COLUMNIST Sir Simon Jenkins made a 'keep the churches open' plea as he launched a £500,000 appeal to save Shobdon's unique Strawberry Hill Gothic church from decay.

"The safest church is the church that is open and occupied by people," said Sir Simon, former editor of The Times and author of England's Thousand Best Churches.

Sadly, he found many churches locked or access otherwise 'difficult' during his extensive travels for research. They were not included in the book.

Ironically, most insurance claims from raided churches were for smashed locks, he said.

"Rather than keeping everyone out, it is worth running a risk and if you do lose something claim for it - but don't allow the vandals to win by locking the churches," said Sir Simon.

He told the Hereford Times he regarded Herefordshire as the most beautiful county in England.

He enchanted his Shobdon audience of more than 200 people with his admission of love for a Herefordshire beauty.

Blanche Mortimer was buried at Much Marcle Church centuries ago but Sir Simon admires her 'lovely arms', delicately carved rosary beads and 'most beautiful face' when he views her tomb effigy.

"I fell in love with her, I visit her as often as I can. I think this sculpture is one of the greatest works of its kind...she's lovely."

Sir Simon also spoke of his impression of Shobdon's Church of St John the Evangelist, which is famed for its ornate interior of predominantly white.

"It's a church in which every service is a wedding and you get to eat it afterwards," he quipped.

In his book - sales of it at the event boosted the Shobdon appeal - the author states: "Nothing quite prepares the visitor for Shobdon...a complete masterpiece, English Rococo executed with confidence at a time when new churches in the Gothic style were rare."

The Lord Lieutenant of Herefordshire, Sir Thomas Dunne, told guests that the Shobdon Church Preservation Trust was very fortunate to have one of the most respected columnists in the country backing its appeal.

Prince Charles also recently visited Shobdon and was said to have given a generous donation.

The church attracts visitors from around the world but its fine plasterwork, stone carvings and mouldings are deteriorating and the tower is coming away from the rest of the building.