ON Christmas Day, visitors to a Radcliffe church were revelling in a joyous lunch organised to help those who would otherwise spend the holiday season alone.

Less than 24 hours later, that was no more than a distant memory as the church was filled with flood waters up to waist height that caused thousands of pounds worth of damage and has priceless historic artefacts in tatters.

The Radcliffe Parish Church of St Mary, in Church Green, was among the worst-affected locations hit by the devastating floods and is expected to be closed for months while clean up operations are carried out.

The Rev Carol Hayden said: "There is thousands of pounds worth of damage. Piles of things outside the church that have been contaminated and need to be thrown away. The water came up over the pews and pushed everything around.

"I saw it when I came in on December 27. We couldn’t get near the church on Boxing Day and couldn’t get through the front door until Monday because the water had come up to waist height inside the church.

"We had the loveliest day on Christmas Day with all the people that came down, and to think what had happened a day later was unbelievable."

Specialist cleaning teams have been brought in to the Grade I listed building to do everything possible to restore the delicate books, records, and other artefacts that were damaged.

The church has recently been renovated and Mrs Hayden said that if rewiring work had not been completed, the situation could have been far worse.

“The church’s historical artefacts have been damaged or destroyed, which I know all of the heritage society members are extremely concerned about," she said.

“We had only just put the church records out for display because I feel like they belong to the people of Radcliffe, and now they are ruined.

“I don’t know where to start with replacing things. It’s devastating. The memorial stone is the oldest thing in the church and that was covered by flood water.

“We just had the church rewired and people have said that it’s such a shame that we have just spent all that money, about £50,000, but the truth is that without it we might have had a fire as well."

The church's insurance will cover the damage and Mrs Hayden has asked the many people wishing to donate money to the church to instead donate to the relief fund providing support for people across the town.

It is hoped the church will be able to re-open in time for Easter, while parishioners are encouraged in the meantime to worship at St Thomas and St John's Parish, in Blackburn Street.

She said: "We are insured here and will be fine. But I have been out in the parish and have seen the sheer and utter devastation to people’s lives. About 70 per cent of the people I have spoken to don’t have insurance. A lot of them have said that they were faced with the choice between feeding their children and insuring the house.

“They have said it will take about 12 weeks after it has been cleaned just for the church to dry out. I’m hoping that we will be able to open at Easter.”