- Elegant wooden windows
- Extraordinary north light all through the church
- Very good seventeenth century tomb with figures and original colouring
- Beautiful aged rood screen and parclose (chapel/chancel screen)
- Mighty fine box pews
- A nice eighteenth century pulpit
- Good Norman font
Nowadays a quiet village in its little hollow, the parish running down to the bank of the River Dart, only memories linger of the river as a major highway, cargo ships beating up and down to Totnes, trading in wool and grain, tin and stone.
Industries lined the bank and creeks; lime kilns, mills, factories, offloading and unloading, but now… silence…
And in this silence a most glorious thing… a special thing… as it happens, a church…
Cornworthy church from the outside
Light, elegance and grace flood this House of Prayer, filling every corner and spilling back into the sky… and what a sky; an all-weather luminosity from the north light, the building snuggling into the side of its hill as the main graveyard climbs steeply upaway south.
And then there’s the wide River Dart below, out of sight but reflecting and refracting, playing the conductor to the radiant symphony, sometimes muted, sometimes blazing, bouncing off the clouds, the sky, the rain…
The windows are wood (very rare), the uprights thin and stylish, with the sweeping Early English style a perfect choice. The white is an engaging contrast to the stonework and accents the glass’ darkness with its angled original panes texturing the black.
The south door rhymes with the windows, shiny black this time, the arch’s joints forming a cross, and the walls bringing the white to the party. The same colour scheme – black, white, stone – but in a different order. Is that not just marvellous?
Already we know we are meeting style with a capital S.
Cornworthy church and the light
Into an eighteenth century interior, masterly renovated early this century, the light greets us expectantly as if saying, ‘you know the wide radiant sky outside? Well, I can do just as well in here’.
It can. It does.
Every detail is picked out and amplified in this spacious interior, and what details…
The little pillars at the entrance to the main aisle (probably from the now vanished west gallery), marking out the path to the altar, to the divine, with effortless exquisite style, the box pews forming a peat-brown channel, the colours of the peat-laden River Dart, parting like the Red Sea for the Israelites, revealing the beautiful stone flagstones, more recently and lovingly laid, the granite pillars and white limestone arches – are the pillars supporting the roof or are they descending like ancient stalactites? – and the light filled windows…
Entranced, be drawn to the chancel, this simple, modest space of white, granite, flagstone and… and light. The simple designs on the altar, the Agnus Dei or Lamb of God, and the Alpha and Omega, all of them strong symbols of Christ himself, serve to accentuate the classic beauty, the crucifix on the bare wall, the altar itself in the middle of the space, owning it yet so part of it, and the muted colours of the tomb just to the right.
This inhabits our heads, takes over our thoughts as we wander the aisles of this gorgeous space. It is not an interior to immediately zero in onto a specific treasure, the space is the treasure and spending thirty minutes twirling through the lustre, or letting the lustre twirl through us… time well spent, I guarantee.
But the world calls, luckily, because I for one can imagine reverently trancing out for a week or ten, until they find my imperishable body of light with such ecstasy on my face that they dare not move it, and I become a fixture pointed out with awe and reverence, saying, ‘This is what happens when a church gets in your head, this is what happens when you meet the Divine’.
A marvellous monument
It seems almost rude to look at the other beauties, but they are beauties for sure and this tomb is one of them. Of course if it was in its original unfaded colours it would be bouncing around our eyeballs like a 1970s disco party, but age has muted it, as happens to us all, and muted it ravishingly, as we would like to think happens to us all, but… mirrors, eh?
The monument is from 1611 and commemorates Sir Thomas Harris and his wife Elizabeth (who died in 1633). It is, as they say, a fine rustic piece which hits the spot for many of us, country soul goes deep. It is also a vague copy of the Carew monument in Exeter Cathedral, which gives us an idea of how designs spread around, and is one of the last of its design in Devon. In truth, it could be from 1580 or even 1530.
Full of love
Tom and Liz look the part too, plump and self assured, him wearing his lawyers cap and her in her country finery. Faces full of character here.
Tom was a ‘new man’, no ancestry to speak of, his dad, Welsh like the Tudors, had picked up Cornworthy Priory for a song when Henry VIII was flogging off the church assets, shamelessly stolen, and Tom went on to become a very successful lawyer in London. Liz was a local posh gal, a Pomeroy, an ancient Devon family, and looking at them… well, I vote for a lot of love in their marriage.
Marvellously their daughter Anne Southwell (her married name) went on to become an author and poet, one of the few female writers of the time, and she had no hesitation in speaking her mind. So these two here must have done something right.
