Every weekend and holiday, Cameron Newham is out from dawn to dusk, in rain, sun, hail and biting winds, fulfilling his quest to photograph all 12,000 of England’s rural parish churches.
Always working alone — ‘other people tend to get rather bored’ — he takes pictures of, well, pretty much everything. A nice view from the gate and all external elevations.
Then it’s inside for a few dozen snaps of all monuments that pre-date 1900, all brasses from before 1800, the font, altar, royal arms, pulpits, seats and wall paintings.
But not church chests, ‘unless they’re exceptional’.
Cameron Newham (pictured) is on a quest to photograph all 12,000 of England’s rural parish churches
Among the churches that Mr Newham has photographed in St.Remigius Church in Long Clawson, Leicestershire (pictured)
Or organs, ‘because I know nothing about them’.
Or bells, ‘because who wants to be scrambling around in the belfry?’
He’ll only ‘do’ Victorian glass if it has been listed in the historian Nikolaus Pevsner’s guides on English buildings.
And strictly no graves. ‘I have to have limits’ he says. ‘I have already taken half a million pictures over nearly a quarter of a century!’
In that time, he has braved angry vicars (‘one nearly punched me, but perhaps I did rather press his buttons’), recalcitrant church wardens and ghostly apparitions.
At St Mary the Virgin in Bucklebury, Berkshire, where the Duchess of Cambridge grew up, he was once spooked by an elderly couple who entered the church — then disappeared.
In Cornwall, he nearly drowned in quicksand while trying to photograph a 15th-century well. An owl once nearly knocked him out when it flew at him and hit his head in one ruined church.
But, undeterred, Cameron — in his mid-50s — has pressed doggedly towards his goal.
Mr Newham (pictured at Weston Church, Otley, Yorkshire) is out from dawn to dusk, in rain, sun, hail and biting winds, fulfilling his quest
The photographer (at All Saints’ Church in Otley, Yorkshire) has now ticked off more than 9,000 churches
Pictured: The ruins of Old Church at Colston Bassett, Nottinghamshire, which was 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 in person — providing all possible information for visitors — but also online, with thousands of amazing photographs, particularly useful right now, with everyone stuck at home.
After 23 years, he is more committed than ever. ‘This is my gift to the future.
‘I expect these pictures will still be available in 500, maybe 1,000 years,’ he says. ‘I will be the modern Pevsner.’
On paper, Cameron isn’t the obvious candidate to provide single-handedly a photographic record of the Anglican Church’s rural heritage. He hails from Perth, Australia, loathed history at school, isn’t remotely religious — and he isn’t even a professional photographer.
But he is passionate about our parish churches. ‘They’re the best buildings in their communities but they are taken for granted,’ he says.
While visiting Holy Trinity Church in Norfolk, the photographer took a picture of the wax funeral effigy of Sarah Hare (left) and inside St.Michaels Church in Ashton, Devon, he was able to capture a painted panel (right)
Mr Newham visited Long Compton Parish Church in Warwickshire (pictured) in 1997
The photographer has also visited St.Michaels Church (left) in Littlecotes, Lincolnshire, and St Mary, St Katharine & All Saints (right) in Edington, Wiltshire
While visiting St.Cuthberts Church in Elsdon, Northumberland, Mr Newham was able to capture the horse skulls kept inside a cabinet
‘People should use them more and remember that they 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 suburb of Pinner rather dreary, and inspired by Pevsner’s books, he decided to photograph some of the structures featured, but not pictured.
The first church he photographed was St Peter & St Paul in Long Compton, Warwickshire. To start with, it was all nice and simple. He had a compact camera and took just three pictures at each place.
But when he upgraded to a digital camera, the project grew and he decided to focus on parish churches.
Meanwhile in St.Peters Church, Low Toynton, Lincolnshire, the photographer was able to capture the ruins
Mr Newham has photographed a holy water font (left) at St.Mary the Virgin Church in Thorpe Arnold, Leicstershire, and effigies of Sir Thomas Hewar and his wife inside St.Edmunds church in Emneth, Norfolk (right)
‘It just sort of expanded,’ he says. ‘The first county I ‘did’ was Berkshire — I just knocked it off in bits, one by one. Then things rapidly ramped up. I never really foresaw the scale.’
Or, presumably, the hundreds of thousands of hours it would absorb. His commitment and stamina are extraordinary.
