- A stunning West Devon church
- A very nice tower indeed
- Totally marvellous carvings on the roofs
- A fascinating south aisle arcade
- A finely carved pulpit by John Northcott of Ashwater
- One of the best Victorian chancels in Devon
- A delicately charming altar back
- Very good stone carving on a tomb
- A very good Norman font
Ashwater Church of St Peter
There is nothing that beats a fine church on a fine day, and Ashwater church on a fine day is an absolute banger, or on any day come to that.
More importantly, the granite used in its window and door surrounds is full of quartz, making it deliciously sparkly on a sunny day.
I do so like sparkly me, and this beauty parties in my head as the sparkly church. Not a bad claim to fame at all.
Then there are the dimensions, a wide church rather than tall, large into the bargain, all of which gives it a different feel space-wise.
It also was very charmingly restored in Victorian times, and has hardly been changed since. Did I tell you it is an absolute banger?
There is a lovely village here as well, with an enormous village green, large enough for kids to play a good game of football, which they do, and a pub alongside called The Village Inn, as should be in the best storybooks.
The church might have grown up as a daughter church to a potential Saxon minster a bit further north at Hollacombe, though this is only a goodly suspicion. Before that we cannot say.
Definitely Norman though, not only because of a cracking good font but also…
… when one of the old walls was demolished for rebuilding, heads of small Norman windows, parts of arches and stones from large round Norman pillars came tumbling out of the wall…
Cornish & Devon Post, 08/10/1904
Which is as good as proof as I have ever come across, failing existing Norman architecture.
The beautiful tower
The present church has a fourteenth century core, that north transept here may be earlier, and a south aisle built around then and altered in the fifteenth, when the present tower seems to have been signed off on.
Judging by the way the stair turret starts off curved and then straight sided, and that the bottom section is built very differently of small rubblestone, there have been a few shenanigans here.
Including a lightning strike in 1699 followed by a rebuilding of the top in 1700.
It is a beautiful tower at that, a stormer.
That porch was added in the 1880s restoration, and is now the main entrance.
The old south entrance
At one point this fine south door was likely enough the main banana. It is a lovely little design, very late fifteenth century and very well executed. It might have been the entrance to a now demolished porch.
Here, in particular, we can get up close and personal to that glittery granite on a sunny day, a habit worth pursuing.
The awesome interior of Ashwater Church of St Peter
Inside Ashwater church is an absolute delight. One of those churches I so well remember the thrill of first entering.
It is the width, which makes the roof seem lower than it is, along with the low arches on the right, that gives this space its unique atmosphere.
There is evidence in a number of Devon’s churches that their walls were heightened at some point, but this one… I reckon they just had a good look and went ‘Naah, this be lush grand as be’ and went back to enjoying the view.
The competing attractions of the Village Inn might have had something do that there?
The mixed arcade
A big clue to the parish folks’ love for this bonny is the south arcade, the row of pillars separating off the south aisle (and holding up the roof).
Because they first built this in the fourteenth century, and those octagonal ashlar (stone blocks) pillars date from then. But they rebuilt it in the fifteenth, when fashions (and money probably) had changed, and that is when the monolithic carved granite pillars date from.
Yet when they rebuilt it they kept the old pillars, alternating them with the new, and the arches are half and half, with granite mouldings on the south side (the side we cannot see in the image above) and old style ashlar on the north side. In addition they made the granite pillars extraordinarily thick to match the older ones, something they so did not need to do.
This was quite an extraordinary design choice, and I cannot think of any better explanation than design. It is also extraordinary wonderful.
They knew what they were doing I venture, for sure.
Old bench ends
The nave also has a goodly collection of old bench ends, some lovingly saved from rotting, like the Medieval one on the left, and some repurposed, like the later eighteenth century cut down box pew on the right.
The Medieval one has Instruments of the Passion on, possibly the bucket and sponge to deliver the vinegar to Christ on the cross, and the ladder to reach him down.
A breathtaking roof
But the roof is the real star of this end of the Ashwater church, whispering urgently ‘look at me, look at me’ as soon as we walk through the door.
It is quite extraordinary, and just goes to confirm my deeply held prejudice that the churches of West Devon are severely undervalued.
Carved ribs, carved bosses
Because just look.
It is not just the bosses, though it most definitely is the bosses, it is that every single rib is carved.
Every. Single. Rib.
Which we might expect to see occasionally in an urban church of magnificence, but out here in the West Devon boondocks… Nope. And nope again.
And not just carved, but carved carved; time taken, deeply cut, each rib its own creation, sculpted to an inch of its live and then again to bring it wondrously dancing back.
The nave, the aisle and the south chapel (the chancel has a new roof).
Stunning art, craftsmanship, genius, call what you will, I love it. And do not know anything similar to this extent.
In the south or north chapel, or the chancel, or even in a transept, where the altars hung out, yes, but all over the church, no. Plus the quality, the very high quality.
The wonderful roof bosses
And the bosses as well, paring flowers and foliage to their bare necessities, almost modern in their approach, or should we say our modern is almost Late Medieval Devon in its approach?
