Tourists wearing away vital pieces of history: Memorial stones and priceless treasures are being damaged by the millions of people who visit Britain's cathedrals and churches. Dalya Alberge reports

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LORD NELSON, Turner and Reynolds are worn out with people walking all over them. The memorial stones of these and other historical figures in the crypt of St Paul's Cathedral in London are almost entirely eroded, according to Jane Fawcett, an architectural historian.

The cause: 2.5 million visitors whose feet are scuffing the floor surface, causing the loss of irreplaceable historical evidence. Mrs Fawcett is concerned that the continuing erosion of cathedral floors, and often inadequate records, will mean future generations may be unable to tell who lies where. She also criticises deans and chapters for not recognising that not only are they running a house of God, but a major tourist attraction with priceless treasures and valuable historical evidence.

Following the Independent on Sunday's disclosure in February that some of the people who visit Westminster Abbey are leaving with pieces of treasure, Mrs Fawcett has revealed that Britain's cathedrals and greater churches are being targeted by thieves and vandals.

And some of the 20 million visitors they attract each year are causing damage worth thousands of pounds, according to a report she has produced for the International Council on Monuments and Sites and the Royal Institute of British Architects.

Most of the report concentrates on the everyday wear and tear. At St Paul's, 'Nelson's memorial slab has got completely eroded; those of Reynolds, Lawrence and many of the others are pretty illegible', she said, adding that, as visitors tend to stand on brasses around Wren's tomb, they have also been wearing away two fine memorial brasses to Sir John Millais and Lord Leighton.

She cites Exeter and Lincoln as examples of cathedrals whose floors are being worn away by hordes of visitors and warns that they may not be able to boast outstanding collections of medieval ledger stones for much longer. The medieval tiles at Gloucester Cathedral are being scratched away by chairs and at Salisbury the stone and marble tombs have been discoloured by people's hands.

Of 44 cathedrals and greater churches in England and Scotland covered in the report, almost half have been targeted by thieves and vandals. The situation, though a far cry from the looting of Henry VIII and Cromwell, was serious.

In the past three years, six medieval tiles have been stolen from Winchester Cathedral (then sold through a London saleroom), and four medieval tiles from the floor at Ely Cathedral. They have been replaced with replicas. In the same period, a silver alms dish and a modern crucifix, valued at pounds 500, were stolen from Bristol and a pair of candlesticks disappeared from the High Altar at Hereford. Last year, stained glass at Carlisle was vandalised, causing pounds 20,000 damage. Mrs Fawcett believes that 'there is no price you can put on irreplaceable historical evidence. This is a moral not a financial question'. In the light of increasing thefts from parish churches, she wonders how long it will be before thieves target the more valuable treasures in cathedrals.

'I am very worried about the whole area of stealing statues. Garden statues have been disappearing. Why not cathedral statues? They are just as moveable.'

She calls for cathedrals to introduce security cameras and higher levels of properly-trained staff. Her report cites the examples of King's College Chapel, Cambridge, where in the last few years, 'the only tight security . . . is for the Rubens altarpiece which has been vandalised once already', and Derby Cathedral, where the crown of a reclining figure was vandalised, replaced and then stolen.

She urged deans and chapters 'to move into the 20th century' and differentiate between tourists and people who attend to worship.

Her report recommends the introduction of crowd-controlling timed- ticket schemes, such as those operated by the National Trust. She said many of her proposals do not require huge funds: doormats at every door, for example, or barring entry to anyone wearing stiletto heels. 'A lot of the solutions are in their control if they would adopt them.'

Toll of theft and vandalism

Bristol 1987-88: windows damaged, Lalique cross smashed; Blensdorf sculpture and Berkeley tomb damaged; silver alms dish and pounds 500 crucifix stolen. 1990: pounds 10,000 of damage to stained glass. 1992: pounds 200 of vandalism.

Bristol, St Mary Redcliffe 1986/7: crucifix stolen.

Cambridge, King's College Chapel 1992: carvings provided by Henry VIII stolen. 1993: 60 hymn books damaged.

Carlisle 1992: pounds 20,000 of damage to stained glass.

Coventry 1992: a drug addict badly damaged a reinforced glass door. A VC, awarded to one of the parishioners, stolen.

Gloucester 1991: south aisle window damaged by stones cost pounds 230 to repair; attempted burglary caused nearly pounds 1,000 damage; north ambulatory window broken, costing pounds 2,150 to repair. 1993: sanctuary light worth under pounds 100 stolen.

Hereford About 1979 and 1985: important candlesticks stolen - the altars are now normally bare. About 1989: thieves foiled when they tried to burn their way through a heavy door.

London, St Paul's 1992: attempted damage to the altar.

London, Westminster Abbey: theft and vandalism, including Queen Elizabeth I's crown stolen in 1986.

Portsmouth 1980: glass case of processional cross smashed. 1990: gilt-finish pyx stolen from main altar.

Rochester 1991/2: minor acts of theft and vandalism.

Salisbury 1982: high altar and chapel set on fire. 1991: Hepworth statue vandalised.

Wakefield 1991: break-in and theft.

Wells 1980: cross and candlestick stolen. 1987: shop and refectory broken into twice. About 1990: medieval figure thrown down and destroyed.

Worcester 1992: boundary wall pushed over - repairs cost pounds 5,000. 1990: stones thrown through great west stained-glass window. 1993: large coping stones displaced and broken. Trees and their replacements nearly all broken.

York Minster 1985: heraldic carving stolen.

(Photograph omitted)