- A very gentle, peaceful church
- Beautifully carved early 20th century pulpit
- Softly lit chancel
- Sweet Victorian painted altar back
- Good piscina in chancel
- Impressive Victorian floor tiles
- The delicate natural light makes this a church of pure peace
Halwill church is a very gentle church, in a very gentle parish, in a very gentle corner of Devon. Here the county seems to pause, stop all its shenanigans about deep valleys, tumbling torrents and vertical hills, and settle down comfortably with a good book and a nice cup of tea, and this is so much a good book and a nice cup of tea church, all the better for it too.
But it was not ever thus. A mile or so up the road is Halwill Junction, which was Boomtown City back in the late 1800s when four railway lines converged on this little old parish, all pausing to have a good natter and then shooting of North, South, East, and West.
The southern line went to Okehampton, about eleven miles away, which had a direct connection to Waterloo station in London; suddenly farmers all over the region had a brand new market for their perishables, their butter and eggs and stock and vegetables and sundries. In return, London sent tourists, lots of tourists, and retirees (amongst other things, admittedly).
But Halwill village remained a quiet place, and the church is a beautiful little late-Victorian gentleness, rebuilt in the 1870s but keeping the fourteenth century tower. It is set in a sweet flat churchyard, suiting it to perfection.
Halwill Church of St Peter and St James
Inside there is a soft light, with the north and south transepts (the sticky out bits either side of the nave) bringing more light into the crossing just before the chancel. They also break the nave up, so the altar is framed not just by the chancel arch but another arch before that, creatively lengthening the perspective.
And here is the thing; gentle churches do not set the world alight but they fill the soul with peace and simplicity. That seems a little slice of perfection to me.
Halwill church pulpit
And talking about perfection, this sensational pulpit would like a word in your ear, the kind of word that thrills you to the bone. It is a beauty.
It is was carved in 1910 and is a copy of a Jacobean pulpit in the nearby parish of Shebbear, though the word ‘copy’ in no way does it justice. A ‘re-creation’ is a better word. It is sharper cut and more symmetrical, owing to modern woodworking tools being made of stronger steel that takes a better edge and other more recent techniques, and all this and more gives it its own deep soul.
Let us play…
Beautiful wood carving full of meaning
On the sides are these exquisite panels, plants elegantly framed by classical pillars and an arch… and what plants they are!
Here, in this panel, are the main flowers Marigolds? Quite possibly, especially considering the meaning of that name: Mary Gold, flowers for the Virgin Mary and ones that early Christians used as coins to place around the feet of statues of herself.
At the bottom seem to be Fritillary flowers, which in Jacobean times were a highly regarded near-new species, and which Shakespeare himself had grow from the blood of Adonis in his early poem ‘Venus and Adonis’.
The fruits? Ah, way above my pay grade. I am out on a limb already making a stab at the flowers already.
But it is set dynamic carving, the twirls and swirls, the sheer exuberance of plants connected to love and Mary, present in the landscape aroundabout showing God’s Creation, that makes it so fitting for this pulpit.
Elemental powers below
And supported by these sweethearts, possibly representing Elemental Powers, holding up the wonders of Creation carved in the pulpit above, and still retaining their power in this 1910 renewal I venture.
Still in the nave, this fourteenth century granite font connects the old church to the new. It surely is a fine piece of work, chunky and well proportioned. That moulding around the stem has a shortening effect, giving a fine balance to the whole; without it, surely it would run the risk of being a tad tall and top heavy?
Halwill church sanctuary and altar
Walking up to the chancel, there is a fine sanctuary full of soft light with its gently colourful East window.
But it is the approach that matters just as much, through different shadings as we walk up the nave and under the two arches with the light changing.
First the nave windows on either side, then the opening up into the transept crossing with light from the more distant, and larger, south and north transept windows then the narrowing down into he chancel and the night from the big East Window with splashes from the smaller windows on the south side.
Victorian sacred painting on the reredos
At the end the altar with the sweetly painted altar back (reredos) showing St Peter with his keys and St Paul with his sword and book at the side of Christ with angels at either end.
St Paul’s book symbolises the letters he wrote and his martyrdom; he was beheaded in Rome in 67 AD.