On a summer’s day, and if all key holders are obliging, he can get through up to eight churches in a 12-hour shift, followed by a couple more hours typing up his notes and transferring hundreds of photographs back at his home, now near Bradford, West Yorks.
Often, he doesn’t even take a packed lunch, only pausing for a snack. He has spent pretty much every day off from his job on the project.
A couple of years ago, he took 18 months off work to photograph all 847 of Devon and Cornwall’s rural churches — even moving to Plymouth.
Also in the photographer’s album in All Saints Church in Hessle, East Yorkshire (left), and St.Mary the Virgin Church in Isles Abbotts, Somerset (right)
Mr Newham was able to photograph a holy water font inside Holy Cross Church, Greenford, London, in 2018
Together, we visit All Saints church in Weston, Yorkshire. It is a small Grade I listed building built in the 11th century. The interior is relatively simple, with whitewashed walls and box pews.
Cameron strides about with his trusty Canon, admiring the stained glass, coats of arms and hatchments and talks me through various photographic challenges. ‘Clear glass windows and dark pews — my worst photography nightmare,’ he says.
Church clutter is another bête noire. He still can’t explain the vanishing couple in Bucklebury.
‘I said ‘hello’ several times and they did not reply, which I thought was very rude,’ he says. So he waited in the chancel for them but they disappeared.
So far, he has only twice woken up and thought, ‘Oh no, not today’. He went anyway.
He still walks into every new church with excitement, never consults Pevsner beforehand for fear of spoiling the surprise and can remember every church he’s visited. ‘They all have very different personalities — some are simple, others are ornate.
‘And sometimes I really like the smell,’ he says. ‘You can’t possibly compare them.’
Surprisingly, Cameron’s least favourite church is one overflowing with architectural treasures.
While inside St.Michaels Church in Ashton, Devon, Mr Newham photographed its painted panels
His ideal job is a ‘nice 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 a serious piece of work,’ he explains. ‘It is not some dalliance. For many churches, these will be the best shots possible and it’s also propagating me into the future. I’m not married and I don’t have children so it is my legacy. So it is important to finish it.’
To which end, he is militarily organised. Each year he produces an extremely detailed Annual Report of his progress and any beauties he’s come across in his travels.
He has also appointed a group of trustees to make sure that if, God forbid, something should happen to him, the tens of thousands of hours he has spent are not in vain.
‘There are people to look after it and money to pay for it be finished,’ he says. ‘I can’t risk losing it at this stage.’ While gruelling, the project is not as solitary as it sounds.
He has had to conquer his natural shyness to liaise with countless church wardens and vicars, has met thousands of lovely people and made many friends through church appreciation groups.
And if a church is locked, he does not despair. First, he’ll use the Diocesan Directory, then he’ll try the achurchnearyou.com website and, finally, he’ll pull out his magic trick.
‘Knock on the door of any house near the church with neatly tended flower pots and hanging baskets,’ he explains.
‘Because chances are, it will belong to a little old lady and if she doesn’t have the key, she will know who does.’ Happily, more and more churches are open today than ever before, but attendance continues to fall and many are in decline.
Now the end is in sight for his epic project, Cameron says friends who once thought him bonkers are some of his strongest supporters.
But progress seems slower than ever. By his calculations, it should take him between two and three years to photograph the last couple of thousand.
‘If I had been really committed, I would probably have been finished years ago’, he says. ‘I’m quite lax about the project actually.’
Lax? Surely not. He is breathtakingly organised and a total perfectionist — already fretting about some of his earlier work.
‘I often find myself popping back to redo a church,’ he says. ‘And I would like to do Warwickshire and Berkshire again, at better resolution.’ Surely that will add on another two years?
‘Well, perhaps just the churches with interesting things in them,’ he concedes.
I am beginning to suspect he doesn’t want it to end. What will he do when, finally, his 12,000th church is photographed? Will there be a big celebration?
‘Maybe a nice pub lunch with friends, like I did on the 20th anniversary,’ he says. ‘And we’ll probably take some pictures outside a church as well.’
And what will he do with all those spare weekends, all that freedom?
‘Oh but this is only part one,’ he says, looking utterly delighted. ‘This is just the field work. Part two is putting it all together. At a leisurely pace that will take me at least another seven to 10 years.’
For more information, download Cameron’s Key Holder For Parish Churches app or visit explorechurches.org