- Set on High Dartmoor in one of the most stunning positions ever
- A lovely Victorian structure in the ‘geometrical decorated style’ style
- A modest interior
- Two wonderful stained glass windows by AA Orr
- Intricate carvings on the delightful altar back by Herbert Read
- A fine west window
- Good stencilling on the organ pipes
- A little known church which is well worth time for a visit
Leusdon Church of St John the Baptist
Leusdon Church of St John the Baptist has a fair few wonders up its sleeve, the most unmistakable is placement; on a clear day the view rolls out over twenty miles away to the coast and floats out over the sea.
Though let us be realistic, this is High Dartmoor, the elephants’ graveyard of clear days, where they come to dissolve into rain and fog and cloud. Occasionally though a crystal sunshiny wonder gets its shoes on and makes up for all the other days ever. It is a magnificent sight.
The other thing easily seen from the outside is that is not medieval. Near most every High Moor church is Medieval and of the Victorian ones, Leusdon is the largest; a Victorian charm built in 1863.
The style apparently is ‘geometrical decorated style’ which I am still so not convinced is a real thing. Still, if they say so then it might be. Or not.
There was a chapel of ease dedicated to St Leonard here before, part of the parish of Widecombe in the Moor, somewhat ruined apparently, and with a deep history…
St Leonard’s Chapel in Spychwyke” is referred to in a grant of 1284 issued by Roger de Rous of Wydecomb.
Mike Brown, Dartmoor Press
Though that was long gone when this babe was built.
High above the River Dart
It is a lovely little church with its south tower and that delightful hood over the clock. The windows bear a fine look see as well, along with those goodly granite walls.
But always we come back to its location just at the edge of the Dart Gorge, with a single-track lane plunging past the church away down to the river; if you turn left at the bottom you can then climb back up another near vertical to get to Buckland in the Moor church.
Not a route for the fainthearted but for those of us who love our Devon lanes it is a delight, full of views and atmosphere.
Not a place for fields either, just sharp rocky steepnesses and oak woods; the word ‘Dart’ itself comes from an ancient Britonnic Celtic word for oak.
But it was a place for pigs, who feasted and grew fat on the acorns, looked after by a swineherd; the area below Leusdon is still called Spitchwick, from the Old English ‘spic’ for bacon and ‘wic’ for farm or trading place.
The Bolitho window by AA Orr
Walking up the nave there are two remarkable windows on either side, one of them this lovely, pregnant with meaning.
Both the windows were designed and made by Arthur Anselm Orr and this was dedicated in 1917 as a brass plate nearby explains:
William Torquill MacLeod Bolitho Lieut XIX Hussars
Who Fell in Action 24th May 1915 at Chateau Hooge, 2nd Battle of Ypres
William was twenty, and from a family who had connections here and a strong presence in Cornwall.
He had served in the Royal Navy before joining the cavalry, leaving the sea because of abject sea sickness; the cavalry, of course, very quickly became the infantry in the nightmarish trench warfare of that tragedy.
He was severely injured at Hooge in the Second Battle of Ypres, either dying at Hooge or in Ypres. Both places are on this window, Hooge middle right and Ypres bottom left.
There are also four saints connected to William along the bottom (from the far left): St Michael the patron saint of soldiers, St Andrew of Scotland (his mother’s family), St George of England and St Nicholas, patron saint of sailors, referring to William’s naval career.
And there was no more sea
Just as this pretty detail does, with its mercurial treatment of the elements and the power of nature.
There is also another level, with the text coming from the Book of Revelation:
And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea.
And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
So here is the coming of heaven, surely a comfort to his parents and all who lost loved ones.
Ypres in stained glass
And here is the Lakenhalle, the ancient cloth market in Ypres, that was annihilated in the fighting but has since been rebuilt; a strong and powerful decision to picture it in its prewar state rather the shelled ruin that it then was, prophesying resurrection and peace.
Sir Galahad at Château Hooge
The main scene is William as Sir Galahad kneeling beside the road from Hooge to Ypres, with a vision of the Holy Grail in front of him and surrounded by loving angels.
There are a mass of symbols here, better detailed than me at this site about Cornish stained glass, but arguably the core of the whole is the text lower left, the last two lines of this poem…
Because of you we will be glad and gay,
Remembering you, we will be brave and strong;
And hail the advent of each dangerous day,
And meet the last adventure with a song.
And, as you proudly gave your jewelled gift,
We’ll give our lesser offering with a smile,
Nor falter on that path where, all too swift,
You led the way and leapt the golden stile.
Whether new paths, new heights to climb you find,
Or gallop through the unfooted asphodel,
We know you know we shall not lag behind,
Nor halt to waste a moment on a fear;
And you will speed us onward with a cheer,
And wave beyond the stars that all is well.
Julian Grenfell by Maurice Baring
Which for a grieving family seems to hit a deeply heartfelt spot; Maurice himself served through WWI and knew that sentiment is a manly virtue.
