- A peaceful church deep in the green Devon landscape
- Very nice windows
- A simple Norman entrance
- Beautiful light fills the church
- Oak pillars and arches, only one of two churches in Devon that has these
- Stunning early 16th century carved chair back in chancel
- A lovely St Luke’s ox piece of medieval glass
- Fascinating bench ends
- A Norman font and medieval tower stairs door
- Always the entrancing light and peace in this beauty
There is a little lane running above the rivers Torridge and Okement, rising and falling over hills and streams, wandering through fields and woodlands, a very pretty lane with a small string of churches strung along it like dainty pearls… Monkeokehampton, Iddesleigh, Dowland, Dolton, all worth a visit or two.
Dowland is the smallest parish, the church a small pearl and like most pearls it is all about the light. No bling, no glitter, only a couple of tiny pieces of stained glass, a rare beauty.
A few houses have sprung up over time, hardly a hamlet, so very not a village. Dowland Barton next door is probably the original manor which this church was built for, some say in 1106, some say in 1132 by Walter de Clavil. All these centuries lit has lived with the sound of wind, sheep, cattle, birds, and priests and parishioners hymning the Divine.
It would be rude not to pause awhile and listen hard.
Dowland Church of St Peter
A messy little church from the outside, partly rendered and partly bare stone, there are some beautiful windows for those whose fancy turns to these, and if you are reading this then spending five minutes basking in the beauty of a stone window is just the least of your delights.
Mind you, in 1900 they were going to take off the plaster from all the church but found the walls were built of such small stones that it would have been meaningless; presumably pointing (replacing the mortar between the stones) would have been more work than plastering.
Those windows though, they are a pretty pair.
The east windows
The right hand one is sixteenth century, with its square head, the left hand one thirteenth century (Early English), probably restored. Storm weathered, lichen colonised, simple rustic stone windows. Delicious.
And they surely indicate more than anything the century the north (the right) aisle was added.
Stones in the belfry
Or this little darling fifteenth century belfry window, granite melting into the surrounding local rubble stone and those gorgeous slate louvres that some classy bird has decided to nest in.
Then there is the lintel, containing the arches of the openings with those itsy-bitsy carvings between them, the spandrels as they are called. Little leaf shapes cut out to catch the sun at just the right time, a tiny play of light and shade barely visible from the ground. In truth, if they had been missed out nobody would have said anything but this is God’s temple, and God’s temple deserves the best work and surely received it here.
But there is more too, above the lintel is the big granite not-a-relieving arch. Usually in this position there would be a small arch to push the weight of the stone above to either side, stopping it pressing directly on the lintel below. Here, the mason has gone for a flat version, still with a keystone mind you, so as the load comes down it actually strengthens the bond.
The mason did a proper job, wanted to make sure by reducing/dischaging the load; not his first rodeo.
It would be a lot easier to get up to the location than a single lintel but would be more work to make.
Seion Church Maintenance
Marvellously, I have seen the same technique on medieval granite farmhouses on Dartmoor, so definitely a thing hereabouts.
Alongside all this is the stone, the colours, the textures, the shapes, just tickety-boo on the highway to awesome. Doubled. Then doubled again.
The Norman entrance
The south door, the main entrance, is so very Norman, narrow and with a curved arch, a Roman arch as it is called because the Romans used it all the time, not knowing how to use a keystone which probably wandered across from Arab architecture thus making the pointed arch of the Gothic possible. شكراً جزيلاً لكم أيها البناؤون العرب I say.
In little old Britain we call this style Norman because they used it so humongously much in their buildings here, the rest of the world calls it Romanesque with that connection to the Romans and all.
Inside Dowland church of St Peter
But all this architecture dissipates into pure light as we enter this rural elegance…
A calm Protestant church, still as the deep ocean on a hot, windless day, it is rare to have this much light in a Devon church and is a true delight. Watch every little detail gradually revealing its beauty to a wondering gaze.
Hours can be spent inspecting the floor, days the benches, years the light. Sunny days, rainy days, cloudy days, morning, noon, evening, night, the world is about the constantly changing softness in this charm.
The glorious light
The luminous, numinous gloom on a cloudy day that we can sit for hours in, out of time and space, with the whites and the golds and the browns and that sudden tiny splash of colour at the top of the window. Is that the Divine peeking in?
Anything is possible here.
Oak pillars, oak arches
Then the woodwork in this church, it is delicious. Leaving aside the sixteenth century bench ends for a moment, the pillars and arches themselves are made from oak, one of only two churches in Devon like this. This is strange to eyes so used to stone pillars, and yet the effect grows.
Why oak? Oh my, that is a question and a half.
Remarkable. Timber arcades are not unknown but they rarely emulate, or appear to have been intended to emulate, stone so convincingly as this
Michael Bullen, Architectural Historian
In Devon pillars and arches from this period (later fifteenth early sixteenth century) are nearly always in granite or Beer stone, an easily carved limestone from Beer (on the East Devon coast) that hardens after being exposed to air and carved.
