- Very rare two-towered church
- The Norman South tower has been reduced in height
- A fine Norman south door
- Spacious interior
- A variety of charming roof bosses
- Some lovely 19th century stained glass
- Over 70 medieval bench ends, from the 15th and 16th centuries
- A stupendous assortment full of craft and art
- A must-see for all of us interested in medieval beauty
High Bickington Church of Saint Mary
Now a quietness, High Bickington used to be on the main Exeter-Barnstaple route, uniting North and South Devon, perched on the edge of the River Taw’s steep valley, a river which itself tumbles down from High Dartmoor before gently slipping North.
There was an ancient market here, the new road came thought the valley bottom in the late 1700s , and High Bickington beat Bishops Tawton at skittles in 1851.
Oh, and a splendid church, with two towers (well, one and a half really, but that is still half a tower more than most churches), and one of the most splendiferous treasure houses of traditional wood carving in Devon.
That is saying a lot. A heap of a lot.
But first that tower.
High Bickington Church towers
The tall one, here the nearest, Is fifteenth century, but the one on the southside, a transept tower, is Norman and had its top lopped off probably when the new tower went up. The saddle ridge roof was put on then.
So the old tower is Norman, the nave is a lot of Norman, and there was a manor here in Saxon times so likely enough a chapel or more as well, especially considering the major route it sits on; travellers would often cross the south west peninsular on foot rather than sail around Lands End; massive tides and sudden storms help make that decision easy.
A coastline of cliffs and razor sharp rocks with very few harbours roaring their opinion on the side of walking as well.
Old lancet windows
There are two lancet windows in the east side of the old Norman tower, both fourteenth century, one here, on the on the ground floor, one where first floor would have been.
The first floor was probably where the priest originally lived.
Inside High Bickington Church of Saint Mary
High Bickington church is comparatively large, reflecting the wealth of the parish back in the Late Medieval. With access to a major river, its fish and water power, sheep and cattle in the fields and on a major trading route, it likely made out like gangbusters.
The north aisle was added in the fifteenth century, the chancel likely enlarged in the fourteenth, and the benches…
Bench ends galore
Well, the benches are from the fifteenth and sixteenth, possibly even one or two from the fourteenth, there are over seventy bench ends, one of the largest medieval collections in Devon, and they are riveting.
But first to look around the Church.
The medieval roof bosses
Or, more accurately, to look up because these roof bosses rock like ageing Blues legends; they might be ancient, weathered and grizzled, but they sure still strum the music of Heaven.
Varied too, from the John Lee Hookers to the Big Mama Thorntons of roof bosses.
Top left is an interesting riff on bossing because it just does not seem to be one, no big carving concealing the rib joint, very minimalist.
Top right is going the minimalist way though it is definitely suffering from age-shrinkage, which makes it rather striking; starting life as a full petalled flower it is as withered as it would be in nature. Enchanting that.
The bottom ones are full-bodied bosses, though the one on the left be later or might just be covered in goopy paint.
Finely armoured dudes in stained glass
Looking level now, there is this lovely stained glass in the nave showing three allegorical figures, angels no less, the central one holding the Shield of Faith and the the Banner of the Resurrection.
Salvation and spirit
The lovely figures either side are Truth, Righteousness and Salvation on the left, and Spirit to the right.
Keen Arthurian vibes here too, with the armour and the dedication to such ideals. Made by Ward & Hughes around 1900 (thank you, Simon Knott).
High Bickington sanctuary
More architectural simplicity in the sanctuary, with the altar back possibly made from the wainscoting of the Late Medieval rood screen.
A Baroque monument
Though this 1705 wall monument swaps simplicity for the Baroque most successfully…
The east window
Up above raptures of roof bosses, products of Sedding’s 1885 restoration, full of delicate whimsy along with Christian symbolism, like that Pelican in her Piety lower left.
Though for me that grinning dragon, top left, takes the first prize, just so much fun.
A tranced out angel
This darling golden child in particular seems so lost in her own ecstatic dance, celebrating God the Son returning to the heavens.
Is not she just perfect though, the robe flying, the arms swinging, the face trancing, the whirling dervish of the angel world, and that is before we get to her gleaming peacock wings, her tasselled sleeves and the glowing autumn leaves embroidered on her gown.
Those awesome High Bickington bench ends
And so we come the bench ends, treasures beyond compare, full of magical carving and deep social history.
They were made over a period of a century or so, probably in batches, and their age can be guesstimated by their styles; I say guesstimated, because it is not always as simple as new styles mean newer bench ends…
When cultures fertilise each other then artists like to mix things up.
But here, above, we likely enough have two of the earliest bench ends in the church if not in Devon. One indicator is the plain moulded edges, not like the floriating delights that were to come, and the other is the plain roughness of the carving, beautiful as it surely is.
The one on the right is claimed to be as potentially early as the thirteenth century, which I suspect is a bit of a stretch, but I would settle for a date of late fourteenth or early fifteenth century, which still makes them very early indeed, just the time when fixed church seating was starting to be experimented with down here.
Because folk used seating in churches since whenever, but it was usually moveable, and they probably brought their own along, the church possibly having a few pieces of its own. Stools, trestles, benches and stone seats against the outside walls would all have been options.
There is no agreed upon reason why fixed seating wanders into the room; somewhere to sit during sermons as preaching became more common is one explanation often bandied around, but that hound might not hunt. Sermons, long ones at that, were a feature from early on, and beside folk could always bring their own seats.
