- A tiny jewel set in the heart of Devon
- Norman nave and chancel
- Beautiful rough stonework
- An interior of old silvered oak and strong parish faith
- Rustic medieval bench ends and later box pews
- 15th century roof bosses
- Three royal coat of arms, most unusual that
- A very fine Norman font
- An atmosphere of entrancement and wonder
The heart of Devon
Slow art, slow time, slow wonder, slow awe, slow as the dance of the stars so briefly glimpsed through our fast-lived lives, slow as the roiling power of the oceans stirring the obscure deeps, slow as time softening our churches one atom at a time… Life is only short if we live it fast…
It seems rude somehow to turn up to a deep Devon church by car, spend an hour or two in one weather, one light, one tiny moment, and say later ‘Oh yes, I know that one’, in the same way that we arrogantly declare we might know the stars after looking at them for an infinitesimal portion of their billions of years.
And here, in Honeychurch, is the slow heart of Devon, where we glimpse time moving at its wandering steadiness, and meet our own manic rush from birth to death, an aberration, a malady if you will, a coping mechanism to avoid our inner magnificence and the transfigurations it can bring.
Here, in this minuscule beauty, time’s own magnificence can whisper half-remembered truths to our rapid hearts and change them, one atom at a time.
Honeychurch Church of St Mary
Walk up to the church along the foot path from Frankland Ford Bridge (it would be rude not to approach this place slowly) through old fields, by ancient trees, across boggy ground and a rippling stream, up a cow-curious, grass-green Devon hill, Honeychurch smiles tenderly in welcome. It is a beauty.
The name probably comes from a Saxon lad, Huna, whose estate was the whole parish, and he built the first church.
The Normans rebuilt it, the nave and chancel are still Norman work, likely enough on the old Saxon footprint. The tower was added in the 1400s along with various windows added, the porch maybe a century later, the iron church gate in the 1900s.
Here, after just six hundred years or so, the tower’s west face is just settling into young adulthood, and what a fine young thing it has grown into. Stand outside this isolated beauty under the music of the wind and birds, the insects and trees, listening deeply, real real deeply, we can hear the past faintly whispering, seeping from the stones to beckon us in.
And for a church at the spiritual heart of Devon, using the parish’s stone and earth to build is surely the necessary thing to do. There are two old quarries in this parish, marked on old maps, where the stone likely came from, and this tower uses clay mortar, dug from the soil of the surrounding fields; the earlier nave and chancel almost surely do the same.
The granite door and window surrounds come from nearby Dartmoor, where farming folk from hereabouts would have taken their cattle and sheep for summer pasturing possibly since the Iron Age if not before, and the render whilst new is as it would have been back in the day.
This wonder is not part of the landscape, it is the landscape just as much the woods and fields, the tors and rivers.
A volcanic window
Whilst this babe from the fifteenth century, punched through the twelfth century walls, with its burnt umber and greys, seemingly moulded by hand, a home to local lichens, is another part of the landscape, shaped from local volcanic stone formed around the edge of volcanic Dartmoor three hundred million years ago.
The heat of not-yet-Dartmoor’s liquid granite forcing its way through the rock transformed the surrounding stone, baking it strong, just perfect for a beautiful window in Honeychurch and then Old Father Time adds its dash of spice in the open air.
And maybe, amongst the whispers, we can hear the builders, rough men out here far from the fancy of cities, picking out the best stone and looking at the result and saying, ‘She’ll do. She’ll do for many a long lifetime’.
So this is a slow church, but in truth if this web site is about anything it is about all churches, all beauty, being slow. Beauty is not here to be consumed, it is here to be lived.
And this doorway has lived; shaped like a Norman doorway with its narrowness and round head, it was probably rebuilt on the origin pattern when the porch was added and given a granite surround. That arching at the top though, that might have deeper age.
The entrancing interior
The inside has its moments, moment upon moment piled upon each other then pruned back by the hands of farmers and their folk, time itself joining in the creation, hands, wood, stone, all wrinkled and gnarled, belonging more to the deep earth than anything as short as a life.
Those walls, thick they are, mighty thick, old Norman walls, rough built, rough plastered, windows punched through one by one, century by century.
That chancel arch, very fifteenth century that is, expanded from a smaller Norman archway almost surely, and surely enough once with a screen across, roughly wooden, now gone.
A Norman window
Here one of the original Norman windows in the chancel, above the old priest’s door. The backalong folk would have marvelled at such glass, this lancet would have been open to the Devon air, after all where does the Divine begin and end… ?
Well, that is a trick question, we all know that, an infinite God has no beginning nor ending, but cold winds can take our mind off many a spiritual matter, and originally there would have just been a wooden shutter, probably taken off and put up by hand, no hinges, then later glass as the parish could afford.
And a Norman head
Another Norman remnant here, one of two either side of the door, old corbels use for supporting the ribs of the original roof, likely enough a fair number running along the outside, now in from the cold but still baring its teeth at any passing demonic power that looks like loitering around overlong.
The silvering seating
And so to these slabs of fifteenth or sixteenth century bench ends, rough cut, rustically carved, local oak, silvered and stroked by the centuries, steeped in the prayers of parish folk, homespun memories of sadnesses and joys misting off them, murmuring the church with deepnesses of lives so feelingly lived…
The top gothic carvings being church windows, a church within a church to keep in mind the beautiful nation of Christendom, but yet, look again…
Between those two windows there is a seedling with its two young leaves, always that life coming from the church, everlasting. Below are those the two symbols, difficult to interpret at this remove, but the right hand one is similar to the more common, and more geometric, hexafoil, six circular arcs compass-drawn, flower-like, representing the Virgin Mary’s six petalled lily.
