A NEW initiative is aimed at improving the use of local churches.

A total of 42 churches across Northumberland, including St Aidan’s, Thorneyburn, St Peter’s, Falstone, and St Cuthbert’s, Haydon Bridge, have been selected by Newcastle Diocese to participate in a new National Lottery Heritage Fund project, Rural Churches for Everyone (RCfE).

The two-year project will work with churches across the region to develop accessibility, community resources and heritage information, with the hope of enabling more people to make use of the church.

Specialist training will be given to local teams, equipping them with the appropriate skills to care for the church and measures to safeguard its future.

The training programme will cover themes such as sustainable tourism, how to curate exhibitions, how to ‘green’ historic buildings, and how to better welcome visitors.

The Rev. Helen Savage, who is involved in many churches across the Tyne Valley, including St Mary the Virgin, Slaley, and is playing an active role in the programme, said: “The outcome in each place will often be very different.

“Sometimes it might be as simple as making sure the churches are more welcoming and, wherever possible, have working toilets for folk to use.

“I am excited about the project because it involves eight churches I care for.

“It will give us a huge boost as we try to navigate a more sustainable future for our churches, which will also serve the needs of our communities.”

The project, spearheaded by Phillipa Craig and supported by heritage consultant Yvonne Conchie, has ambitious aims.

St Cuthbert’s and Old Church in Haydon Bridge, together with Northumberland National Park, will seek to tell the story of faith through centuries, allowing the community to explore rich local landscapes, from Hadrian’s Wall to the industrial lead mining heritage of the region.

It is hoped that St Phillip and St James, Whittonstall, will be adapted to double-up as a much-needed village hall, which will be managed by a partnership of local community groups.

And St Mary Magadalene, Whalton, is expected to follow suit, developing plans to work with other village institutions, including the local school, pub and village hall.

Churchwarden of St Aidan’s, Thorneyburn, Caroline Waitt, who is also part of the steering group for the project, said: “Quite early on, I thought it was a weird concept.

“But it is a really exciting and positive project that should ensure our churches are vibrant active spaces, which are not only visible now but in the future too.

“The scheme will enable individual churches to tell their story and will prove an asset to everyone, including the local community but also visitors to the area too. This is a community development programme which, as well as linking the church, local organisations and the community, will help us to learn about how the church may look in 30 or 50 years from now.”