One of the most likely reasons (and doubtless there was more than one) is the rise of religious processions on feast days and holy days, up and down the church and also popping outside.
These were not just theatric, though theatrics were a feature; faith became much more personally emotional from the early fifteenth century onwards. These processions were deeply religious, the holy coming out of its sacred sanctuary behind the screen and being displayed within touching distance.
And of course a procession that bounces around bumping into the folk crowding in the nave rapidly becomes not so much a procession as a scrum, and there is not a lot in religious history that bigs up sacred scrums; absolutely zilch in truth.
Thus fixed alleyways as they were called, or aisles as we call them now, and fixed seating.
Oh, and that bench end on the right with the fancy top? Could well have belonged to a posh boy, that could have.
Instruments of the Passion
And here we have a later style; the carving is more regular, very gothic, and the edges are already very Devon. Other counties have these edges, bits of Cornwall and Somerset, the areas next to Devon especially, and no others in any quantity. It is a Devon thing for sure.
Where the previous ends were showing a bit of foliage, these show a lot, gothic style. The edges, the bottom flowerhead, and stylised stems and leaves at the top.
Again, looking at the previous images, the older the bench end the more similar to church window tracery they seem to be, mini churches if you will, sacred geometry if such a phrase can be used.
Here though we have Instruments of the Passion clearly displayed, part of Christ’s Crucifixion, for folk to gaze and meditate upon, and to feel. That personal, emotional faith that we have already mentioned.
And remember do, people’s personal space as much nearer the floor back then, chairs and tables not a common thing in every household, the floor used for sitting and sleeping by many, as well as kneeling of course, whether in prayer or in obeisance to one’s betters.
So these were meant to be seen from eye level, eye level in this case being near floor level. If we stand above them, or even sit across the aisle from them, we miss their point all too easily as well as getting a skewed perspective.
So get down, get close, get personal. There is magic in the smallest detail.
The Renaissance waves hello
Here the Renaissance has bounced into the building, flowers and angels and putti, but still contained inside a skeleton of the Gothic, and still, on the left, with devout imagery with a couple of the apostles.
These are sixteenth century.
Now full blown Renaissance without a trace of Gothic, swirls and twirls almost pirouetting off the woodwork, beautifully carved indeed.
The uncarved edges are still a bit of surprise here, so these might have been resent, or even come from a screen.
They also have no overtly traditional religious element, though I would argue that they still have a religious connection (see my post on Peter Tavy Church), so it is tempting to assume that they might be Post-Reformation, but they could just as likely, I venture, be artists experimenting with new styles (especially if they do still have a religious element).
By trying to work out a linear development runs the risk of ignoring the creativity and joy of the carvers who made these.
And joy there was, because these.
Also, here we can still see traces of the Gothic but bigged up until almost unrecognisable, The patterns sketched out by the simple carved lines on both has those overtones.
And it is still all-out the foliage, the lad on the right being made of leaves, the faces on the left less but still very leafy. The carved foliage edges are back too.
Greater detail of the bench ends
Here, in more detail, are the religious images on an earlier bench seen above, the Crown of Thorns and the lance that pierced Christ’s side while he was on the cross; on the right are scourges used to whip him before his crucifixion.
This is is a bit of puzzle, reminding me of a Mabel Lucie Attwell illustration of a little girl saying her night time prayers…
An’ Help us all love everyone –
An’ Every one love we –
Then a very happy world
This old world will be
Mabel Lucie Attwell
Which might not be as elegant as Scripture but is spot on theologically. The Good Lord would high five it anyways.
Traditionally it is said to be a monk, though it could be a saint, and reaching a bit further out to the boundaries of probability it might even be referencing Jesus in the Garden on Gethsemane.
Me, I so want it to be one of Mabel’s little girls, but reality seems to say no. Hey ho.
More apostles, and having a full set on the benches is possibly a one off for Devon.
The dude on the left is thought to be St Bartholomew, who was flayed alive in Armenia then crucified upside down; he is holding a flaying knife to remember the occasion.
St Andrew is on the right, with his X-shaped cross that he was crucified on; he did not consider himself worthy to use the traditional shape that Christ died on.
Or these, all dressed up and chatting away for five hundred years. Renaissance style again.
But there was more going on too, fascinatingly so. This outpouring of creative design and highly skilled carvings had a knock on effect for beautifully carved furniture amongst the wealthy.
There is little doubt that carvers at work in parishes for periods of months were enlisted to perform private work by some of the parishioners they encountered. Other artisans were likely contracted to produce movable furniture which recreated elements of the elaborated woodwork in the clients’ churches.
Elaboration: Artisans and Ideas in the Devon Parish, Donald P White
Of course there would have been cross fertilisation in all aspects of this.
Here is a real innovation, these bench end tops, the carvings filling the traditional Gothic patterning. They truly are delicious, a fair few too (see the gallery) with little miniature flowers delighting the world, as here.
And here is the thing:
Far from being marginal outposts located on the periphery of late medieval English design, parish churches were centres in their own right
It is the constant, sheer relentless creativity in these churches that overwhelms me in the most delightful ways, they were so surely powerhouses of art and beauty.
So much to see
Leaving the church before being fully overwhelmed is probably a good idea.
There is so much to see here. I have visited three times and barely scratched the service; it is the kind of place that needs to be understood and honoured over a lifetime or three.
But what we have time for… oh boy, is it magnifico!