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

Timeless Travels Magazine - - CONTENTS -

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)

All images: © Hi­lary Bradt

Above: Dod­dis­comb­sleigh St Ge­orge (left) and St Paul (right)

In­sert: Mys­te­ri­ous crea­ture in Combein­teign­head, South Devon.

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