BOLTON ABBEY'S historic Priory Church, set in the heart of glorious countryside, has long been recognised as one of Craven's top tourist draws.

But shocked members of the church's congregation and clergy have only just realised how popular it really is!

A 'people counter' installed last year has been producing accurate visitor statistics for the first time - and showed that the number of visitors was being greatly underestimated.

The machine revealed that between September last year and the end of August this year, the church had welcomed an amazing 162,000 visitors and worshippers through its doors. Previous 'educated guesses' at the annual number of visitors had peaked at around 100,000 a year.

On the busiest single day of the period there were 1,700 visitors.

Related statistics show that people had arrived at the Priory Church from around 60 countries, including from as far afield as Tibet, Thailand and Trinidad and Tobago, and from every continent except Antarctica.

Rector Simon Cowling said: "The Priory Church is a very special place, home to a living community of Christians committed to welcome, worship, and witness. We are thrilled that so many people from around the world are able to take back to their own communities such a positive experience of that commitment.

"The range of comments in our visitors’ book, and the many prayers that are left by the candle stand, are testament to the effectiveness of our witness to the love of God in Jesus Christ.”

The Priory is open every day of the year, and from Easter to October a team of 'welcomers' and guides is on duty every day. Larger parties are offered a formal guided tour by arrangement in advance.

It was founded in 1154 by the Augustinian order. The nave of the church was in use from about 1170 onwards, and survived the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536.