- A quiet corner of a tiny parish
- Beautiful golden brown interior
- Masterly design makes this the light’s playground
- Gorgeous ornamental Victorian font
- Powerful chancel
- Very nice altar back (reredos), a Last Supper mosaic
Huish, a ‘measure of land which can support a household’ in Old English, a large area as households included servants, slaves, followers and family of all ages, and crop yields were oh so low back in the day.
It makes for a tiny parish, nestled between the River Torridge to the East and what was a very marshy valley to the West, still an unattractive place in the early nineteenth century when a traveller wrote:
A wide flat of marshes… apparently in a wild, neglected, unproductive state. Huish… appears on the opposite banks of these marsh lands.
It is, and seemingly always has been, nearly a single estate, nowadays owned by the 22nd Baron Clinton, the seventh earliest Barony in England, created in 1298. An unusual one too, created by ‘writ’ so it can be inherited through daughters as well as sons and can jump between families and generations as if playing three dimensional Tetris, only more complicated. It can also go to sleep for a period (called being in ‘abeyance’) until a suitable hombre moseys up.
Bit like Sleeping Beauty, only without the beauty… and no prince, only a Baron… who are usually evil in fairy tales…
Huish Church on the outside
So the church is an ‘estate church’ and very much a preserve of the Clintons. Happily for us, back in 1873, one of them had formidable taste and hired one of the premier church architects of the day, GE Street, to rebuild the little church. Which he did, rather well too.
Street was one of the big lads of the Victorian Gothic Revival, a highlight of Victorian art that popped up in churches all over. He rejected the love of decoration of some of his peers and…
‘… if Mr. Street were limited to the arrangement of four walls, a roof, a couple of windows, a door, and a chimney shaft, on the distinct ‘understanding that none of these features were to be ornamented in the slightest degree, we may be quite sure that he would group them in such a fashion as to make them picturesque…
… Mr. Street was one of the first architects of the Revival who showed how effective Gothic architecture might be made where it simply depends for effect on artistic proportion’.
Charles L. Eastlake, A History of the Gothic Revival
He is buried in Westminster Abbey, which surely shows the regard he was held in.
A lot for us to look forward to…
The medieval tower
The tower is the only medieval structure left, as this gorgeous granite belfry opening shows with its weathered wooden louvres. The rest of the church has been totally rebuilt.
The south doorway
The south doorway in Early English style, with that delightful ironwork on the door, is just a little taste of what is to come.
Inside Huish Church
And suddenly we are in a wonderland of golden browns, a beautifully proportioned space too.
Look if you may at how the pillar on the right is so much thinner than the arches springing away above it, turning what could be a heaviness into a lightness. Especially note how the rounded capitals bring the arches to a near full stop, letting them just hang there, seemingly unsupported. If anything, the pillar is elegantly descending from the arch rather than supporting it.
Then the grain of the stone, Ham Stone from Somerset, carefully chosen to lead the eye towards the chancel where the main event will be, the celebration of Mass.
The colouring of the pews calls for attention too. This is a well thought through church.
Playing with light
But it is the play of light that really wins, at least until the next charm comes along, and there are so many bewitching sight lines full of shadows and reflections, sunlight and stillness, that just discovering these is a grand adventure in itself.
The glorious font
I do not know what it is with major Victorian architects and fonts, they seem to see every one as a personal challenge to their bling virility, and do so insist on delivering the most glorious confections; this one does not disappoint either. Here we are with a wedding cake of Devon marble and carved limestone, and just look at the way the marble columns are contained in their limestone ends like steam punk vacuum tubes, with the lower containers nestling into the plinth but not part of it, slotted in there like a… vacuum tube!
And then there is the font itself.
Flowers all over, marvellous, a masterpiece of stone mason’s art, gobsmacking…
Oh, and the work involved is staggering too. Eight sides, and after the block is cut to shape, templates created and the carving steps sequenced there is still a good thirty-two weeks work left.
Then consider the sheer challenge of the same wrist movements, the same focal distance, the same chisel holds for the ninety-six flowers… this is hard, hard, hard…
But look at the end result. Spectacular does not do it justice.
Stonework and archwork
Or look at this honey, so easily passed by, after all a doorway is just a doorway is it not… ? Well, no, especially if it is a Street door (sorry, who could resist that?).
