- An especially beautiful churchyard with stream
- Completely granite, gorgeously so
- Roodscreen with awesome renaissance carvings
- Medieval and Victorian stained glass
- Granite font, pulpit and lectern
- Dated history going back to Alfred the Great
A journey to Gidleigh
Between the wild and the cultivated, the high moors and the lowlands, Gidleigh lives on the borderlands, part green fields, part wilderness… It belongs to both, and seems to mediate between Heaven and Earth.
Travelling there is a pilgrimage of enchantment; tiny deep valleys with stream-bogged bottoms and flowing green fields amongst tangled woodlands clinging to the precipitous slopes, winding roads spinning around every possible dimension and then discovering more to play with, tall hedges and rough granite walls following boundaries settled upon three thousand years ago… and more granite, always the granite… bouldering amongst the trees, creeping across the moorland, murmuring under the thin soil, texturing every building… boiling out of deep magma aeons ago and now hymning creation…
And yet, though the parish is Johnny Newcomer to Old Father Dartmoor, it is part of the deep history of England.
Alfred the Great, the father of the nation, owned it and left it in his will to his youngest son Ethelward; staying royal, King Harold II’s mother Gytha retreated here to her manor after his death at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, only to roar back and lead the Exeter Rebellion in 1068 against the new ruler, the Thief of England, William the Bastard, and failing, flee to Denmark.
So there was likely enough a Saxon chapel here, an early one, it would have been a common thing for a royal manor, and following that a Norman stone one; we know that in 1291 it was assessed for church taxes by Pope Nicholas IV a total of 240 pence, a low amount, a poor parish… but rich can never be measured in money, and Gidleigh is richly beyond compare.
Gidleigh Church and churchyard
The present church is late fifteenth or early sixteenth century and a petite beauty it is, only rivalled by its charm of a churchyard with its murmuring stream and bosky borders.
Before the mid to late 1600s, and quite possibly later up here, gravestones did not exist and folk were buried in shrouds on top of each other without a marker. Often new soil was spread over to make more earth for burials, but in a small parish like Gidleigh there would have plenty of room and the level would have risen naturally.
Technically the churchyard was the property of the rector, practically a bit of free green open space was more attractive than any rector’s protestations, so it would have been used for festivals, grazing and here, with a nice clean stream, washing and drying clothes. A wise man of God would likely have known when to keep his mouth shut.
There was a pound nearby, still existing, to pen in any cattle or sheep caught straying, I suspect social relations in such a small community led to forgiveness very quickly.
The Bede Roll
Buried folk were remembered though, not just plopped into the earth and forgotten. Every parish had a bede roll, a list of souls buried in the church yard that was read out in church on a regular basis from the pulpit for whom the congregation was asked to pray. It was one of the main use of pulpits, sermons being a rare beast if existing at all.
Folk, or their families, had to make a donation to be included on the bede roll (‘bede’ comes from the Old English meaning ‘pray’) but this was often on a sliding scale, with the poor only paying what they could afford, and the lists would go back generations.
Partly the bede roll was about praying for the dead in Purgatory, the more prayers that were said for them the shorter their stay (as ever, distilling a thousand years of theology into a sentence… Hhhhm) but also parishioners thought of themselves as allying in the Body of Christ, the Community of Faith, both the living and the dead.
Hearing their families, and families’s families, being prayed for regular, in some parishes every Sunday, must have been such a ‘coming together’ experience, quite beautiful and affirming, a timeless community of the living and the dead.
Granite all over
Just as the granite in this moorland church is ageless, as if here from the beginning of time, with that lovely square-headed window and the priest’s door a wonderful shade of green. Love those studs too.
Inside the church
A simple interior, recently conserved and the pews removed to allow for the space to be used for more than just church services. Sometimes this works well, and this is one of those times.
The pillars separating the south aisle are good and chunky, with those grand capitals fluting outwards to support the granite arches. It is an interesting choice; slimmer capitals would have given more lightness to the arcade (the row of pillars) I venture, with the arches floating off their supports, and the same for slimmer pillars.
If anything, the octagonal pillars are more 1300s in design, though not as stocky and made from one piece of stone. The church was probably rebuilt in the 1400s.