And Liz herself left £100 ‘to be invested in land’ for the poor on her death, a huge sum. To put that in context, the legacy in 1850 was tied up in ‘a house, two cottages, three orchards, and about 21 acres of land’. Think of the value of that in today’s money…
And while we are smooching around the monument, these cuties pop up to charm us, a lion advertising toothpaste pretending to be a Saint Bernard (oh dear… what big teeth you have Grandma!) and another one emerging from the stone. Bet the stonemason had a big grin himself when he was carving these.
An ageing rood screen
The rood screen still survives in part, with the rood loft and vaulting stripped off (Henry the Robber King again) but the most delightful tracery and wainscoting (the lower panels).
For the joinery nerds amongst us (visit enough churches and we all become joinery nerds) seeing the structure of the screen is a joy.
From the 1400s too, a vintage century for rood screens.
Medieval carving and Renaissance arabesque
With this light we can see it so well, each detail glinting away. The panels are painted with renaissance arabesques, only three are like this in Devon, and the designs are probably a replacement for the saints that were so frowned upon post-Reformation. This kind of painted decoration would not have been around when the screen was created.
The woodwork is a marvel, as ever, with stylised flower heads along the bottom and foliage and flowers at the top.
Secret foliage on the tracery
‘Stylised flowers and foliage? Really?’ I hear some say.
But yes, and bear with me as I eulogise the parclose tracery (the screen between the chancel and the old chapels, this one has the organ in it now) which is bewitching precisely because of the flowers and foliage.
Oh, and the stuffed mice on the organ, especially the stuffed mice on the organ. So sweet, and such an English Church thing, such English whimsy, such a part of our culture.
Of course, the tracery… beautifully patterned for sure, stunning work, but let us see what it is really about…
Here are green leaves sprouting from the side and middle uprights with yellow flowers surrounded by the purple leaves blossoming from them. The uprights (stems) either side of the centre one support red seed pods.
Oh my ravished heart…
Here, maybe this makes it easier…
Flowers made easy
This not to say that the technical descriptions are wrong – the mouchettes, the mullions, the quatrefoils, the ogee arches – it is just they do not tell the full story. The basis for it all is nature, and from nature comes all the curves and swirls, brilliantly stylised into forms yet still instantly recognisable.
And this works for near all gothic work, it is just a matter of training our eyes to understand the carvings, both in stone and in wood, effortlessly.
And for that, we pause and open our souls, let the carving sing to us, not us speak to the carving…
Box pews and a pulpit to die for
So from the magical to the sublime, and the box pews are as good as a cohesive set as I have come across in many a church visit. Just as we can see the structure of the screen laid bare, we can see how these were built as one unit, crystal clear in the light again, in drop-dead shades of brown. They date from the 1788 refitting, or possibly from the early 1800s, opinion is divided, and those new flagstones give such a fitting backdrop; a work of art in itself.
Best seen from the magnificent pulpit with the equally magnificent sounding board. The pulpit itself, for all its size and weight, seems to float lightly over the floor, whilst the sounding board hovers above with its gilded angel trumpeting the word of God.
How many enraptured sermons have gently flown from here, softly raining words of wisdom and love into the parishioners’ hearts, germinating and nurturing deeper faiths to spread throughout their daily lives and, blossoming, to create the Kingdom of God here, now?
An angel wing and a soft pillar
Already there is an angel’s wing, left with love by a passing seraphim, feathering sky-down to rest on the wall of the South Chapel, through the genius of Jilly Sutton, a nationally famous local sculptor. It is an enchantment of wonder that looks both delicate enough to soar on rays of starlight and strong enough to fly all the way to heaven. A soft power for a softly lit sacred space. Perfect.
Or this sitting quietly in the chancel, not a candle in the grand scheme of things to Jilly’s angel wing, but it kinda carries the church with it, those low carved flowers on the capital along with the graceful shape, the colouring and the lightly dynamic carving. Gaze on this awhile…
The light, always the light in this church
And always we come back to the light, all the shades of white, tickled gently by the nuances of the minimally coloured window glass, with the church springing surprises like this pillar and these arches that turn from hued granite to shadow-whited, sharp limestone, and whose shapes rhyme so dreamily with the wall and the window arches.
Intentional? Absolutely. Just as the joiners could create their magic on a smaller scale in the screens, as we have seen, so the chief stone mason understood placement and sight lines, design if you will.
Just another glamour in this little corner of the spellbinding sacred.
And the light goes with us…
Until finally, reluctantly stepping outside, saying good bye to this slate-dark tower with it’s blood-red doorway, the colour of the suffering of Christ that means so much to so many, surely no random pick for the west door entrance, and its solid witness to the faith of our community… still the light stays with us and we know, most enchantingly, that our drenching in this numinous light will live with us forever…
Growing, deepening, wondering… and blossoming…