The colours go without saying, ethereal meets magic… the hoodmould (the moulding over the top of the door), beautifully arched ending in little twirls, but it is quite shallow arched too, plumpish.
There is a subtle play-off between that and the actual doorway arch, which seems a little narrower, and subtly intensified by the series of almost painterly carved arches floating away from the actual door.
Then the darker door colour brings out the shape of the carved stone; equally importantly the use of straight planking, clear and simple, contrasts and intensifies the effect of the stone grain leaping away like sun rays through the arch stonework.
The hoodmould also elegantly forms a transition line, where the stone grain changes direction to the horizontal on the wall stonework.
It is not just great design either, because stone is strongest when the pressure falls directly to the grain, not at an angle to it, so by carving and laying the archway stones in this way they take the compression of all the stones above the arch on their strongest ‘tribute’ or direction.
This is really very good, the proportions and the curving, the stonework and the subtle bits of carving. It could almost be a watercolour painting. Mind you, probably not always easy to recognise unless you have spent far too long gazing at walls and arches; far, far, far too long.
Sometimes, when I join in conversations, I realise that I have left it much too late to join the human race… Hey ho, always got the stone to chat with…
Though to be honest, even that sometimes starts politely edging away from me…
And for more carefully considered design work take a gander at this window arch. The main shape is sharply defined by the hoodmould placed so close to the window surrounding forming a strong band of shadow.
But then inside this is another pair of arches, with another bank of shadow between them, that intensify the arch again, and these die into the walls unlike the hoodmould that has sharply carved ends.
Why? My guess is that the window surround needs to play equally with the actual window tracery, which would grab all the attention for itself without Street boy’s intervention. The whole thing would be out of balance, and leave us with a kind of blah feeling.
Plus, and this is probably just as true if not more so, Street just so loved painting with stone. What a painter, too.
The rest of the Sanctuary? Both subdued and glowy, the honey stone, the mosaic at the back of the altar, the altar cloth and the tiles, along with the stained glass. Nothing in your face, just gently rich, wonderfully rich.
Bless my little golden heart, it is marvellous everyday genius.
A mosaic Last Supper
The reredos, the altar back, is a fine mosaic showing the Last Supper, a relatively common theme for that position seeing as Jesus first introduced the idea of the Eucharist over supper, according to our earliest account by Paul:
“… the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is [broken] for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me””
1 Corinthians 11:23-25
Beautifully capturing both sadness and hope, anxiety and love, this Christ brims with heart. He will lay down his life for the sinners of this world, the same sinners who will crucify him both literally and metaphorically. Why, even Peter (the ‘who, me?’ dude on the right) is going to deny him thrice, and the rest of the disciples are going to be filled with despair as if they have not listened to a word he has said.
And as Paul says, it is equally about a new covenant, a new realisation that Christ brings; that forgiveness and love is the Divine, that we do not earn it, it is unconditional. It is, if you like, the universe’s Divine code.
Pow! Suddenly a sweet little mosaic has turned into a burning spear. Oh my clever, clever artist, you are a talent…
Before we drag ourselves away from the chancel, it is well worth a good look at the tiles. Lovely little foliage designs here allied with strong geometry, though this could also be St Brigid’s Cross, a kind of cross fashioned out of reeds that is identified with the major Irish saint, St Brigid the Virgin, one of the three patron saints of Ireland; possibly coincidence, possibly intentional, definitely a fine touch.
Stonework and lightwork
It is the confidence about this church that gets me, the masterly use of stone and colour, shapes and light, to create space and atmosphere that just astounds in a very modest way, because this is a modest church in a very modest parish, but modest in the sense that a little diamond is modest.
After all, a diamond is a diamond is a diamond.
Leaving, peek though the porch window at the sweet churchyard, surely a smile on our faces…
So outside, look up if you will. After such a glory of human creation inside, it is nature’s turn here, adorning this neat cross, moss, lichen, weathering, over many decades, just letting us know with a wink that humans are not the only players in town, something we tend to forget all too easily.
When I first posted this pictures on Instagram I enthused passionately, and one commenter, a proper expert, a very fine man, asked who it was by.
‘GE Street’ I replied, ‘Why? Is he well known’.
‘Yup, one of the best Victorian church architects’ came the answer.
‘Oh’ I said, ‘thank you. That might explain it.’
Which it does and does not, because ultimately who cares? I know I do not, in many ways.
The real question is ‘how much can I love this?’
Well, I guess folk know that now…