The little churches of Devon
Hilary Bradt explores the quirky, enchanting and downright strange pieces of art that can be found in the little churches of Devon
I’m walking along the South West Coast path, the surrounding oak and birch trees spilling dappled light onto the narrow track. Occasional breaks in the woods allow tantalising glimpses of the ocean which looks as blue as a brochure on this sunny spring day. I know where I’m heading and am worried that I’ll be late -- I should have left more time to walk the hilly two and a half miles to Culbone. I round a bend and there it is below me: England’s smallest parish church. It looks like a toy plonked in a clearing in the woods, dwarfed by tall trees, with its little spire set slightly askew. It’s utterly enchanting and its air of vulnerability brings tears to my eyes.
Steepled or towered, spiky with pinnacles or modestly unadorned, our little churches cling on as the quintessential symbols of rural England, even in this secular age. Isolated in meadows or woods, on hills or tucked into valleys, they have been the centre of village life for centuries. Step inside and you can almost smell the passing of time. These days their services may be occasional and sparsely attended, but the buildings are still loved and cared for; there are fresh flowers by the altar and the brass has been polished. Although I am a church visitor, not a church goer, I sometimes attend a service. I may not believe in the divinity of Christ but I believe in Christianity. I love the art and music that have been created over the centuries for the glory of God, and the reverence that permeates the very stonework of our ancient churches, and which has endured through the cataclysm of the Reformation and the modern drift away from the Church of England.
“There’s more art in our rural churches than in all the museums in the country” commented a friend of mine. And he should know: he works for the National Trust. Guided by England’s Thousand Best Churches by Simon Jenkins, I have visited them all over England, but it is those in my home county that I know best – as I should, as author of three Slow guides to Devon. Visiting rural churches here means driving or cycling between banks bright with primroses or over purple-heather moors where the churches seem to have grown organically from the surrounding granite. It also means battling horizontal rain and bone-numbing wind when the church provides shelter as well as spiritual refreshment.
When Celtic missionaries from Ireland reached the west of England around 500 CE and started preaching the gospel, they erected stone or wooden crosses as the symbol of this new faith. Mass was originally held in the open air but our climate soon encouraged the erection of a building to protect the altar, the priest and worshippers. As Christianity took hold, so did the need to portray Heaven, Hell and Purgatory to inspire and frighten the largely illiterate congregations, and church art was born. The parish’s best craftsmen were called
Steepled or towered, spiky with pinnacles or modestly unadorned, our little churches cling on as the quintessential symbols of rural England, even in this secular age. Isolated in meadows or woods, on hills or tucked into valleys, they have been the centre of village life for centuries
upon to carve stone and wood according to their interpretation of the stories in the Bible, often with a large dollop of whimsy thrown in. Stained-glass artists portrayed the life of Christ and his apostles and painters decorated the walls with terrifying images of Hell and Purgatory as well as uplifting scenes of redemption and Heaven. Meanwhile the craftsmen were at work with hammer and chisel creating sacred and secular images in wood and stone.
Then Henry VIII decided to divorce Katherine of Aragon and all hell broke loose. Or so it must have seemed to the confused Devon peasants when bands of men roamed the countryside smashing or defacing the saints, and covering the murals in limewash. Rural folk had been conditioned to believe that the right sort of worship was the only escape from eternal damnation, yet now they were told that the saints they venerated no longer had any power and, even more shocking, that prayers must be spoken in English not Latin. The Prayerbook Rebellion of 1549 was an uprising of the people of Devon and Cornwall demanding a return to their familiar worship, and never mind that they couldn’t understand the words. By the time the uprising was quelled four thousand people had lost their lives.
We are no longer willing to die for our faith but we can rejoice in the work of those who feared damnation more than death. Push open the door – very few Devon churches are locked these days – and look around. Gaze up at the wagon roof of curved, worm-eaten beams sometimes supporting carved-wood angels playing an assortment of instruments, and note the list of vicars on the wall, often going back to the 1200s when their names were Norman French. Admire the kneelers, stitched by local folk, or read the flower arranging
...in some of the carvings on stone fonts, particularly the Norman one in Luppitt, East Devon, which strikes the observer as anything but religious. Men are doing indescribable things to each other with clubs, and there are dragons, hunting scenes, and a severed head or two
roster to see how the church still plays its part in the present-day community. Then turn your attention to the thrill and mystery of the centuriesold art.
A few churches retain their medieval stained glass windows, but most of these have been broken through time or vandalism. Where they do survive, they are delightful in their interpretation of Bible stories and saints. Stained glass saints are usually the familiar ones, with St George slaying his dragon a particular favourite, but set in the panels in the intricately carved screen which divides the nave from the chancel (the holy end) are paintings of saints you’ve never heard of. And what lives – and deaths -- they had! For some being beheaded was a minor inconvenience; they simply put their head back where it belonged and continued to do good works. God played his part vigorously, turning a lustful shepherd’s sheep into beetles for St Barbara or providing a sword for St Margaret so she could cut her way out of the sea monster that had swallowed her. She is the patron saint of midwives. Where these panel paintings survive, there is usually a church guide to explain who’s who.
