- A truly charming west door
- Stunning Georgian nave and west gallery
- Box pews to die for
- Beautiful religious painting from 1744
- Fascinating collection of tombs and memorials
- Very rare Flemish stained glass
- A slice of social history and very beautiful with it
A charming little village is Gittisham, full of thatched cottages and pleasant living, luxuriating in the rich farmland of the Otter Valley. Lovely soil it is too. Grows vegetables for one thing. Us folks over West Devon can only look with awe. Though we do have the cattle. A win for us, I venture.
Grows apples as well, and the beautiful folks here developed a popular apple breed in the eighteenth century with the help of a local landowner and barrister called Thomas Putt. They called the variety Tom Putt, and like the best types of apple it is a very good cider apple. If you cannot make cider out of an apple, then what use is it?
Well, tempting Eve for one thing says the serpent, and there is that. Not that I am agreeing with the serpent. But from all that kerfuffle came churches, and Gittisham church is a stunner.
Around Gittisham church
The first thing we notice is that the main entry is on the north side of the church, and then the petite chancel on the left, not a common feature on churches deeper into Devon; here though we are getting towards the East, in some respects a different culture.
A good looking tower with those battlements too, mighty neat…
A trio of doors
… unless we pop round the south side and meet this little mess of mess of steps and doors, looking for all the world like an inner-city back alley. Utilitarian is the word, and a good word. Churches grow and change and here is a fine example.
The right hand door goes to the west gallery (oooh, this church has a surviving west gallery), the middle door goes to the tower stairs and the left hand door to the bell ringers’ chamber. The whole was created when the west gallery was put in.
That is the official version anyway. Personally, in a place that developed a popular cider apple, I am a tad surprised there are any straight lines at all.
A scrumptious west door
The west door in the tower is such a scrumptiously domestic sweetheart with those window panes, lace curtains and standard domestic door knob.
Any moment now a rosy cheeked Devonian is going to pop their head out and offer a cup of tea. From a teapot. In a tea cosy. Served in patterned china cups. With a hunk of cake. In front of a cottage fireplace. And talk about the weather. And the crops. And pretty Jilly Undercombe’s approaching marriage to such a fine lad as Josh Stanbury…
It is early nineteenth century apparently and I have never seen anything quite like it as a church door. It is so charming that we can easily miss the way it has been fitted so expertly into the much earlier door surround.
Box pews inside Gittisham Church
So we enter by the north porch, with its row of hat pegs from the 1700s and doorway possibly from the 1300s, and are plunged up to our waists in a sea of wondrous box pews, full of the browns of the universe.
Gittisham church nave
This is a place to play with sight lines and perspectives, a magical golden-brown forest.
Down the central aisle, along the side aisles, from the pulpit, the altar, the stone paved floor, eye-level the edges from the inside and the outside and then sit in a few to really understand how they block out all kinds of distractions to allow deep focus on the preached word.
They also keep the draughts out; I wonder how many people brought in little charcoal braziers, cushions and snacks?
The old oak of the box pews
Not forgetting the actual wood, eighteenth century oak and still looking ace.This truly is a marvellous collection of box pews, one of the best in Devon.
The Sanctuary in Gittisham church
We walk through the box pews up to the chancel. A nice new nineteenth century floor with good tiles, clean walls and a simple altar.
It does make for a modest, attractive space and that ceiling is a darling, stars on deep blue. The design stretches back to the Middle Ages; the heavens above, the earth below, God is in his creation and the church is in God.
A nice touch to bring that old tradition back here.
Victorian floor tiles
The tiles are worth a closer look (what tiles are not?). Some of the designs are part of a tradition stretching back centuries, when foliage was carved on the stone and woodwork, both realistically and abstract. Now, with these nineteenth century tiles, it can be walked on too.
And those stars! Bewitchingly, they mirror the night sky painted on the ceiling. Just magic it is.
The west gallery
Looking back down the nave the Georgian west gallery floats deliciously above the pews. The builders used an iron post for support, much less obtrusive than a wooden pillar and blending more into the background. Because of this the gallery, with its beautiful brown panelling, has a delicacy that often escapes these structures.
Well, it is tempting to leave it there, and truly life is wonderful in modern times. Sadly the gallery back in the day was for the poor, the musicians and the servants. The box pews below were rented or purchased by individual families, with the more ‘important’ families having pews nearer the chancel and the social order strictly maintained.
Many of the marginalised and the ‘lower classes’, as they were so troublingly termed, rejected this hierarchical church and embraced Methodism, understandably so I venture.
The King David painting
On the west wall below the gallery is this splendid painting on board, dedicated to or given by John Ousley in 1744. It is a corker. King David on his harp with an angel each side and excerpts from two psalms.
