- Beautifully positioned in the quiet rural
- Modestly magical
- Lovely old structure
- Charming simple interior
- The oldest box pew in Devon
Hittisleigh Church of St Andrew
When Devon does charm it really, really does charm, and here in this tiny parish of Hittisleigh, deep amongst an intricate lace of three-dimensional lanes, in a beautifully peaceful churchyard, next to a couple of houses or so, charm blooms most enchantingly.
Because Hittisleigh church is magic, just a delightfully captivating beauty, an enchanting simplicity with very little in the way of carving or other fripperies (and personally I do so love my fripperies); just right to absorb the sounds, lights, textures and smells underlying every church but that here come capering to the front.
It is first mentioned as Hiteneslei in the Domesday book, which may mean Hyttin’s wood pasture in Old English, or conceivable from the British Celtic ituna or itenes, meaning corn (any time of grain crop) and the Old English leia, meaning enclosure or referencing an earlier ‘lan’, a British Celtic sacred enclosure.
Hittisleigh Church History
The church itself is a petite doll, probably originally Norman, though as ever maybe an earlier building underneath. The Norman part is the nave and sanctuary, the bit we are looking at here minus the tower.
Look closely as there is change in the stonework just above the windows, and it is likely the walls below that are the original Norman ones. The windows are another story we will come to later.
In the fifteenth century the granite tower was added and soon after in the sixteenth the north aisle and the porch. The whole was re-roofed around this time too, which might have been when the walls were raised and all the windows to the left of the little priest’s door put in; though whether some replaced earlier and smaller ones is a debatable likelihood.
It is time well spent to wander around the exterior of this darling, there is just so much to see from the massive quoins on the chancel corner to all the varied colours and textures of the stones… and then there are the windows.
Ah, the windows!
Hittisleigh Church windows
Here in the chancel wall is a thirteenth century granite simplicity, though that diamond opening at the top might be a later addition; it has different stone.
Rough? Yes. Humble? Oh, so very. Whispering of age and beauty? Totally, and so bewitching with it.
The Priest’s Door Takes a Bow
And here, on the right, is the same window in context, next to the priest’s door of the same age, with its gorgeous arch made from a single block of granite.
And the window on the left? As said, that was likely installed early sixteenth century, still a round little babe but with a tad more carving up the top. And flat headed, which many sixteenth century Devon church windows were.
It is a beautiful composition at that, with the door into the chancel, the sacred area where the bread and wine turned into the body and blood of Christ, where God literally came to us sinners, reserved for the priest and other clergy.
Inside Hittisleigh Church of St Andrew
Inside is simple (notice a pattern here?), simple in a powerful and magical way.
That rugged granite arcade tumbling down on the left, put in to create the north aisle around 1500 or a tad before, the open sanctuary, the pine pews, early twentieth century to replace the rotting box pews, and the windows on the right, punched through those thick Norman walls.
The North Aisle
Another view shows the difference in the thickness of the north wall to the south one.
Rural Late Medieval masons were more confident of their civil engineering skills, probably used better mortar mixes and shaped their building stones into more regular shapes. Mind they also had five hundred years or so more experience of building in stone.
Back in the day, when the Normans did their ‘all you English is ours’ dance, there was a very weak tradition of stone construction in these isles.
Most buildings were timber, very skilled and fine work, and when the conquerors brought their stone traditions over with them they also brought their masons, but never enough. So they had to use whoever they could, especially in country areas.
Thus over-engineering, especially in small buildings.
The Norman Walls
An enchantment, one of many of this sweeting, is the light drifting through the Victorian pastel glass, rippling off those thick walls and then suffusing the interior with shades and highlights.
Beautifully done, a product of time and love, it is delectable.
One Insta commenter likened the effect to Le Corbusier’s chapel at Roncamp, which I can relate to, but Hittisleigh did it first and, whisper it softly, better.
Biased, moi? Perish the thought!
The Norman Font
The rugged Norman font shows how far back this church truly goes, though whether there was an earlier Saxon or even British Celtic place of worship here is a possibility.
The stone is indeterminate, the style about as old as I feel on some mornings, and the history it contains… well, here is another powerful story…
Around this whole church clusters the folk of the parish who have worshipped, gossiped, married, baptised and died, a community for whom the church was their community, their memory, and their spirituality.
But life does occasionally throw up a wrong’un, or even maybe somebody led down the path of wrongness by trauma and pain.. One such of these was Captain “Black Sam” Bellamy, born in Hittisleigh on the twenty-third of February 1689, baptised probably in this very font on the eighteenth of March the same year, and became an infamous pirate captain in the Caribbean and the East Coast of America.
Thought to be the richest pirate that ever lived, no less.
This is not a good thing.
Especially as he did most of his pirating from a converted slave ship that he had captured, The Whydah.
His mother, Eliza, died either in childbirth or very soon after, and he was the youngest of seven children. Some of their descendants are still in Devon.
And in this very font!
Sends shivers up my spine.