Sometimes there is a combination, with the top of the pillars (the capitals) in Beer stone because that could be carved more intricately.
Beer is fifty-four miles away by today’s roads, but back in the day there were no real roads and everything went by water, packhorse or, short range, on sleds pulled by oxen or people. The only possible water route to Dowland is around Lands End and down the Torridge, which enters the sea on Devon’s north coast.
For this tiny parish and the main donor of the new aisle, surely an expense too far.
So were these lime-washed originally to look like Beer stone pillars? Or even more interestingly were the capitals (and/or the pillars) thinly plastered and a somewhat intricate design carved in them to resemble well carved Beer stone? Or maybe painted with saints and scenes of holiness?
Alternatively, did they just bung up some wooden pillars and arches to save a few quid? Or even as a modernistic design choice? Well, both unlikely as saving money on building God’s house (very seriously and meaningfully God’s house, he dwelt in the Eucharist) was not really a thing, and neither were modernistic design choices. Variations of the theme? Yes. Total novelty? That’s a big fat no, far too ego driven for one thing.
So the ‘why oak’ question? We do not know is the truth, but an educated guess might be shortage of funds whilst still building a thing of beauty. Not doing it on the cheap, oh no, never that, just doing it they best they could.
And pretty seriously well at that, too.
An astounding 16th century carving
Keeping to woodwork, this bodaciousness springs the fun-o-meter up to 11; a monkey playing a pipe and tabor (that drum thing), a beaut of a wyvern (wyverns have two legs, dragons have four), a snail giving a very good imitation of a ‘not a snail’ and is that a grumpy eagle up there on the right? All seemingly playing around a blackberry bush with ripe berries.
And that monkey even has a tasselled cushion to sit on, very considerate that.
It is a chair back, a panel from 1500-1550 (thank you, Marham Church Antiques) incorporated into a 19th chair, and it is in the chancel… likely enough repurposed from a manor house.
But such fun. Is the blackberry bush gigantic or are the creatures miniature? I vote for miniature, because back then people still knew that England is full of hedgerow folk, and I can live in that imagination. Big time.
Ruby red in stained glass
Whilst this mighty adorable winged ox (the symbol of St Luke) in medieval stained glass is high in a nave window, and adorable is the word. Likely enough an ancestor of the ‘Devon Ruby Red’ or ‘Devon Red’ cattle breed, first bred here and now found all over the world because it just rocks.
It also makes a fine draft animal, as oxen need to be, produces quality beef, and is absolutely tippety-top for rich milk to make the best Devonshire clotted cream.
Beef, milk and clotted cream… all we need is some strong cider, some cake, and we have all five essential food groups, Devon style!
A mysterious bench end
A bit younger are the sixteenth century bench ends, one of them with a date of 1546 which is a fine clue. This one is probably around that time, and seems full of pregnant meaning.
Look closely at the top head and he has two things coming from his mouth, a tongue below and then the larger symbol which likely signifies speech and is also flame-like, similar to the flames that descended on the apostles at the Pentecost.
And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and they began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them to utter.
Acts 2: 3,4 Trans: Trns: David Bentley Hart
This is surely a preacher, especially considering the clothes, with an aged, lined face, eyes closed in a holy trance, surely proclaiming the word of God.
And below, Mr Beardy with a big ear, like ‘a spiritual organ of perception’.
A strong message here, a depiction of a new, Post-Reformation faith where the Word of God and the Scripture was the only thing, no rituals nor images no more? It is rare piece this, I do not know a similar in Devon, and I venture this interpretation is near the mark.
Old font, old door
The font is rough old bird, Late Medieval the guide says but I would not be surprised with that dating being pushed back a few hundred years. The Late Medieval tended to produce better formed fonts, but then again there is always the exception; though in truth if a church was replacing, say, a Norman font in those times, it surely would choose something appreciably newer and carved in the era’s fashion?
Then again, the light in this church does transform it into an object of focus and to spend time looking at the details is time well spent regardless of age. It has texture and shading and gets my vote.
A medieval door
Marvellously, the fifteenth century tower has kept its original door into the tower stairs, so very marvellously so.
Always the beauty of light and love
Back always to the light, something I thought I would be writing far more about in this church because it really is a bit of a thing… but there is so much else of interest and beauty here, as there is in near every rural Devon church.
But the light, the light with the woodwork and the clear glass and the white walls, it is wonderful.
And the parish folk too, always remember the parish folk.
Dowland Church has served generations of local families over the past 900 years, we now take our turn as the current caretakers to ensure its future for generations to come, as so many have done before us.
Dowland church website
I venture it is not just the local folk either, it is us who can visit and truly, madly, deeply love and look, with deep eyes and deeper hearts, to be awed by the centuries of care in every nook and cranny of the church.
On one of the bells up in the tower is the inscription
We wish it to be understood, though we are little we are very good
And here is to more folk visiting and finding the truth in that.