Well I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do you?
Well it goes like this
The fourth, the fifth, the minor fall and the major lift
The baffled king composing Halleluja
Leonard Cohen, Halleluja
King Dave was originally a harpist before he won the kingship, and was said to have composed the psalms. We know now that he probably did not, but he was considered a bit of a rock star back in the day.
The Gittisham monuments
Wander up this south aisle and meet the monuments at the east end, a glorious collection placed in what used to be the Lady Chapel by local gentry after the Reformation.
Against the east wall, in Alabaster, Purbeck stone and black marble and with the original paint, is this monument to Henry Beaumont of Combe and his wife Elizabeth. Intricate in its detailing, characterful in its faces, devout in its composition, it is a very goodly monument, very well carved.
The Putt chest tomb
Next to the Beaumont memorial on the south wall is a beauty, a tomb chest to Ursula Putt dated 1674; this urn is a mere (!) detail. It is a fine concoction of black, grey and white marble, fascinating not only in itself but also as an illustration of how design had already started to become more classically oriented and move away from the painted stone of the Beaumont memorial.
Ursula died in 1674 and her husband died in 1686, when his name was added to the tomb. His name was Thomas Putt, an ancestor of the Tom Putt of cider apple fame, and apart from his liking for a bit of marble bling he did help set up a school for the poor just before he died.
Flemish stained glass
Then we come to the stained glass, a some exquisite examples from the sixteenth century onwards. The above are from the chancel north window and are Flemish sixteenth or seventeenth century.
The left hand one shows The Descent from the Cross, Jesus being taken down from the cross and wrapped in linen. We can see the Crown of Thorns and the three nails used to crucify him lying in the foreground.
The right hand one is probably a detail from an image of the Prodigal Son, though that is a probable. Very feral looking pigs, not yet the fat porkers bred for modern farming. The topmost one oinking away, not a swine to cross swords with, I venture.
The story of Ruth and the box pews
And then there is this nineteenth century window that has a deep connection to the box pews. It depicts an event in the Book of Ruth, one of only two books in the Old Testament named after a woman and the only one named after a non-Jew.
Shown is Ruth (centre panel, sitting), her mother-in-law Naomi (behind Ruth) and Boaz (on the left). The backstory is that Naomi had fled famine in Israel with her husband and sons to Moab, a non-Jewish tribal area, and her two sons married Moabites, one of them being Ruth. Naomi’s husband and sons died and Naomi returned to Israel; Ruth insisting on coming to look after her.
They lived in poverty and during the harvest Naomi went out to collect the gleanings from the corn field. These were the bit of grains that the fell to the ground while the harvesters cut and collected the ripe corn and traditionally the very poor were allowed to collect for free.
Ruth is praised for being such a dutiful daughter-in-law and following the faith of Israel, as written on the stained glass
The LORD recompense thy work, and a full reward be given thee of the LORD God of Israel
A happy ending
Ruth ends up marrying Boaz and everything is hunk-dory with kids galore. So far, a simple metaphor showing how God is for everyone, a very Christian thing.
But there is a twist in the tale. At the very end of the book Ruth is revealed to be the famous King David’s grandmother. And even more, in the Gospel of Matthew Boaz’s mother is said to be a prostitute from Jericho, a non-Jew herself and not exactly Mrs Socially Desirable in those days.
So both Boaz and Ruth come from the poor and the marginalised and yet they are still welcomed by God, a resoundingly Christian message.
So what does this have with box pews?
Now around the 1840s there was a renewal of the Church of England, new ideas, new priests, new energy, and box pews were kinda on their hit list.
Why? The way they made some folks seemingly more important than others inside a church and that this status was bought with money. All should be equal before the Lord, and they did like replacing the box pews with benches with minimal restriction on who could sit where.
For some reason Gittisham’s box pews were not taken out, but just after the Victorian renovation this window was put in.
The poor and marginalised are as much God’s children as the wealthy landowners says the stained glass. Oh.
Put that in your pipes and smoke it, wealthy landowners of box pew land.
A little beauty
We come back to the woodwork with this nineteenth century poppyhead with its deeply curvaceous foliage. This depth of carving is not always present on poppyheads, and here was likely created to catch the light coming in through the south windows. It surely does that well.
And the light picking out the woodwork here too.
This is a church that all the other beauties, the stone, the glass, the plaster, the painting, the carving, the tiles, they are all set against the background of the woodwork.
The floors are three dimensional, the light bouncing off so many angles, the browns highlighted and dimmed, the shapes changing with perspectives and angles and the sounds… well, tap your way around.
I know I had fun doing so.