This type of Arthurian scene is not uncommon for the early twentieth century, but here it is depicted so very well and with such depth of feeling.
And, just to revert to my natural shallowness for a moment, with mesmerising colours and rainbow wings made from enchanted leaves, textured golden haloes surrounded by sparkling light.
Up on the top is Fortitude, a figure I took for St George originally but not so; the text (centre right) is a bit of a clue.
But not a glamorous Fortitude brightly armoured and fresh as a daisy, here is a Fortitude on his knees with a broken sword, an arrow in his shield and his castle on fire behind him; In truth a Fortitude where fortitude is so needed.
The right kind of fortitude.
The whole is a powerful window, and it is for everybody, not just for those who could afford a window to their grief.
For grief has no ownership.
It is a constant strangeness to me that my own father also turned up on these battlefields a couple of years later at the age of nineteen, and lasted a matter of months before being left for dead amongst a pile of corpses, only to be fished out again when he moved. His father had already received his death notification before he was declared alive again.
What that war did to him I have no idea but I do know he was no father.
These memorials murmur my heart in cavernous paths, soft agonies whispering from abysses of pain.
Chance and happenstance, survival and death, it is a funny old game.
The Bluebird Window
Across the nave is another AA Orr window to William’s younger brother who died at the age of five in 1910.
It is based on The Blue Bird, a symbolist play by Maurice Maeterlinck (a Nobel Prize in Literature winner no less), about two children, Mytyl and her brother Tyltyl, and their symbolic adventures.
A halo of bluebirds
Along with a bluebird, unsurprisingly, shown here with a bonus symbolic bluebird halo.
It is a surprisingly interesting play, full of playful ideas hiding deeper truths, which this window somewhat sentimentalises; none the worse for that either, artistic vision and all.
On their travels the kids encounter various Luxuries, including the Luxury of Understanding Nothing, which is a powerful concept I have not come across before.
Whether it is a major part of my skillset is open to question… Some (most all) say an emphatic yes, others (me) are not so sure…
But what do I know… ?
A gorgeous little angel
Marvellously sentimental though, as I have said, and I do love it so.
Leusdon Church chancel
Further up the nave the chancel is a pleasing combination of fine woodwork, tiles, marble and stained glass.
The Herbert Read altar back
The oak reredos (altar back) is a beaut, intricately carved by the Herbert Read workshop, one of the best in the West Country if not the whole of Britain, and donated in 1910 in memory of another child, John Struben.
It has aspects of a medieval rood screen in some of the background carving, and then there is nodding crocketted ogee arch over the crucifixion scene; complexity and elegance swirling together, just delicious.
The reredos (altar back) is an elaborate piece of work designed in the 15th century style. The central feature is a large canopied niche with vaulted ceiling, containing a cultured representation of the Crucifixion. The canopy is surmounted by delicate pinnacles and crestings.
Exeter and Plymouth Gazette: 16/09/1910
And there is more delightful woodwork coming down the pike as well.
Choir stall bench ends
This indeed, grand dancing foliage, a real keeper, probably by Herbert Read but that is not clear; such gentle dynamism well fitted into its space, the spirit of planthood indeed.
Stencilled organ pipes
The organ pipes are worth a glance or five as well, some lovely stencilling, a fashion surely deserving of a comeback.
The west window
The view down the nave reinforces the Dartmoor simplicity of this church, but at the west end the window is anything but simple.
St John the Baptist in stained glass
Happily very colourful though, full of kaleidoscope patterns and some fine scenes from the life of John the Baptist, the patron saint of Leusdon church.
John loses his head
These two well mannered scenes show Herod’s stepdaughter, traditionally named Salome (her name is not in the bible), dancing for him at his birthday banquet.
For when Herodias’s daughter came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests. And the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it to you.”
Mark 6: 22
Whereupon the lass consulted with her Mom and asked for the head of John the Baptist, which is a little wilder than most birthday bashes I have attended, but not all of them to be fair.
John was already in prison for criticising Herod for marrying Herodias, who had been the wife of one of his half-brothers and the daughter of another of his half-brothers, which is severely messed up by most standards and very definitely so by first century Judaic ones.
Thus Herodias had quite a beef with John, speaking truth to power not being a great career choice in those days.
So John lost his head and Herodias got herself a new one on a big plate.
And immediately the king sent an executioner with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison and brought his head on a platter and gave it to the girl, and the girl gave it to her mother.
Mark 6: 27-8
Mothering Sunday came early that year, I see.
The same plate that is being held in the picture on the right.
Exquisite stained glass, there is that, and a fascinating contrast to the highly affective style of AA Orr. This was by design, it is made to be thought about, meditated upon, whilst Orr’s work is far more immediately emotional.
And so back to the outside, where once again the placement of this church can really be appreciated, High Dartmoor gently boasting over the Devon lowlands. It is wonderful.
There is a beautiful contrast here too… Outside the intoxicating landscape living large, inside the humble space living modestly; natural and man-made wonder complementing each other, both enjoying this gorgeous position.
Magnificence all over.