THE Churches Conservation Trust produces a booklet called An Inspiration of Churches. As a collective noun - a glory, a shrine, a kingdom? - it's hard to beat, as an indicator to St Stephen's Old Church at Fylingdales, it's perfect.

Fylingdales is the area around Robin Hood's Bay, between Whitby and Scarborough, doubtless better known for the huge "golf balls" which symbolised a futile four minutes before the old enemy turned nasty.

The golf balls are gone, something akin to an extra-outsize cheese grater presciently in their place. St Stephen's is altogether more attractive, wholly at peace.

The church was built in 1821 for £885 and 18s, said by fanciful locals to resemble an old mariner gazing across the sea far below, by another Churches Conservation Trust leaflet to be "externally as severe as the climate" and surrounded by a tightly interred old graveyard where many another ancient mariner now lies.

Inside it is extraordinary - box pews, full length gallery, triple-deck pulpit abutting the south wall, Willis organ, list of lifeboat rescues, venerable church wardens' staves which resemble heavy duty curtain rails, shalt-nots - forbidding - either side of the altar, a model (for no particular reason) of the SS Pretoria and even two maidens' garlands - preserved for posterity but in need of present explanation.

In the 19th Century, apparently, it was the rather curious custom that a maiden's coffin would be preceded by a garland made from two hoops of twigs, bound with calico and strewn with up to 100 feet of ribbon.

Ophelia, it is recalled, talked of them in Hamlet. Around Fylingdales, they talk of them a little coyly. ("You know, a virgin.")

The practice continues, uniquely, at Abbots Ann in Hampshire.

"Old" St Stephen's replaced an earlier church on the same site and was itself superseded in 1871 by another St Stephen's - Gothic revival, high and handsome - closer to Robin Hood's Bay.

For 42 years the old building remained a mortuary chapel, was re-opened for general worship in 1917 - what they used to call a preaching church -but handed over to the Churches Conservation Trust in 1986 after a storm became particularly severe. The CCT, formerly the Redundant Churches Fund - the word "redundant" was clearly inexact - tends just over 300 CofE churches, all still consecrated and used for occasional services.

They include St Mary's at South Cowton, between Darlington and Northallerton, the scenically set Holy Trinity at Coverham, near Leyburn, St Andrew's on Grey Mare Hill - off the A68 near the Durham/Northumberland border - and All Saints old church at Skelton-in-Cleveland, where pirates are buried in the churchyard.

The aim, says the Trust, is to get an old church building into a sound condition as quickly as possible "and to make and keep it as presentable as circumstances and finances allow."

At St Stephen's, without heating or lighting, they worship just four times annually - three Sunday afternoon evensongs and an early September harvest festival, said to be unforgettable.

Thus it was that last Sunday, Pentecost Sunday, about 15 of us first-footed the wonderful old place, though the Spring cleaners had been hard working before.

"Do you know," said a nice lady called Bunty Roberts, "no one's commented on how clean the windows look."

It was the linguistically bejewelled "Prayer Book" evensong with hymns from an elderly Ancient & Modern. At three o'clock on a glorious early June afternoon we prayed that we might be defended from the perils and dangers of the night, sang "The day thou gave us, Lord, is ended" and listened to the Rev Leon Carberry's sermon on the Holy Spirit.

Clearly a man to make the most of what he is given, Mr Carberry - an American - led the service from the middle of the pulpit, read the lessons from the bottom, delivered a top tier sermon.

He's from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, studied in Durham, met a young lady from Witton-le-Wear, was a curate both in Peterlee and Newton Aycliffe, became Vicar Choral of York Minster and in 1995 accepted the living of Fylingdales and its sweeping, surrounding parishes.

"It is," he admits, "a very great contrast to Peterlee new town."

The churchyard was alive with butterflies and with great expectations, the sea crashed silently far below. None hurried away, the summer's day still many happy hours from ending, the occasion an inspiration to us all.

Old St Stephen's Church, off the A171, is open on Saturdays from July until the end of September between 2-4pm, hosts an evensong service at 3pm on July 1 and August 5 and harvest festival at 11am on Sunday September 9. The Churches Conservation Trust is at 89 Fleet Street, London EC4Y 1DH; the Rev Leon Carberry is on (01947) 880232.

Column Published: 09/06/2001