Samuel died in a storm in 1717 but his ship was discovered in 1982 and a bunch of the treasure raised. He is reckoned to have stolen the modern day equivalent of around £85,000,000, though the sadnesses that this amount came with are indescribable.
In Devon’s defence his Dad, Stephen, was a Londoner and his Mom from Suffolk, though to be equally fair some Devon folk had minimal compunctions about slaving or pirating in their day.
The roof bosses
Looking up now, leaving Hittisleigh’s piratical son, the sixteenth century roof bosses wave back, elegantly naive once more, brief delineations of plants and flowers.
The initialled boss seems to have JC on it, which might refer to John Cole, possibly the dude who donated the north aisle, but really we don’t know.
Jesus Christ seems an obvious choice here, but as my research has thrown up no-one suggesting this then I reckon I am missing the reason why this is car crash of a suggestion. Hey ho.
The Sanctuary in Hittisleigh Church
Back down to earth the simple and modest sanctuary has a powerful sense of place… A place for clearing the mind, washing the soul of all the worldly, discovering the Divine enveloping all in her constant grace…
That’ll do me for a start.
He is not here, he is risen
The only piece of figurative stained glass in the church is here too, and it is a quietly gentle piece taken from the Gospel of Mark
And entering the tomb they saw a young man sitting to the right, clothed in a white robe, and they were amazed. But he says to them, “Do not be amazed.You seek Jesus the Nazarene, who has been crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look: the place where they laid him. But go tell his disciples and Peter that he precedes you into Galilee; there you will see him as he told you”
Mark 16, 5-7. Trans David Bentley Hart
It is made by a little known Exeter stained glass designer, Hubert Blanchford, and dates from 1922. A fine, dynamic piece too, with Jerusalem in the distance and all three ladies looking gently confused and more, as one would.
Wonderful Stained Glass Faces
Here their faces, beautifully characterised, shades of hope and confusion and compassion from the messenger.
The incident takes place in all the gospels in slightly different forms and is mighty radical. Women given centre stage and knowing things before men, then being told to go off and tell the men. Being treated as equals by God, that was against all known earthly social order.
A pity it is that we are still learning this lesson for many marginalised groups two thousand years later.
The Oldest Box Pew in Devon
There is one remaining box pew in this church and it is fascinating.
It is the earliest dated box pew in Devon (Go Hittisleigh!). Carved on it is this
This was built at the cost of Thomas Furse of East Church gentlemen 1619
(East Church was a manor farm East of the church)
It sure does not have the elegance of later Georgian box pews but I will settle for its country style any day.
But there is something else going on here; it is bang slap where the Lady Chapel should be, at the east end of the aisle.
And the denizen of this pew cannot see the main altar. What is with that?
Well, presuming the pew is in its original place (and it does seem to fit there) there are couple of things going on.
Strong Protestantism has lumbered in town, where ‘worshipping idols’, as they termed it, means Mary was out in the cold, deep ‘no room at the inn’ vibes notwithstanding.
Alongside this the Mass and other rituals were getting voted off the stage, with the bible, the words alone, winning the game; some folk could read it, and it was preached with passion from the pulpits.
This place quite probably had a pulpit in the nave, in full view of this pew, and communion was likely taken around a table in the same nave a few times a year.
This all does not mean that all the parishioners had become flag waving Prods. As Robert Whiting says
In most regions of England, as in the South-West, the Reformation may thus have been less a transition from Catholicism to Protestantism than a decline from religious commitment into conformism or indifference.
The Blind Devotion of the People, Robert Whiting
Placing his box pew here was probably a very political statement by old Tommy Furse (I was going to make a joke about a prickly fella, but sadly only Devonians would get it); it is no bad thing to be in with the new regime.
Status as well, placing the seat way at the front told the church folk what he reckoned his social status was (‘better than everybody else’s’ is the go to here).
Having written all that, there is also the possibility that he was first and foremost a strong devotee of the new brand of Christianity, or that his motives were mixed.
Life is complicated, humans even more so.
Generations of Care in Hittisleigh
So the complicated circles back to the simple, and the conniptions over faiths and beliefs evaporate into history and community, folk clumsily caring for each other over the centuries, the world outside the parish begone.
Because the sense of continuity in this jewel of church is hefty, ghosts drift, love breathes, joys whisper, tragedies fade and life goes on from generation to generation.
Round and round we all go, the living, the departed, the abundance, the dearth, the planets, the prayers, the holiness of things, all our new toys and comforts notwithstanding
Word from Wormingford: A Parish Year, Ronald Blythe
I recently dropped into this church on my way back from Exeter after receiving a life changing diagnosis at the hospital, one of three or four over the past few years, and I sat here in distress, bereft, opening myself to God.
And around me the communities of the ages clustered, the healthy and the sick, the hard lives and the soft, the people of forever and the folk of now.
And the deep simplicity, along with the deeper beauty, of the space were just a tiny splash compared to the care and compassion that the communities of Christ in this parish had reached for over the centuries, always reaching, always practising, always here, now.
And I returned to my car, my anxious daughter waiting.
And I smiled.