Always remembering that what we see now is not what the finished product was; colour, shades pigments, gilding, all enhancing the deep chisel work, catching all the various lights and flickering with rainbow shimmers all day and night… what a sight they must have been.
What a sight they are.
And then there is their creation. Each boss takes about a week apparently (remember they were cutting strong oak with iron tools weaker than modern ones), and there are easily over two hundred of the sweethearts. Plus ribs.
Also, as a wonderful little side note, the ceiling is still plastered so we get to see the woodwork standing out as was meant to be.
A stupendous pulpit
Jumping forward a few centuries, this deliciousness is from the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, and it is truly scrumptious.
It is by a local workshop, John Northcott of Ashwater, whose work pops up in various Devon churches and as far away as Newcastle. He did most of the other woodwork in Ashwater church too.
I love his work, he has a grand symmetrical approach whilst still using Gothic motifs.
He also uses far more detail than the other well-known Devon carvers from that era; just look at the diapering on this piece, artfully framed by those gorgeous Gothic arches.
He died in January 1940 and, for my money, his work still does not get the recognition it so richly deserves; possibly because he carried on his artistry in a workshop in rural Ashwater, unlike Hems or Read in Exeter or Pinwill in Plymouth.
A wonderful chancel
The chancel now, filled with Northcott’s work, is probably the best rural Victorian chancel I know in Devon, and I know far more than is healthy for me.
And it is near totally original, exactly as intended. This is where my breath was ooomphed away for the second time.
Part of the charm is the space, the width especially, but then there is the whole composition, the woodwork, the tiles and a lovely reredos (altar back) amongst others, all of such quality.
The fine altar back
Here is that reredos, a tile painting of the Supper At Emmaus, post-Resurrection Christ in the centre and the two fellow travellers who did not recognise him until he broke bread at the supper table (rhymes with Eucharist in case that is not clear).
But there is more wonderment here than first meets the eye; take a close look at the design if you will.
The wooden buttresses that come down in front of the tiles give one added depth, and very cleverly they are linked to the tiling by forming the pillars resting on the painted pillar bases.
Then there is the painted background of the grapes (another depth) and the sea (a further depth) with the table forming a bridge across some of these planes.
Buttresses, table, people, pillars, vines, ocean, and of course the paint shading, a fine use of perspective; and that is not even mentioning the well carved canopy above each figure.
Just a simple reredos, eh!
A flatter angel
On either side of the altar are wonderful angels, much flatter it is true, painted on tin, continuing the Emmaus theme with biblical quotations from that story.
As well as having very fancy wings. Just love the colour shades, me.
The wandering tomb
Back in the south aisle is this old tomb, well travelled around the church, very ornately carved, but how much it all fits together is open to question.
It is generally thought to be of Thomas Carminow (died 1442) and his wife Joan, and originally situated in the South Chapel or between the chapel and chancel (a common position of this kind of monument). The wooden cresting does not belong to it.
Tom was the last of the Carminow’s males, and he had two daughters, one of whom married a Courtenay (a very important family in Devon) and the other a Carew.
These two families probably paid for the tomb, especially as the two angels holding shields (which face downwards) in the above image display the coat of arms of these families (the second shield carving is more deduced than readily apparent).
Though the delight is that it has some of the best carving in the region, was likely enough painted in the past, now under umpteen coats of whitewash, and still asks a few questions.
Giving Mama a trim
Because there is a problem with the effigies, fine representations as they are.
First the knight has broken in half at some time, probably careless moving, but more importantly his wife has been trimmed to fit, slimmed down, shaved if you will. Here in the Church Monuments Gazetteer (scroll down to Ashwater) you can see a line drawing that shows this well.
Now if you are a major medieval posho paying for a bigged up tomb with pricey effigies of your dear old Mom and Dad, the stone mason saying he had to give your darling Mama a severe trim because he was not skilful enough to carve her the right size is really not the message you want to hear.
Neither, very even more importantly, is it a message that a stone mason wished to give in that day and age. Consequences could be very painful. Very.
So my bet is that this originally stood between the the south chapel and the chancel, as suggested, with a wider base for the effigies; if you look at the image of the whole tomb the base does seem to be inset overmuch.
And when it was moved the dimensions changed, and one of the figures got shaved so there was no overhang.
Just my pennyworth though.
A bodacious Norman font
There is also this bodacious Norman font, a real cracker, twelfth century, polyphant stone, with heads at each corner.
The central design is most unusual, for this corner of the world at least; Some say it has a Scandinavian appearance, which with the Normans being originally Norsemen might have some validity.
The animals inside looks a bit lionlike with that tufted tail, and the lion often represents the Lion of Judah, a facet of Christ, so this might be a representation of Christ fighting sin (the dragons). Just the thing for a baptism.
But really worth valuing for its magnificence, and the other faces are not half bad either.
There is a definite specialness about Ashwater church, there are not many that take my breath away twice in one visit, but at the end of things it is but a church. In deep Devon.
Which means that it already has that special atmosphere, that nearness to wonder, that breathless inspiration… Except this one just has it tripled.