Christ here is depicted as Salvator Mundi, or Saviour of the World, with one hand raised in blessing and the other holding a ‘globus cruciger’ or an orb and cross, symbolising the world and Christ’s (the cross) dominion over it. The whole is showing Christ not as a powerful ruler but as the humble saviour, with his two main men at his side.
Which is all well and dandy, and lovely with it, but a church is never about a single image, there is usually more…
A stained glass Lamb of God in the East Window
Like here… marvellously the message of Christ the Saviour at the altar is intensified by this Agnus Dei, or Lamb of God, in the window above it.
“John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, ‘Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’”
A powerful symbol stretching way back to before 800 AD, and incorporated in the Roman Latin Mass by Pope Sergius (687–701).
Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, grant us peace.
Sung just at the breaking of the consecrated bread and the pouring of the Communion wine.
He took this from a Syrian tradition, and some say he did it to troll the Byzantine church who had decided that portraying Christ as an animal was a bit rude. No idea, me, though I would rather hope a pope was above that sort of thing.
So what does the Agnus Dei mean?
Well, the thing with lambs is that they are, to put it bluntly, killed. Those frolicy little bundles of cuddliness end up dead. Just as Christ was killed. By humans.
But Christ defeated death, and the lamb is shown holding the Banner of Resurrection, with a cross clearly shown. And we know it the lamb is Jesus because only Jesus has a halo with three divisions, symbolising the three nails used to nail him to the cross.
And Christ’s death and resurrection is seen as a sacrifice to take away the sins of the world, as in the passage from John and the Latin Mass. This sacrifice saves the world, if you will, which ties directly into the image on the altar back.
Al this underlined by the passage from Revelations:
“Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches, wisdom and strength, honour and glory and blessing.”
And so we have the altar back meaning and the stained glass symbol really giving different takes on the same thing, intensifying that little sacred space when Communion is given.
Now my theology is sloppy, that is true, but the point being that even in a gentle, little church here the use of symbols can bounce of each other to produce a powerful Christian space, and we do not have to be of the faith to appreciate the beauty.
The Victorian piscina
Mind you, while we are chatting about beauty, this is a bobby dazzler.
A Victorian piscina, for rinsing out the Communion vessels after Mass, and the stonework alone is well composed, but ally with that delicate tile work and it becomes another level of prettiness.
The tilework stops the carving from being over-heavy and the stone returns the favour by preventing any hint of tweeness. A favourable result.
A beautiful poppy head in the transept
While in the south transept are these simple elegances, the kind of Victorian poppy head that we can so easily wander past, nothing to write home about, until…
Well, until we pause, breathe deep and take a closer look and fall head over heels in love, a lad or lass that we have never really noticed before but suddenly realise just what a gorgeous person they are and go all wobbly kneed and twirly hearted.
A charm of curves and chamfers, totally underrated, a pure, simple pleasure.
Tiles to sweeten the heart
Have a look at the floor tiles, really quite rare too They have a very workaday beauty, almost industrial, made to stand up to wear and tear and all those feet over the past century and differently wonderful every day.
As if the tiler thought ‘After 150 years they will look right proper’ as the church folk started joining into the creativity.
And is not this true of the beauty of churches? Their art is never static, it is transformed by people, time and climate over years and centuries; it is art that is not only dynamic but almost invisibly so.
Slow art if you will, what we see now is so different from before and what will be, and each step coming with its own glory and its particular remarkable extraordinary.
A gentle church
Even something like the pulpit, copied from the early 1600s but definitely having its own personality, in 300 years will be softer, less distinct but oh my giddy aunt, it is a right bomber now.
So what era does it truly come from? No idea me, because it is ongoing, not only the physical changes but the meanings evolve. When the original of this was carved fruits were known as a symbol of salvations and the promise of plenty to come, not a bad choice for a pulpit. Not a bad choice for a pulpit indeed.
More, it was a devotion to the old artistry, as well as the birth of a new world, the beginning of the twentieth century and a relatively new church.
Well, just magic, for me at least, not only for all that stylishly confident curling and flowing, but for the centuries that it contains too.
In a very gentle way in a very gentle church.