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An Arty Pilgrimage

Hayley Fern is on a mission to paint all 310 churches within the Diocese of Leicester, as an expression of her everyday faith…

Pukaar caught up with her to find out more about the project, and the motivation behind this unique and extremely ambitious challenge!

Picture: Hayley Fern

Hugglescote’s Hayley Fern has an interesting, and somewhat unconventional hobby.

When the weather’s fine, she can often be found sitting in graveyards across Leicestershire for hours at a time. She enjoys staring at churches for prolonged periods – sketching them in her notepad (with great skill), before adding splashes of watercolour to the unique structures…

The finished result is impressive – a visual feast for the eyes which can’t be denied!

Hayley, an artist who teaches at Rawlins Academy, began painting churches in 2021, initially as a way to fill her time during the summer holidays. She began by painting her own church – Hugglescote’s St John the Baptist, before moving on to a string of others in the area.

After committing to the idea of painting all 310 churches within the Diocese, she has gone on to capture dozens more in her distinct, impressionistic style.

The total so far, is 59.

Asked about how the project first came about, Hayley told Pukaar that it began casually, and “just kind of snowballed” following a remark made by a member of the public.

“After I’d painted a few of the churches in my area, somebody asked me if I was going to do all of the churches in Leicestershire. Suddenly I had a bit of a lightbulb moment. I thought – ‘that’s a great project to get my teeth into’ and before I knew it, I was sketching all over the county,” she revealed.

“The more I got into it, the more I realised that it was something I really enjoyed.

It’s definitely mindful. Once you’re in that mode, you kind of forget about everything else and it’s great to be able to give yourself that space, and that permission to be creative. It’s a real escapism.

One of the first churches Hayley painted (outside of her immediate locale), was Leicester Cathedral, an impressive structure which famously houses the remains of King Richard III.

“The guy that was on the door that day, kept coming over and telling me loads of facts about it, which was really nice,” said Hayley, who is a practicing Christian.

“In Leicester, I also painted the Holy Apostles Church, which sits on Fosse Road South. In fact, it’s been one of my favourites so far – just a really fabulous, distinctive building, which was lovely to draw…”

Although she has her favourites, Hayley admits that she finds all churches aesthetically pleasing.

“They all have their own character – their own unique personality” she says.

“There’s something really special about a church, or any place of worship. For me, it has all the weight of its history and meaning,” she explained.

“Even though I’m only drawing the outside, there’s always a really heavy sense of presence in the environment of a church. There’s a rich atmosphere – a lot of history and so many memories all around. Each church feels important, and it is. Painting them is my way of honouring, and paying my respects to the building.

“It’s also been a good way of opening up a lot of conversations about my faith and the church itself,” she went on to reveal.

“Some of my friends, who don’t go to church, have talked to me more about it as a result of this project, and I’ve also made a lot of new friends through it.

It’s definitely been an enhancement to my faith. I don’t know if it’s ‘a calling’ as such, but I do feel that this is a gift I’ve been given – something I can use to raise awareness and open up conversations about church and faith.

After suffering a stroke in October, Hayley was forced to put her artistic pursuits on hiatus.

However, she is hoping to continue her painting pilgrimage this summer.

Although she is in no rush to complete all 310 churches, once they are done, her dream is to compile all of the works into a book.

And there would definitely be an audience willing to buy it seems.

As a result of her project, Hayley has built up quite the following online, with interest coming from across the pond and beyond…

“People love churches – Americans love English churches, so there’s been a whole wave of people supporting me in America and Canada, which I definitely didn’t expect!” revealed the artist.

“I had no idea that my work would be of any interest to anyone that didn’t enjoy churches, or lives outside of Leicestershire.

“However, to have this amazing following and people sending so many messages of support and encouragement has been just incredible.”

To follow Hayley’s progress, Search ‘Hayley Draws Churches’ on Twitter.

By Louise Steel