- Such a beautiful setting
- A very pretty churchyard
- Beautiful use of granite on so much of the church
- Exterior well worth a lot of love
- Stupendous Medieval rood screen with original colouring
- Carved figures on the front of the screen
- ‘Slice-of-life’ Grisaille paintings on the back
- Charming stained glass, Medieval and Victorian
- Very powerful medieval roof bosses
- The screen is one of the greatest works of art in Devon
Hidden high above the River Teign, deep in tumbling valley and loping hills, Bridford seems a universe away from the modern world.
Back in the late eighteenth century folk around here made part of their living by spinning and weaving the local wool, collected by an Exeter cloth merchant called Mr Williams every few weeks. A ‘savage and remote’ place his family called it, being a bit too townie over it all.
Mr Williams carried his cloth by pack horse, no wheeled cart for he, nor for the locals. The roads just were not good enough, and yet 35 years later there were over fifty in the parish with the massive road improvements going on all over the county.
Further back in the Medieval things would have been much the same as in the 1700s, with oxen for the ploughing and heavy loads pulled on sledges by the same animals or by men.
Bridford Church of St Thomas A Becket
Which surely brings the building of this magnificence into perspective, dragging stone after stone up these near-vertical hills, not even counting the timber and glass.
The first record of a church is in 1259 when Bishop Bronescombe of Exeter dedicated a church here on the 8th of November. The present building is probably a replacement for this from the fifteenth century.
The church and the churchyard
The church snuggles into the hillside, towering over the visitor; the charm of a churchyard is an entrancing fusion of wildness and neatness. The hillside, the varied headstones and tombs, the views all make this a place to sit and listen to the silence.
The chancel stonework, called rubblestone, is distinctly different from the rest of the church. Rougher and coarsely laid; no surprise that it is the oldest part (fourteenth century).
The rest of the church is built from blocks of granite, some laid down in courses like bricks (called ‘granite ashlar’), all from the fifteenth century. It is marvellous, neat, monumental stonework and looks as fresh as a daisy. It would have been an astonishment anywhere let alone in this deep country village.
Bridford’s gorgeous stonework
The windows are well worth a study too. This medieval babe in the chancel wall, probably fourteenth century, is volcanic stone, locally quarried and a deal easier to work than granite. Softly weathered thickly cut, it just demands to be touched.
The hood mould, the honey coloured stone at the top, is a Victorian addition to stop the rainwater washing across the window. Weathered in nicely it has, too.
A solid porch
The south porch is fine and simple granite, textures galore and a sense of permanence that this stone always brings to the party.
The porch itself is fifteenth century with a handsome wooden ceiling and even better original roof bosses, the wooden gates are nineteenth century, the inner door is seventeenth century and we are in the twenty-first century. Time to brush up on our maths?
Inside Bridford church
Inside it is good, very good in a very Dartmoor way; unassuming, strong, and textured with the shades of good granite (that stone again!). A good arcade, and original ceilings in the nave and aisle… the appetite is whetted.
Already the pièce de résistance is craving for our attention, the rood screen, its carvings and its paintings, but don’t let that beguile us away from other delights.
Looking out over paradise
The south windows gaze raptly over the landscape and the village rooftops, free from stained glass. The light constantly changes, highlighting shadows and shadowing highlights, caressing, spotlighting, creating atmospheres that scud through the church reflecting the clouds outside.
Up here, high on the hill, we are the landscape.
The dusky chancel
Only the chancel (the oldest part of the church) is in constant dusk, creating a fine, peaceful eucharistic space with a touch of mystery. The bare stone, the simple altar, the stained glass crucifixion scene and the wooden furniture make for an arresting composition.
The ceiling along with the glass and furniture is nineteenth century. Likely enough the walls would have been originally plastered, but things change and the space works well.
Bridford’s astounding rood screen
And the rood screen, early to mid 1500s, constantly beckons and, oh my melting heart, it’s a beauty, a veritable treasure, still with its original colouring too.
Gilded and gloried, gorgeously glittery, a bejewelled reliquary protecting not the remains of a saint but the holiest act in Christian worship; the consecration, the sacring, of the Eucharist, the literal transformation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ by the priest.
And like the most magnificent reliquary, it both hides and reveals the sacredness, allowing the congregation back in the day to see the action through swooping curves and multicoloured magnificence; no more than such faith deserved.
The colouring and the carving
The carving alone is worthy of an afternoon of lust, with its foliage, grapes, gourds, poppy heads, pomegranates and Tudor roses glowing in ageless silence.
The colouring also entices, the gilding and painting; it is truly encrusted in gold and jewels and there is nothing quite like it in Devon, or anywhere come to that.
Deep meaning in the carving
Here, in the spandrels as these triangular bits are known, are poppy heads on the left and probably pomegranates on the right. These would originally have been on the underside of the vaulting that supported the rood loft.
Not just pretty decoration though. Here they are growing out of crowns, worn by the elect in the next life, a promise of everlasting life.
The pomegranate itself, according to Gregory the Great, is an emblem of the church because of the inner unity of countless seeds in the one fruit, just as the poppy head also has.
So not just prettiness, but faith as well.
But down below is another true mystery…
The mystery of the Bridford carved figures
These carved and gilded figures on the wainscoting panels are terrific, but who are they?
There have been a few suggestions, all speculative, and there is only one other screen like this Devon, and that is probably a rough copy of this and somewhat later. And, whisper it quietly, not as gobsmackingly glorious.
