- Enchanting rural position
- Rare example of a 13th century Devon church
- Beautiful gracious interior
- Magical bench ends like no other in the country
- A quality 17th century eagle lectern
- Wonderful 17th century Italian carved and inlaid chair in chancel
- An elegant sanctuary
- 17th century Flemish stained glass in East Window
- A high quality early 20th century altar back
- Medieval roof bosses
- Very nice carved pillar capitals
- Just a totally wonderful church
Ashcombe Church of St Nectan
One thing (amongst many) about Ashcombe church is its enchanting position, in a little pool of lush greenery at the near-head of a steep-sided valley that drifts down to the sea four miles away; sitting alone in this little parish of homesteads and cottages, with the petite Dawlish Water flowing sweetly just a hundred yards below, it is just plain beautiful.
Of course there are many other goodly things about the church, not the least being it is a rare example of a thirteenth century Devon church, originally shaped like a cross with a north aisle added in the early sixteenth century.
The tower is Norman or very soon thereafter, and there are a lot of little touches from that period that add to this darling delight.
Around and about Ashcombe Church
The windows are interesting on that level too, that little lancet just glimpsed in the south transept on the left seems original, the one on the right is probably a replacement from the 1820s restoration. The central East Window is likely punched through in the fifteenth century.
Up the tower
Though this babe up the tower is most surely beautifully original, the drain pipe less likely so. Rust-red stone gazing around the rich green paradise hereabouts for eight hundred years or so gives me a deep case of the envies.
The church is dedicated to St Nectan, who lived up at Hartland in North West Devon in the fifth century, though there is no specific record of this beauty’s medieval dedication.
After the Reformation church dedications were scrubbed out, seventeenth century cancel culture if you will, because idols, so when they restarted there were some creative choices made.
Yet if I was an Ancient British holy dude, I so would like to holy away in this blessed spot whatever my name was.
The calm interior of Ashcombe Church
To be fair, the present simplicity is probably down to the 1820s restorer Anthony Salvin who was busy overseeing the building of Mamhead House up the road. He did like removing “unwanted fabric” from the churches he restored, and took away the rood screen from this one.
But the result is so good.
There was another interior clean up in the nineteenth century, but Salvin was likely enough your main man.
The north arcade
Those piers, or pillars, are pure late Perpendicular style, thus helping the dating of the north aisle.
And as the Kirkham coat of arms (above) appears at least three times on the capitals plus a bench end, and as John Kirkham was Sheriff of of Devon in 1523/4, then we are getting into the realms of odds on betting for this period (thank you, Cameron Self).
But something else happened in the church in the early sixteenth century, something just sooo magical…
Striking bench ends in Ashcombe church
New benches that is what, with bench ends to bewitch. Particularly the top edging as here, with this one happy angel grinning away.
Some say these are seventeenth century, but Todd Gray makes a very good case for them being early sixteenth or even late fifteenth; Todd is a most learned dude when it comes down to Devon stuff, one of the very most learned.
Deeply carved magic
According to Todd
The Ashcombe collection is unique in and to Devon
Devon’s Ancient Bench Ends, Todd Gray
And I certainly have not seen similar. It is not just their subject matter but also their style, the deep carving, the facial expressions… They are an absolute joy.
Angels and demons saying hello
Of course they would have been even more in your face back in the day, before centuries of polish and patina came to stay, but these will do me, very much so.
They do need time and close viewing, essentially so, eyeball them closely and more scintillating details greet us; that bottom image for example, with the markings on its wings, and the difference between those two fanged heads.
As for meaning, lost to time I suspect, even if they had specific meanings; just as likely they reference the imagined world that folk lived in then, very different from our own.
Bench end coat of arms
And then there these little elegances on a couple of pews, delicate little family crests with carefully stippled backgrounds and gentle scrollwork.
Pretty bird too, with well carved feathers.
A stupendous eagle lectern
Another bird, a big bruiser this one, the lectern eagle, and once again some very fine carving indeed; all those feathers so well defined and the whole balance of the bird suggesting that it really is supporting the bible on its back.
Plus gold, always a good colour gold for us bling addicted folk.
The guide says it is dated 1725, Paul Fitzsimmons ponders…
I actually think it could be late seventeenth century, the configuration of the feathers is an early design, the quality is superb
Paul Fitzsimmons, Marham Church Antiques
Which is fascination in itself, because even if it is 1725 it is carved in an earlier style, Devon taking its own careful time in deciding if the modern is worth a bent farthing; superb though, that is one word we can all surely agree on.
The sanctuary in Ashcombe church
Moving further up, the chancel and sanctuary comes into clear view and once again the height and the white make for a very clear case for simplicity in a church, splashed with a bit of colour of course.
A calming place with room enough for dreams to soar and imaginations to float high.
