The custodian of an empty church has revealed it may have had a secret underground passage to a nearby pub and boasted Queen Victoria's aunt among its congregation.

These are just two of the historical quirks to be discovered during a tour of St Andrew's Church in Waterloo Street, Hove.

Built in 1828 by Sir Charles Barry, architect of the Houses of Parliament, St Peter's Church in Brighton and the Royal Sussex County Hospital, it was once the most fashionable church in town.

It attracted dukes and duchesses, being just a stone's throw from the seafront lawns where elegant ladies and gentlemen liked to parade after services. But its recent history is a sadder tale.

Thirteen years ago the church was closed due to dwindling congregations.

In 1995 squatters broke in and hosted an all-night rave, leaving behind upended pews and burnt hymn books.

They littered food, syringes and cigarettes on the floor and destroyed the ten-metre pipe organ.

To prevent this happening again, Mike Robins, a local guide and amateur historian, sits in the cold church throughout the winter months.

Mr Robins, who lives in nearby Brunswick Terrace and worked for 28 years as a British Airways steward, said: "I remember walking by when it was empty and thinking. 'This cannot happen again'.

"You won't find many people as eccentric as me prepared to sit here for the winter but this church contains our history. It should be visited and should be warm, welcoming and enjoyable."

As the custodian of the grade I listed building, he is working alongside the Churches' Conservation Trust, which restored the building in 2002.

From next month, opening times are being extended to five days a week.

Mr Robins hopes the longer opening times, tours and concerts will attract people from across Brighton and Hove.

The first concert will be a free performance by the St Petersburg Hermitage Choir on Tuesday, April 13.

The tours include lights, music and incense and a deluge of facts.

Mr Robins said: "I want to bring the church to life. The whole history of the city is in churches, gravestones and graveyards."

Even the different ways of entering St Andrew's say something about the city's social history. The side door was for the servants who were only allowed to sit in the gallery.

Mr Robins said: "This was because of the smell. The aristocrats did not want to mingle with the servants as they would have smelt quite bad.

"I believe there's a passage that leads from the crypt to the Iron Duke, which was originally the Kerrison Arms. I think the commissioners of Brunswick Town had it built so aristocrats could sneak out to have a drink in the pub without their servants seeing them."

At the altar, which he spent two weeks cleaning with toothbrushes, he reveals the bare spots where squatters removed bronze cherubs.

The pews used to work like season tickets at a football club. Worshippers paid in advance for seats - the nearer you sat to the front, the more you paid.

Mr Robins has written a book, Six Months In An Empty Church, which he hopes to get published. He has compiled entries from a diary he kept, short stories, essays, sketches, research into the history of other local churches and the chronicles of Andy the church mouse.

He said: "It has been a very interesting six months. All sorts of interesting people dropped by to find out about the architecture, enjoy the quiet or just because they were passing.

"I tell stories about Andy for the children and give them pictures of him when they leave. He's a very friendly mouse. It was a bit of light-hearted relief while I was researching gravestones."

Nearby florists Stephen Gunn, the St John's Church flower stand and Amaryllis have donated flowers and a Christmas tree to decorate the church.

From April 1 St Andrew's will be open from Tuesday to Saturday between 11am and 4pm.

For more information or to arrange a tour, call Mike Robins on 01273 326491.

To contact the Churches' Conservation Trust, which looks after a further six churches in Sussex, log on to