So two suggestions have been: prophets, apostles and saints, and learned men and silly men. Me, I cannot imagine ‘silly men’ being placed on such a deep demonstration of faith. I would go with saints and holy folk.
For sure the geezer on the left is all dressed up in the garb of Renaissance scholar, but prophet were dressed up in modern garb back then.
But we need to see the screen as a whole, not as bits and pieces.
But to look at saints first, the lad on the right could well be St. Genesius, the jester saint (there is another carving of him down in South Devon).
Holy flowers and sainted men
While here on the left could be St Dominic, who is credited with inventing the rosary (that string of prayer beads he is holding) and was zooming in popularity around the time this screen was built.
On the right St Peter with his traditional keys and the sword that he used to cut off the ear of the servant in the Garden of Gethsemane.
So there seem to be seem saints here, along with possible prophets, saints who the congregation would understand well because they would have a perpetual spiritual conversation with them. The idea that folks in the future might not recognise them would have been unthinkable.
But there is more too.
The entrance to the sacred
Where the figures are standing, those are doors into the Holy, garlanded in celebration and separated by pillars of palm tree trunks. The garlands are mainly grapes but also pomegranate (see two pictures back, the left hand one) or lily (above, second from the right), and the border is carved with gourds.
Briefly, and somewhat sloppily (thank you, God’s Flowers by MW Tisdall)…
Palm is for martyrdom, the victory of the righteous over death, and here they are the pillars of the heavenly house.
Gourds were a symbol of relaxation after resurrection because Jonah sheltered under a gourd after his ‘resurrection’ from the whale.
The garlands in the doorways show the blood of Christ (grapes), the unity of the church (pomegranates) and purity (the lily).
And then there are the zinks.
Zinks and the human voice
These folk are holding zinks, one of the most popular Renaissance wind instruments, and one that…
No other instrument came so close to the sound of the human voice
This important, because polyphony and sacred music was a huge thing in churches in England at this time; the English were famous in Europe for the quality of their singing.
So think of this gorgeousity as a multimedia extravaganza, with saints and prophets, singing and dancing (that red stocking!), entering the doors of the Holy, the Heavenly House if you will, eternal life, surrounded by enchanting, deeply symbolic plant life.
Of course behind the screen is that exact Holy House, where Christ appears to all and offers eternal life to all, a new Garden of Eden, a heaven on earth.
And what we see of this is only part, the lesser part, above the existing screen would have been the rood loft and the actual rood, a crucified Christ with Mary and John attending, all bejewelled with gold and paint.
If this mesmerising carving, the enthralling colours and those intoxicating meanings do not make for an entrancing, magical, multi-sensory beauty then what does?
Bridford’s grisaille paintings
The marvels of this screen continue. On the back there are stunning ‘grisaille’ (monochrome) paintings.
These likely form a group from a popular morality play called ‘Mundus et Infans’ (The World and The Child) showing the progression of a man’s life from sin to repentance under the direction of a figure dressed Turkish-style.
The clothing is fascinating and the characters rings out, especially the somewhat baggy-eyed man on the left with another chin starting. Oh dear. Well looks like needing redemption.
Medieval stained glass
Tearing ourselves away from the screen, wondrous medieval stained glass comes out to play various windows. Here Mary Magdalen and St John the Evangelist are classic specimens, now subdued but still showing the glorious colours of the past.
Powerful medieval roof bosses
Mind you, beauty comes to a crashing halt when we look up at some of the roof bosses in the nave. Talk about lack of potty training…
But there is more here than what meets the reluctant eye, even taking into account that life was raw back in the day and bodily functions were a constant companion.
Because, according to the marvellous Sue Andrews, Devon roof bosses were often used to help folk meditate on their sins and/or to find their way to repentance.
And this depicts the spiritual bleakness that comes from sin, love has turned its back, no longer accessible, bleakly distant, and not the normal glorious foliage but inglorious smelly faeces.
Hell has come to town.
A big tongue and three hares
And more reminders here, of sins to avoid (the red is later colouring).
The tongue out boss is about the Sins of the Tongue. As Sue Andrews writes
‘Peyraut’s sins of the tongue included boasting, blasphemy, blunt threats, cursing, flattery, hypocrisy, idle words, insult, loquacity, lying, mocking good people, quarrelling, rumour and sowing discord’
Recognise any? Nope, me neither… never heard of them. Promise.
The Sins of the Tongue were of major concern in the Medieval era… and do we still wonder about the relevance of Medieval theology to modern times?
The Three Hares boss can have both holy and unholy meanings, at the same time too. The Holy Trinity is a good one. Lust and sexual immorality is a bad one, something which hares were famous for.
So done some lately? Because that is the question being asked of the medieval viewer, or even the modern one if we so choose.
The East Window
But these reminders were not to condemn the viewer, not to say ‘bad, bad human’, this is Christianity, a religion of love.
For sins take individuals away from the Divine, makes them forget their immortal soul, and those roof bosses were meant to put folk back on track, to Christ in the Sanctuary behind that astounding screen, shown here in the outstanding Victorian East Window.
To bring them back to the infinite Love of God, which medieval peeps thought a jolly good idea on the whole.
To fill our hearts with awe
Now the chancel is bare, the church is a shadow of what it was created to be, but what bareness, what shadow!
And whilst I venture the screen is one of the greatest works of art in Devon at the very least, to see it in its church full of three dimensional meaning is a privilege and a wonderment.
We all so need to be in Bridford.