So the whole effect is more cavelike, more hunkering down against the Dartmoor weather, and anybody who lives up here, between heaven and earth, knows hunkering down is a very good idea.
Here is shelter, for the body and for the soul, where the flock are safe to explore their sins, a safe space, a holy space, an intoxicating space where forgiveness has already been given, and potent repentance cultivates the Divine in their hearts.
The sixteenth century screen with its nineteenth century colouring is a darling, stripped of its rood loft but keeping some magnificent carving. On the lower panel there are what could so easily be fresh seedlings budding from the soil, and at the top the vine scroll and foliage coving.
In between, in the spandrels (the triangular bits), which the vaulting for the rood loft would have covered, is ravishing renaissancery, billowing in the wind of faith, probably taken from the vaulting itself and placed here. That upright too… Mmmmm… likely a seventeenth century replacement and rocking the look.
Stained Glass at Gidleigh
In the south aisle there is a fine ‘Faith, Hope and Charity’ window by AL Moore, very late Victorian Arthurian romance with faith as a knight of old, muscular Christianity as they called it, with two gentleman angels either side. It probably helped that God was an Englishman… apparently…
The faces, as here, capture a certain something for sure, and well worth a gaze or two.
And some medieval stained glass as well, the Virgin Mary which is very battered and, here, St John with gorgeous hair and characterful face, looking quite soft and young, yet to go through the trials of life, but possibly in a state of constant divine ecstasy… ? After all, from his inspiration will come the most mystical of the gospels.
Granite around the church
The granite has taken over the interior too, creeping into the furniture as if the moor is taking back its land. Stay praying here long enough and we too will mould into the moorland stone…
The font is a simple eight-sided bowl, with more complicated support well setting off the plainness above. An appealing bit of 1400s stonework, with a delightful 1600s wooden font cover, polished and nicked with age; the same deep brown of the peat-laden moorland rivers in flood… flowing over granite bones… Mama Mia, it delivers…
There is more granite furniture too, all made in 1853 by John Agget of this parish; nearby there is still an ‘Agget’s Farm’.
It is well proportioned and a rarity, if not a one off; I cannot think of another granite Neo-Gothic pulpit from this time period, all the others are of limestone or wood, which allow for much more intricate carving.
To some extent John’s work is worth a good look for its rarity value, but the design is worth a meditation as well. It has a hint of clumsiness, but that is arguably more about the prejudices we bring to the party, and up here, in the wild rugged, delicacy dies. Quickly.
What seems clumsy is natural, it is the boulders and the tors, the river rock and the moorstone, dragged off the wild for the field walls, the farmhouses, the churches… and in this case, the church furniture. So yes, it works well, because it belongs here and in a thousand years time it still will.
As will this solid arch, ready to stand for a millennium or two, with the green of the moors under a lowering sky on the nineteenth century domestic-style door, a good homely touch that. The door is very Norman style, though not of that age.
The stillness around this church is an experience in itself, not many folk venture up here, it is not easy to find, and the journey’s end is a joy (the journey is a bit of alright too).
And yet, as we know, it has touched English history, this little cloud church, weather bound and green enfolded, and before we go one last story, a Russian one as it happens… Harry had a daughter, also called Gytha like her gran, by his true love and probable wife, the beautifully named Edith the Gentle Swan or Edith the Swan-Necked, and when Harry the Last of England’s mum fled Gidleigh to Denmark she took her granddaughter.
The Russian Connection
The young Gytha ended up marrying Vladimir II Monomakh (mind you, with such a balls to wall grandma, kinda surprising she was not married off to the Pope, let alone become one), Grand Prince of the Kievan Rus from whom, after many a turmoil, Russia was born, and from Gytha descended the first Grand Princes of Moscow and Tsars of Russia, including Alexander Nevsky, Ivan the Terrible (so not Gidleigh’s fault), Ivan the Fair (getting better… ) and Ivan the Great (totally Gidleigh).
A tenuous connection… ? Really? Not noticed that, me… but I do know one thing… Ivan the Great had many a title, Tsar of Russia, Grand Prince of Moscow, Grand Prince of all Rus’, Gatherer of the Russian lands, but I bet his proudest, the rank he purred to himself when primping and preening in front of the mirror, was ‘The One whose many-times-Great Grandma lived in Gidleigh’.
Truly, what title could be better than that?