THE church with Oxford’s tallest spire has won a £3.4m Lottery grant to fund a five-year conservation project.

The money will help the 700-year-old University Church of St Mary the Virgin repair and clean crumbling stonework and fund better access for worshipers, visitors and schoolchildren.

Associate priest The Rev David Neaum said: “The building has been maintained on a day-to-day basis with no major works since the late 19th century.

“Once this work is complete, before people walk into the building they will notice a difference in its general appearance. This will be an improvement for what is one of the most sublime streetscapes in Europe.

“When they come in, they will notice a significant difference in how the church is able to receive visitors.

“There will be a proper welcome centre, which will enable visitors to immediately have a sense of the cultural heritage of the church.

“They will see something more like what is in place at significant cathedrals.”

The Grade One listed building was used for meetings of the University’s ruling body during the 13th century, and housed the forerunner to the Bodleian Library.

Rev Neaum said: “It is a fantastic place to work in. It is exciting, vibrant church and community to be part of.

“You could say the whole history of England is told in this church.”

The money will be spent on repairing the church’s façade, spire, tower and interior, and turning the Old Library into an education area.

Up to 200 new guides will be trained to take tourists around the church, and a project with Pegasus School, Blackbird Leys, will develop a new education programme for primary school pupils.

Vicar of St Mary’s, The Rev Canon Brian Mountford, said: “As the work goes ahead, both the church and the Vaults and Gardens Cafe will be faced with considerable temporary restrictions, but the end-product will be a transformation to see St Mary’s through the next 50 years.”

The Heritage Lottery Fund has contributed £3,445,900 towards the project’s £5.1m cost, with other grants given by the Clore Duffield Foundation, Oxford University and charitable trusts. The Lottery fund’s head, Stuart McLeod, said it would give visitors “a special look into the past”.