MULTIPLE York stone slabs have been stolen from the church yard at the Grade I listed St Mary's in Radcliffe.

Parishioners and members of the Parochial Church Council (PCC) have spoken of their "shock" and "devastation" following the theft.

Having manoeuvred the valuable stone flags out of position, the thieves are believed to have hauled the heavy stones across the graveyard and into a white van before making their getaway.

The flags are believed to date back to the early 1800s, and are pictured on a photograph dating back to the 1850s.

Several of the larger sections of paving in the church grounds were also discovered smashed up, while other flags were left stood up against the rear of the church and leant against trees.

It is believed the flags were stolen at about 10.30am on Monday. The theft has been reported to Greater Manchester Police.

Barbara Greaves, a member of the PCC, said: "We are absolutely devastated. We are heartbroken. It is very upsetting that anyone would do this, especially to such an important place — this church is the beginning of Radcliffe and it has been broken up. You can't believe that it has happened.

"This happened in broad daylight. The slabs are very old. They are huge, so how they have lifted them I will never know.

The 85-year-old added: "I'm worried that people think it is a derelict church; the gardens are overgrown which makes the church look empty. We simply cannot afford the £300 per month to cut the grass."

A dog walker is believed to have noticed individuals digging up the York stone but did not realise they were stealing them.

Between 12 and 20 slabs are understood to have been taken.

The Parish Church of St Mary was established in about 1200AD and is of significant historical interest.

Dozens of people have spoken out against the recent thefts on social media, with residents describing it as "despicable" and "disrespectful."

Another member of the Parochial Church Council (PCC) told the Radcliffe Times: "The flags they have taken measure about 1.5ftx2ft. They are very thick. It would have taken two people to move them. They are probably half-way down the country by now. They have even taken the pieces of wood they used to hoist them out of the ground.

"We understand there was a van parked outside the lychgate. It would seem they have lifted the stones onto a trolley, wheeled them out and put them onto the van.

"There are quite a lot of paving stones left lying around. There are big gaps in the paving leading up to Radcliffe Tower.

"The PCC is due to meet next week. We will have to come to a decision about what we are going to do."