GRAVESTONES have been stolen in a 'despicable' raid on a churchyard.

Church officials said the theft of five slabs covering graves in Tockholes Chapel, in Chapels Lane, has caused 'immense distress to the community'.

The chapel gardener noticed the slabs were missing when he cut the grass and also found that several other gravestones have been damaged.

Police say the thefts could have taken place in daylight, with thieves acting as workmen with vans. A police investigation is now underway.

Rev Sarah Moore, of Tockholes Chapel, said: “We consider the deliberate damage and vandalism of graves to be a disrespectful and despicable act that causes immense distress to families and to the community as a whole.

“Where practicable, we hope to contact the families of those interred concerned but as many of the graves are historic, this may not be easy.

“The matter has been reported to the police who are investigating this matter and similar occurrences in the local area.”

One resident, who asked not to be named, said: “It’s absolutely disgusting.

"The stones will be worth a fair bit as decorative items, but they are memorials and this shouldn’t happen."

Inspector Wendy Bower, from Darwen CID, said: “Sadly paving stone thefts are common across the county and rural areas are often targeted.

"This is a despicable crime which has a real impact on family members and people in the community.

“Often these type of offences are carried out in broad daylight by criminals posing as workmen.

"They can be difficult to detect and it can be some time before a victim realises that they have been stolen."

Tockholes Councillor Colin Rigby labelled the thieves 'absolute idiots'.

He said: “The thieves do not realise how many people they are hurting.

“It’s a beautiful little place where generation after generation of families have lived, and many people still in the area will know those buried there.”