Charmingly, this has six petals, and the church is, and was, the Virgin Mary’s, and is that a rose on the left, another flower associated with our Lady?
Later box pews
And this door into an eighteenth century box pew, or at least a box pew as interpreted by someone who has never seen one, especially as this seems a cut down door, repurposed from someone’s kitchen.
Proper farmer’s seating all this, make do and put together, and proper Devon soul too.
Here the seating is clear. I suspect the floor boards came along with those eighteenth century box pews on the front left, before then it would have been beaten clay and straw.
“Simple country carpentry” the guide calls, yet folk have sat in it for five hundred years or so, and everything, not just the seating, everything, the kneelers, the little knitted “cushions”, the dog-eared hymn books, the lantern (no electricity here) screams faith not flummery.
The England I love, the Devon I live.
Lovely roof bosses
More glorious woodwork above, roof bosses from the fifteenth century, when the roof was remodelled and given a ceiling supported by thin timber ribs, with these lovelies popped on the joins, some looking almost Picasso-esque in their cubism.
Dynamic too, that ever moving nature thing brought inside, and subtly painted, in candlelight and the dusky interior as was, they would have been constantly stirred by the unseen winds of Devon’s ghosts, whooshing around Honeychurch to meet all their friends and neighbours, and happily ensconced here to watch the years go by in their beloved country.
After all, heaven can surely wait if Devon was your earthly abode, or is there a real difference… ?
The chancel, less a sacred space than a homely little area, cluttered like God’s living room, here she has a well deserved nap after all the flummeries of fancy worship and highfalutin tomes of theological witterings, just the tree of life on the altar, some gentle flowers, heart-roughened woodwork, a kneeler embroidered with a local cow (for this is true cattle country), placed here like an olden temple sacrifice of the first born beast, back in the scrublands of sunbaked Israel.
And the gas heater, a touch of home again, which truth to tell makes very little difference to the winter chills but it is the love that counts, always the love.
The tower arch is lofty, reaching nearly to the ceiling, installed when the tower was built, likely knocked through the back wall of the previous structure to take full advantage of the light from the new west window.
What a day that must have been, the revealing of the new-lit church with its brand new tower to toll the mass across the fields, to ring out again when the host was raised high by the priest and consecrated, the sacring as they say, the moment when Christ truly entered the Eucharistic wafer in the Old Faith.
And all the folk abroad, with their weaving and sheep and orchards and cattle, could hear and pause and feel the presence of the Divine in this so very Devon parish. This was not a God who lived high above, this was, and is for those of us who take a knee, God permeating their lives intimately and compassionately.
An inundation of royalty
There is something else going on in the nave though. Not one, not two, but three royal coat of arms…
Two painted on board, one to George II (here), another to George III…
Good Queen Bess
And a hushed wall painting of Elizabeth I’s, with the lion and the dragon, the dragon for Wales (for the unicorn only danced down from Scotland with her successor, James I) just seen peeking through the crumbling of time and an inscription to ‘Elizabeth Regina’ or Queen Elizabeth in English, ending with
God save the church, our Queen and nation
In most churches one royal coat of arms is enough, here so many, as if they are saying, ‘Look how devoted we are to the monarch, nobody here but us royalists. Promise.’
Which seems very reasonable, considering just before Lizzie’s arms were splashed on the wall Devon’s role in the Prayer Book Rebellion started a mile or so away in Sampford Courtenay in 1549.
How many sons of Honeychurch marched off to fight for the Old Faith against the new English religion of Edward VI, pushing the king’s forces back beyond Exeter before falling to a mercenary army of modern soldiers? Taking their last stand in the same Sampford Courtenay where the streets ran like water with blood, but not with surrender.
And how many failed to return?
Me, I would have started with half a dozen royal coat of arms and built from there, but then age and passionate bravery tend to be distant cousins at best.
Whilst at the back of the nave nicely framed by that tower arch, is one of this parish’s oldest inhabitants, the Norman font, axe carved and chevroned, local stone roughly bearing witness to all the days of our lives, murmuring to each of us
Mere breath is each man standing.
In but shadow a man goes about.
Mere breath he murmurs – he stores
and knows not who will gather.
Psalm 39:6-8 Translated by Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible
To which the faithful can turn to the altar and open their hearts
And now, what I expect, O Master,
My hope is in You.
From all my sins save me.
Psalm 39:9 Translated by Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible
Because is that not the function of a font, to take away all our sin when we are baptised, to put us in a state of grace, an ageless grace, a beauty this darling has served down through nigh on a thousand years.
At the heart of the church, of the parish, of Devon, a grizzled fount of forgiveness and love, a wrinkly little thing, belonging so well here deep in Devon’s bosom.
There is a specialness about Honeychurch for all of us, faith or no faith and all stations between.
It is less built than stones grouped around the ever beating heart of Devon, for all to come and breathe and be, shadows and light reflecting our own contemplations, a connection to the real world, the slow world, the world under our frantic living…
Where time and beauty walk hand in hand, and peace grows old with love, still here, still accessible, this bonny marvel in the deeps of enchanted landscapes.
Open to all, every hour of every day.