Leaning towers of Frisia battle for title of world's most crooked building

Forget Pisa's famous tower. The prized title of the "world's most leaning" building is being fought over by a handful of obscure German towns and villages, each with a teetering tower so askew that visitors are frequently warned not to climb them.

The world-renowned Italian structure does not even come close to the leaning red-brick church bell tower in the tiny northern German hamlet of Suurhusen. For that reason, the Guinness World Records reports the listed building with a pronounced list leans more than any other in the world.

Suurhusen, which lies north of the port of Emden, in East Frisia, applied for and won its "most leaning" status in 2007 after Frank Wessels, the pastor at the 13th-century church, wrote to Guinness World Records and staked his claim. The title has helped the village to attract some 10,000 tourists a year from all over the world.

Pastor Wessels's entire church is askew. He delivers sermons from a listing pulpit to a congregation surrounded by lopsided walls. But its 87ft steeple is what the tourists come for. It looks as if it has taken one drink too many and lurches away from the nave at an alarming angle of 5.19 degrees. The leaning tower of Pisa, by comparison, manages a paltry 3.99 degree tilt.

However Suurhusen now finds its claim challenged by other provincial German towns. If angle of tilt is the criterion, a crumbling medieval fortress tower in Dausenau in the western Rhineland-Palatinate region, is ahead of Suurhusen by 0.05 of a degree.

Guinness World Records has, however, so far rejected Dausenau's claims arguing that because the tower is ruined, it is ineligible. But several other churches seem to have even better claims to the title. Many are in the same East Frisian region as Suurhusen, where almost 70 per cent of such buildings do not stand completely upright.

Experts say this is caused by the region being low-lying and marshy. Many of the churches are leaning over because they were built on wooden supports which are now rotting. One East Frisian church tower in the village of Midlum, leans over at a record-topping angle of 6.74 degrees. The local church council leader has yet to lodge a claim for the official record. But as Midlum's tower is only 46ft high compared with Suurhusen's 87ft, its top leans a mere 63 inches off the perpendicular.

Suurhusen's status is more seriously challenged by yet another teetering church tower, in the eastern German spa town of Bad Frankenhausen. Its 174ft baroque tower began tipping towards its current alarming angle in the early 1900s. The tower's angle of lean may not be as great as its north German counterparts, but because of its height, it projects a staggering 14 feet and seven inches off the perpendicular.

Bad Frankenhausen's tower is surrounded by danger signs and tourists are cautioned against trying to scale it. Its rate of tilt, caused by water-filled, subterranean caves, is estimated at 0.08 inches every month. The town council had planned to demolish it this summer fearing that it posed too much of a risk to the public. However Matthias Strejc, the town's mayor intervened at the last minute and has come up with a plan to save the tower for posterity, and to claim the title with a €1.7m (£1.5m) rescue scheme.