A wonderful chair
Down to earth is this extremely well carved chair
… from Lombard in Italy and is early seventeenth century, such a wonderful piece, will be made from walnut and poplar
Paul Fitzsimmons, Marham Church Antiques
It is skilfully inlaid with the gospel scene of the angel Gabriel and Zechariah (Luke 1, 5-25), and…
Has these dead cute little putti perched on top, not even mentioning the detailed carving of the rest of the masterpiece.
These kind of biblical-themed objects were often carried back from trips to continental Europe or bought from a dealer in the nineteenth century by the vicar, or someone in his network, precisely to place in the church.
Treasures were often sold off from Continental European churches due to war or revolution, to end up in the hands of English gentry or their dealers.
Marvellous old Flemish stained glass
Just as these little roundels of seventeenth century Flemish stained glass probably were, now in the East Window.
Such a dynamic little scene too, distraught Mary being comforted by John, the crucified Christ being enveloped by the boiling clouds, the priest shell-shocked below, almost surreal with its time components mashed up together.
The Descent from the Cross
Whilst equally good this one, The Descent from the Cross, the matter of fact labourers (who have even jerry-rigged a hoist for Christ’s legs) contrasted with the grief of the women, and the plate and chalice on the ground foretelling the instruments of the Eucharist.
The fruit surround is a masterly done as well.
Victorian stained glass says hello
Jumping forward in time to bit of Victorian bling in the same window, this is just a gorgeous use of deep colour and accomplished foliage. A little masterpiece.
The altar back
Another gorgeousness beckons, here the reredos (altar back) really steps up to the crease.
Donated in memory of Rev Walter Moyle, who was Rector of the parish from 1885 to 1925 (a fine forty years innings, that), it is ‘beautiful in its dignified simplicity’ as a journalist of the time so well put, and ‘The whole is gilded and coloured in the fifteenth century style’.
Christ at the altar
Sadly I have not been able to track down the artist, because they are so well worth a namecheck. It is a true pretty, combining both modern and older styles.
The Holy Spirit and more
The side panels are a joy, the beautiful curvaceous plant, with roses for Christ’s blood and lilies for the Virgin Mary, and the central cross with the Holy Spirit descending. Then the birds, traditionally in this context representing human souls, sipping their salvation from the cross.
A fine memorial to Walter, and a credit to his family for placing it here.
A chancel roof boss
Above the altar are some gold medieval roof bosses, the colouring probably later but a grand choice for this church.
A very contemplative face it is, suiting the church’s atmosphere to a T, peering through a thicket of leaves; this surely is a holy person, maybe even Christ peering lovingly down, peeking through God’s creation.
The pillar carvings
Whilst for this hombre loving is not the word, a little demon if ever I met one (and I have met a few in my time!), with those pointy ears and exaggerated human features.
The cleft lip is a dead giveaway too, often used as the mark of the devil back then, sadly so.
Here though the lad seems gagged by foliage, God’s creation, a constant presence in the church and the lush landscape outside.
Maybe the message is that the devil is always subservient to God and her works, and this is a lesson to remember as we stumble along the Path of Christ.
The pillar capitals
Through the beauty of his creation so very well depicted in the capital carvings, foliage so realistic that it probably grows ever so slowly over the centuries and in a few millennia it will lace the entire church in an enchanting foliage palace, a prayer of living stone.
Just as the woods and vales outside pray, reaching their greenery heavenward, filled with sweet-toned birdsong hymning the Divine’s being.
The magic of Ashcombe Church
This is a marvellous church, as I might have mentioned before.
Admittedly I veer between adoring these simplicities and falling head over heels in love with High Church fripperies, stopping at all stations in between. Life is too precious to decide on a hierarchy of beauty.
But this true enchantment has a special place in my heart.
Not just mine either.
As I was photographing an elderly couple came in, up from Exmouth, proper Devon too, with the accent that was everywhere in my youth. They had grown up hereabouts, married in this church in 1971, three children, two grandchildren and counting, and were back to visit in their fiftieth year of marriage.
We chatted, we laughed, I took their photos with their camera as asked, getting a grand grin into the bargain, and we stood in the sun loving the world.
The world loved us back, that is sure.
Life in the spirit
This, I venture, is what churches mean to so many of us, folk coming to breathe, to think, to pray, to remember, whenever they want to, need to, hunger to, joy to…
Because they stand at the core of every community stating a deep truth: There is spirit in life, whatever that means to the individual, that is beyond the reach of politics, of money, of economics, of news, of pain, of hardship, of entertainment, of shopping…
Us Christians say it is a God of infinite love and infinite compassion, and that we are all children of the Divine, others say different things, but truly our churches are for everybody, they belong to all of us.
This is what makes churches so very valuable. There is more to life than living day in and day out.
And this little church, nestling in green fields, peacefully drifting through the centuries, a temple of white, is so very valuable indeed.
So very so.