But it is the carvings in stone and wood which are most intriguing because we can only guess at what they mean. The tops of columns, capitals, are often carved with detailed and enigmatic faces of man or beast. A green man is a popular subject, spitting or swallowing fronds of greenery, but
sometimes there are devils, mermaids, and even, in Ottery St Mary, an elephant. Knowledgeable interpretation is always valuable. Often you’ll find it in the church guide, or be lucky enough to meet an expert, as I did in Dr Michael Tisdall who is fascinated by church art. He explained the strange face carved into a capital at Doddiscombsleigh.
At first glance it looks like a green man, but it has funny pointed ears and there’s something strange about the mouth. "Well, it’s at the west end of the church, and this is often called The Devil’s End. You probably know that some old churches have a little opening through which the devil can escape during services. And, look, he has a hare lip. When I was a young doctor some country folk used the expression ‘devil’s bite’ to describe a hare lip.’ More research revealed that the foliage around the face isn’t the usual rose leaves, it’s Succisa
pratensis, or Devil’s Bit Scabious." So there we have it. A medieval carver portrayed the Devil in an instantly recognisable form – to the villagers of his day – but for us it takes the detective work of a knowledgeable enthusiast to get to the truth.
There’s some mystery, too, in some of the carvings on stone fonts, particularly the Norman one in Luppitt, East Devon, which strikes the observer as anything but religious. Men are doing indescribable things to each other with clubs, and there are dragons, hunting scenes, and a severed head or two.
The best, most enigmatic and altogether bizarre carvings are found on the sides of pews facing the aisle, otherwise known as bench ends. Elaborately and imaginatively carved ones are a Devon speciality, and what extraordinary flights of imagination they show! Where you would expect religious motifs you find contorted humans and creatures beyond the craziest nightmare. A church warden I met in north Devon thinks he has the answer: ‘Of course a lot of the carvers were high on LSD’, a conclusion drawn from the fact that hallucinogens are found in the mould that grows on rye bread. Who knows? Even in the 14th century these bizarre images weren’t a new fad.
The French Abbot St Bernard of Clairvaux, who died in 1153, wrote: ‘What mean those ridiculous monstrosities in the courts of cloisters; those filthy apes, those fierce lions, those monstrous centaurs, those half-men, those spotted tigers, those fighting soldiers and horn-blowing hunters; many bodies under one head, or many heads on one body; here a serpent’s tail attached to a quadruped, there a quadruped’s head on a fish; here a beast presenting the foreparts of a horse, and dragging after it the rear of a goat; there a horned animal with the hind parts of a horse?’
Nothing much changed in the following 500 years, although not all carved bench ends are bizarre. Some depict rural symbols such as artisan’s tools, and others show familiar saints. Dragons, unicorns and lions are also popular. The latter often crop up in churches, perhaps because the medieval bestiaries, which revealed the none-too-accurate wonders of the natural world to a gullible public, described lions as giving birth to dead cubs; the father breathed life into them after three days; the Biblical analogy is clear. The anatomy of some of these animals has gone a bit astray. In rural Combeinteignhead, which has some fabulous carvings, including free-standing ‘poppyheads’, there’s a creature which looks like a lion until you notice its long back legs and huge feet clutching a branch. Could it be a baboon? An animal the carver had never seen but had described to him? That’s what I love about church imagery – no one can say for sure what they depict. The local carver drew on his imagination, his beliefs, and the myths and stories of his village. And we are the richer for it.
If you want realism you must turn to the aristocracy. No sculptor would dare carve anything but the most flattering image of the late resident of the Big House. Not when he was paid well by his lordship’s heirs. Some marble or alabaster tombs occupy quite a large proportion of the church, with elaborate canopies, heroic inscriptions and depictions of the nobleman either in life or death. Dead knights in armour have their feet resting on lions, to symbolise courage, whilst their wives often have a dog for fidelity. Back to Culbone. The tiny church (which is actually just over the border in Somerset) can seat 33 at a pinch, and I made it in time for the monthly service, as did eight regulars who took the easier route by Land Rover down a treacherously rocky and muddy private track. The vicar, well past retirement age, apologised that the little harmonium wasn’t working, so suggested we just sing one verse of the hymn to start with, and the last verse at the end. Then he said he wasn’t wearing the right clothes to preach a sermon but would read to us from the Church Times. It was one of the most enjoyable services I have ever attended. So a remarkable church is more than the sum of its parts. There are great churches full of light and alabaster memorials, and town churches with lively congregations, but Culbone, with its broken harmonium, spattering of candle wax from the only source of light, and heart-tugging woodland setting is about as good as it gets – even though it actually has no art, except itself, to boast of.
Opening pages: The Church of St Nicholas in Buckland Tout Saints, South Hams. An unremarkable church in a superb position Above: The church of St Beuno, Culbone, near Porlock. The smallest parish church in England and accessible only via the South West Coast Path (just over the border into Somerset)
Above: Doddiscombsleigh St George (left) and St Paul (right)
Insert: Mysterious creature in Combeinteignhead, South Devon.