- Thirteenth century west tower and spire
- Magnificent restoration by John Dando Sedding in 1885
- Stunning south door by Sedding
- Fifteenth century ornate screen unique in Devon
- Beautiful stained glass
- Lovely Victorian roof bosses in chancel
- Impressive late-Victorian sedilia
- Enchanting carved limestone pulpit
- The bench ends by Trask & Co are just out of this world
- All in all, a total treasure of a church
Holbeton Church of All Saints
Holbeton Church of All Saints, a slo-mo explosion of artful beauty centuries in the making, a rainbow coral reef with colourful beauties darting around, it is a glory.
And it deserves many a visit to deep-dive into its delights. I have made two. Hey ho.
And it takes so many a visit to deeply dive into those colours. I have made two. Hey ho.
This church (there were earlier ones) is a mixture. The tower and spire is late thirteenth century, or was the spire added later? Different ideas on that one. It is a cracker whatever the dates.
The rest of the church was enlarged and rebuilt in the fifteenth and/or sixteenth centuries.
Then John Dando Sedding, a mighty famous church architect, rocks up in 1885, employed by a banker who had moved here; the banker dude spent £25,000 on renovating the church, a lot of a lot in modern money.
And Johnnie boy rainbowed his genius over all.
John Dando Sedding and his Holbeton door
John was one of the fathers of the Arts & Crafts movement, and
… endeavoured to form a school of masons and of carvers and modellers from nature, and succeeded in exerting a remarkable influence over his workmen by his vigilant interest in the details of their craft. He himself was tireless in drawing and studying flowers and leaves, and from such studies he derived nearly all his ornamental designs.
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
He made this door himself, worth the trip alone. The ironwork, the woodcraft and the enamelling all fitted into the original granite doorway.
Enamelling and wood together
Beautiful, creative work and like no other door I have seen. I reckon Mr Banker got his money worth from this alone.
And already from this we can see John’s approach; preservation and addition. He was not here to stamp the modern on the old, he was here to create a seamless fusion, magnifying both by so doing.
The Old Norman Font
Still the old Norman font welcomes us at the entrance; a shallow one this, well carved on two faces, this being the best. Whisper it not, but I prefer it to the Victorian darling.
A lovely little scene with a lovelier message (thank you, Dr Jonathan Foyle), from psalm ninety-one
I will say of the Lord, He is my refuge and my fortress: my God; in him will I trust…
Thou shalt tread upon the lion and adder, the young lion and the dragon shalt thou trample under feet
Psalm 91, vs 1-2, 13, KJV
So in the middle is the Tree of Life, representing both the eternal life of the faithful and the cross, which is also seen as a Tree of Life, and thus Christ.
On either side are the young lion and dragon that are going to be trampled, referring to our sins, which ties into baptism just au point; washing away the original sin that we are born with was the christening go to.
And yes, the two critters look very much the same, but seriously, have you ever see a dragon? This is art, not photography, and religious art come to that. Sheesh!
A glorious medieval screen
When I first saw this south aisle screen I thought, ‘this is a nice Victorian folderol’. Then I looked closer and read the guide and realised that this particular section, and the one in the other aisle, is proper medieval.
In my defence, Sedding put an exact copy across the central aisle, very magnificently so too.
And this pair of screens are unique, nothing like them in Devon.
The bottom panels are pure gothic admittedly, and we have fine amount of that in Devon, but the tracery is the wonder.
Just look at that delicate work inside the heavy uprights and curved bits, and the subtle depth of the carving with all the little flourishes, making what could be heaven as light as a feather. Tudor roses too, and a couple of royal portcullises.
The mystery is where it came from. The guidebook says 1545, two early twentieth century experts say
It has a large admixture of cinquecento feeling and the appearance of the work suggests a Hispano-Flemish origin
Roodscreens and Roodlofts, Bond and Camm, 1909
Of course all cool cats know that old cinquecento feeling, but for those outside the loop (moi included!), it means Italian 1500s, early Renaissance more or less.
But they were writing over a hundred years ago, and nowadays knowledge has expanded, new examples come to light, and information has become much more reachable.
In my mind I do not see any continental work in this screen at all. It is pure English medieval… It is a marvellous screen.
(re: the Tudor roses) The start of Henry VII’s reign 1485 would tie in very nice for this screen work, the lower section might actually be reused from an earlier screen.
Paul Fitzsimmons, Marham Church Antiques, via email
Which might seem an astounding claim to make for a little old backwater in South Devon, but in its day this area was heavily tied into the coastal trading network to London and further afield; the areas exported wool, fish, stone, cider and more, much more.
It was a player in its time, and imported a fair amount too; after all, have money, will spend, and the church was a fine thing to shower with riches.
Good for one’s soul too, which is more than can be said for a Ferrari. Though to be fair, I would not be averse to putting this theory to the test, if anybody has a luxury car to donate…
The chancel in Holbeton Church
Passing though the chancel screen, that nineteenth century copy of the two aisle ones, the sanctuary is a delight too. Just as designed apart from the carpet.
Stained glass details in the chancel
The main window, by Heywood Sumner, is a beauty, but what really leaps out is the lower work, the dedication area, with such a well painted angel and that enchantingly elaborate background.
I could live inside this forever.
