will still be available in 500, maybe 1,000 years,” he says. “I’ll be the modern Pevsner.”
On paper, Cameron is not the obvious candidate to single-handedly provide a photographic account of the rural heritage of the Anglican Church. He is from Perth, Australia, hates school history, is not remotely religious – and he is not even a professional photographer.
But he is passionate about our parish churches. “They are the best buildings in their community, but they are taken for granted,” he says.
While visiting the Holy Trinity Church in Norfolk, the photographer took a picture of Sarah Hare’s wax burial effigy (left) and in St. Michaels Church in Ashton, Devon he was able to capture a painted panel (right)
Mr. Newham visited Long Compton Parish Church in Warwickshire (photo) in 1997
The photographer also visited St. Michaels Church (left) in Littlecotes, Lincolnshire and St Mary, St Katharine & All Saints (right) in Edington, Wiltshire
On a visit to St. Cuthberts Church in Elsdon, Northumberland, Mr. Newham was able to catch the skulls of horses kept in a cupboard
“People should use them more and remember to house most of the best sculptures, paintings and monuments in this country.”
It all started in 1996 when Cameron moved to London to work as an IT consultant. Finding weekends in the Pinner suburb rather gloomy, and inspired by Pevsner’s books, he decided to photograph some of the structures shown, but not pictured.
The first church he photographed was St Peter & St Paul in Long Compton, Warwickshire. For starters, it was all fun and simple. He had a compact camera and only took three photos per place.
But when he upgraded to a digital camera, the project grew and he decided to focus on parish churches.
Meanwhile, the photographer was able to capture the ruins at St. Peters Church, Low Toynton, Lincolnshire
Mr. Newham photographed a holy water font (left) at St. Mary the Virgin Church in Thorpe Arnold, Leicstershire, depicting Sir Thomas Hewar and his wife at St Edmunds Church in Emneth, Norfolk (right)
“It’s just a bit extensive,” he says. “The first county I” did “was Berkshire – I broke it down one by one. Then it went fast. I never really anticipated the bowl. ‘
Or, presumably, the hundreds of thousands of hours it would absorb. His commitment and stamina are extraordinary.
One summer day, and if all the key holders are willing, he can go through eight churches in a 12-hour shift, followed by another few hours of typing his notes and transferring hundreds of photos to his home, now near Bradford, West Yorks.
Often he doesn’t even bring a packed lunch, but only pauses for a snack. He devoted almost every day to the project from work.
A few years ago, he took 18 months off to photograph all 847 rural churches in Devon and Cornwall – and even moved to Plymouth.
Also in the photographer’s album at All Saints Church in Hessle, East Yorkshire (left) and St. Mary the Virgin Church in Isles Abbotts, Somerset (right)
Newham was able to photograph a holy water font at Holy Cross Church, Greenford, London in 2018
Together we visit the All Saints Church in Weston, Yorkshire. It is a small monumental building from the 11th century. The interior is relatively simple, with whitewashed walls and chests.
Cameron walks around with his trusty Canon, admires the stained glass, weapons and shutters and tells me about various photographic challenges. “Clear glass windows and dark pews – my worst photography nightmare,” he says.
Ecclesiastical clutter is another bête noire. He still can’t explain the disappearing couple in Bucklebury.
“I said ‘hello’ several times and they didn’t answer, which I thought was very rude,” he says. So he waited for them in the choir, but they disappeared.
So far he has only woken up twice and thought, “Oh no, not today.” He went anyway.
He still walks into every new church excitedly, never consults Pevsner beforehand for fear of spoiling surprise and can remember every church he has visited. “They all have very different personalities – some are simple, others are graceful.
“And sometimes I really like the fragrance,” he says. “It is impossible to compare them.”
Surprisingly, Cameron’s least favorite church is a church full of architectural treasures.
In St. Michaels Church in Ashton, Devon, Mr. Newham photographed the painted panels
His ideal job is a ‘beautiful Victorian box with nothing in it. That’s a ten-minute job. ‘
So far, the Parish Church Photographic Survey project has cost him about £ 150,000 in fuel and accommodation, nothing compared to the millions it would cost a professional photographer.
“This is serious work,” he explains. “It’s not a dalliance. For many churches, this will be the best possible shot and it will also spread me into the future. I am not married and have no children, so it is my legacy. So it is important to finish it. ‘
To this end he is organized militarily. Every year he produces an extremely detailed annual report of his progress and all the beauties he encounters during his travels.
He has also appointed a group of trustees to ensure that if, God forbid, something happens to him, the tens of thousands of hours he has spent are not in vain.
“There are people to take care of and money to pay for it is finished,” he says. “I can’t risk losing it at this stage.” While it’s grueling, the project isn’t as lonely as it sounds.
He has had to overcome his natural embarrassment to interact with countless Church masters and pastors, meeting thousands of lovely people, and making many friends through Church appreciation groups.
And when a church is locked, he doesn’t despair. First he will use the Diocesan Directory, then he will try the website achurchnearearou.com and finally he will pull out his magic trick.
“Knock at the door of every house near the church with neatly tended flower pots and hanging baskets,” he explains.
“Chances are it will be from a little old lady, and if she doesn’t have the key, she’ll know who does.” Fortunately, more and more churches are open today than ever before, but attendance continues to decline and many are declining.
Now that the end is near for his epic project, Cameron says friends who once loved him are some of his strongest supporters.
But progress seems to be slower than ever. According to his calculations, it would take him two to three years to photograph the last few thousand.
“If I had been really committed, I probably would have finished years ago,” he says. “I’m actually rather lax about the project.”
Laks? Of course not. He is breathtakingly organized and a total perfectionist – he’s already worried about some of his previous work.
“I often find myself coming back to redo a church,” he says. “And I’d like to do Warwickshire and Berkshire again, with a better resolution.” That will certainly add another two years?
“Well, maybe only the churches with interesting things in them,” he admits.
I’m beginning to suspect he doesn’t want it to end. What will he do when his 12,000th church is finally photographed? Will there be a big party?
“Maybe a nice pub lunch with friends, like I did on the twentieth birthday,” he says. “And we’ll probably take some pictures outside a church, too.”
And what will he do with all those free weekends, all that freedom?
“Oh, but this is only part,” he says joyfully. “This is only field work. Part two is putting it all together. At a leisurely pace, that will take at least another seven to ten years. ‘
For more information, download the Cameron’s Key Holder For Parish Churches app or visit Explorechurches.org