Victorian roof bosses on the chancel roof
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 sedilia of outstanding beauty
Against the south wall is this impressive darling, a sedilia (seating for the priests and other clergy). Mesmerising.
The flowing curves contrast well with the carefully proportioned angular carving on the backrest…
Ah, the backrest, the lower rectangular mouldings, then diagonals to bring interest, then a small frieze to rhyme with the big one way up top, then larger rectangles with plainer edging which serve to concentrate attention on the lower, more intricate set.
Oh my, this alone is a glory.
On either side the thin Gothic pillars finishing in crocketted finials, sweetly paying homage to the Medieval; between them a flamboyant ogee arch culminating with that gorgeous efflorescence blooming away off the arch’s point.
Still more, in the intricate carvings above the arch, deer and birds and green men all preen proudly, and those curves… who in the world can create those and still remain anonymous?
There truly is no justice in this world, but plenty in the next, because God will have this artist beautifying heaven if she has any sense.
The Choir Stalls
The carving in all this church is truly scrumptious, from the Medieval to the Victorian, and here in the choir stalls the Victorian really does come out to play, most enchantingly so. The foliage is full of more birds and animals and green men, so many little details that needs so many enjoyable years to fully love.
Every time I visit I find more and more little spots of beauty, and expect to be doing so forever.
Luke and his Winged Ox
Whilst the Four Evangelists sit on top of the choir stalls, posing as if for their individual portraits.
Here is Luke goofing off, leaving his winged ox to take the strain, a very patient ox indeed. So very well done too, dynamism in what could be just a static scene, from the swishing tail of the ox to flowing draperies of Luke’s robe.
Then the curves all fitting together, leading from the scroll to the tail and up around the wings, continuing with the beard, and then to plunge down from Luke’s head to flow around the drapery folds to meet again in the middle. Sooo well carved.
Monuments in the church
Back in the north chapel this memorial looks more like a Busby Berkeley dance number ready to burst into action than a churchy thing. I so wish it was at that.
Seventeenth century, it is to the Hele family, four generations of them, all busy praying away except for Mr Centre of Attention, the big lad chilling on his side, Thomas Hele, Sheriff of Devon and an MP.
There is another equally interesting memorial here too, a sweet little 1801 composition. It is made from Coade stone, a kind of artificial stone, close to stoneware but not, and was manufactured between 1770 and 1829.
The company belonged to Eleanor Coade, who ran it pretty much along modern lines; quality control, marketing, product development to the fore, and as a highly successful Georgian businesswoman a deep rarity.
The Beautifully Carved Pulpit
A rarity like this Victorian pulpit, which exhausts me just looking at it; the amount of energy and passion, let alone the concentration, that went into the carving defies belief, and all of it to create such magic.
It riffs of the gorgeous Devon medieval pulpits too, while very much being of its time; vines, yes, used long ago, then are those daffodils on the left of the saint dude? Oak leaves on the right followed by another beauty, and where my botany knowledge stops pretending to exist.
It really is a magical pulpit, I do know that for sure.
Magnificent Victorian Bench Ends
Carving only topped by these bench ends by Trask & Co. of Somerset, often used by Sedding, and, saying these are gorgeously stunning is like saying that a rainbow is kinda ok, though to be fair these wonders probably make rainbows slouch home and deeply reconsider their career choices.
One would be a beauty, two a delight, a whole church full… ? Mama Mia, they are magnifico.
From blackberries to pomegranates to roses, enveloping animals and birds and green men (again!), the carver seems to wield his chisels like a master painter doing the most delicate work of their life, creating a bewitching, mythical world.
A tangle of carved nature
There is such an abundance of intricate details, a flood of constrained dynamism, that living with them week on week, as the lucky parish folk of Holbeton do, surely is the only way to dive beneath the surface wonder and discover the ocean of magic beneath.
Us visitors, an hour or three, a blip in their existence, still a mighty fine honour to bask in.
Allah Ta Hara on a Bench End
Mind you, finding a phrase in Arabic, as here on the left, is not exactly a common thing in an English parish church; ‘Allah Ta Hara’, the motto of the Mildmay family who, as the story goes, picked it up fighting with Richard I in the Middle East.
The meaning is unclear, it has probably deteriorated over the years owing to a total incomprehension of Arabic by most Brits; God is Guarded, God my Help, God is Purity, have all been suggested.
Why here? Henry Bingham Mildmay was the banker dude who paid for the all this restoration, so he got his very own bench end.
Meeting Christ the Gardener
And the family also placed this beauty in the church in 1952, by Hugh Easton; Mary Magdalen at the feet of Jesus post-Resurrection, just after realising the lad she thought was the gardener was a bit more than that.
The flowers and ring of lilies (for purity and the Virgin Mary) make this for me, for Christ might not have been the gardener but he did bring life and beauty, a new Creation, a New Covenant, into this world.
This might or might not be the faith of all readers but an understanding of this symbolism beautifies the window, I venture.
Peace in the church
This is a dancing church, not a jive to the beat cool for cats kind of dancing, but a wild romantic waltz through blooming flower-meadows and trees drooping with scented blossom on a warm summer’s day kind of dancing.
A most extremely excellent kind.
With, at the end, the cool, quiet, peace of the church to rest our passion, to wonder again at this treasure house of rich art here in lush south Devon.
A wonder that hopefully never ceases.