- A pretty rural village which used to be a major centre of administration in Devon
- An impressive tower
- A stunning 20th century rood screen carved by the Pinwill sisters
- A cave-like 13th century chancel
- A goodly stained glass East Window
- A life-well-lived Norman font, or could it be Saxon?
- Some fascinating stained glass details
- The Watchmaker’s Epitaph, a finely carved inscription on stone
- Charming bench ends by Herbert Read with local wildlife around the edges
There is deep history here in this quiet little village along with its enchanting church and fifteenth century granite tower with original window and doorway; but it is not just the church that holds the history here, it is the hustle and bustle that still echoes through the bucolic streets from way, way back.
Here St Petrock probably founded a little chapel around 641 AD, re-charging a Christianity that had captured folks’ hearts in the south west from arguably the second century, likely placed in an existing settlement surrounded by deep gorges and streams on three sides with the west open to Dartmoor.
And the settlement grew and grew, made one of only four towns in Devon by the Saxons, a mint too, along with being the centre of tin mining law, and tin taxation for West Dartmoor. It also had one of the biggest parishes in England, 66,000 acres give or take; that meant most of the High Moor, and the administration of the same, and holding the court of Dartmoor Forest Law here as well as the burial place for the whole Moor.
With all this complication came money, big money for the time; tin taxation, Forest fines, trade, a big market, boomtown city.
And just beside the church is Lydford Castle, less a castle than
‘Even as rebuilt in the thirteenth century, the earliest example of a purpose-built gaol in this country’
Lydford Castle, Devon
For looking after all the naughties who offended the tinners and the monarch.
Lydford Church of St Petrock
WIth a deal less mercy than this lovely church offers to sinners, what with the infinite forgiveness of the Divine and all.
The present Lydford Church of St Petrock dates mainly from the fifteenth century, like so many of the pretties here in Devon; just then the south aisle, porch (as above) and tower were added to the simple thirteenth century nave and chancel, whilst around 1890 the north aisle was built.
All in all, it is a handsome place in a pretty churchyard, very neatly kept, and well worth gazing at for a time or two to appreciate its structure and stonework.
Inside Lydford church
Inside it is an enchantingly compact granite space full of golden-brown woodwork and giving off a true grotto vibe with its bare walls and pillar. Here be a deep cavern quarried out of the bedrock to congregate in worship.
The woodwork though, that brings so much more magic with it.
Lydford church rood screen
The rood screen up the end of the nave enthrals immediately, fine and wonderful details revealing themselves bit by bit.
From afar the intricate carving is intensified by the depth of the screen, with the deep vaulting and the upper cornice curving back, a fine and original design choice. Then the wainscoting, below, with its blank spaces draws attention to the colours of the oak. Delicious.
It was designed by Frederick Bligh Bond, an expert on roodscreens, carved by the Pinwill Sisters and finished in 1904. Freddie himself would go on to coauthor a seminal work ‘Roodscreens and Roodlofts’ in 1909 and ended up being consecrated a bishop in the Old Catholic Church of America, a fascinating breakaway from the Roman Catholic Church (through the Old Catholics would assert that it is the Roman Catholic Church that has left the path of the original Catholic Church).
So a life well-lived it seems.
The vaulting and tracery
Looking closer, that beautiful tracery and graceful vaulting comes into play with the elaborate uprights and those little arches along the top of the wainscoting, a grand thing to enjoy.
Details of the carving
And then those uprights come into better focus the nearer they are, with a sinuosity that just takes the breath away…
The inhabited vine scroll
A breathlessness that is only added to by the upper band of carving, the cornice, with its inhabited vine scroll as it is called…
Because these beauties live here, the flesh feeding off the grapes of the Eucharist, the blood of Christ bringing the Spirit to the flesh, with astonishing detail in each bird, especially considering they cannot be well seen from ground level.
This truly is a fine work of religious art.
The chancel in the church
Continuing into the chancel, the grotto aspect of the church intensifies, probably because the dimensions of the old thirteenth chancel have been kept, more of less.
The altar back is by Harry Hems, another of the three most famous wood carvers of the time, and shows various folk connected to the growth of Christianity in the south of England, from Bishop Restitutus of London who went to the Council of Arles in 314 AD to Leofric, the first Bishop of Exeter in 1050 AD.
The East Window
The Victorian East window is a beauty too, made by Fouracre & Watson of Plymouth in 1889, and shows the Parable of the Sower, where some of the seed falls on the path and dies, some is gobbled up by the birds, some is throttled by weeds, and some dives into the good soil and becomes totally lush.
As yer man himself explains, it is all about the different ways that folk receive the news about the Kingdom of Heaven and what they do with it, or what they do not.
A sweet bucolic scene here too, with an astoundingly grumpy sower, likely enough because of his designer red robe which seems totally impractical; probably a source of much merriment to his mates as well, the poor lad.
And then there are these are marvellous oxen, beauties both of them, though that yoke, the bar across their necks, is so not accurate. The real Devonshire yoke was beautifully fitted to the oxen…
The yoke of Devonshire… It is by far the best I have anywhere seen. It is at once light and easy to the animal…
Rural Economy of the West of England: William Marshall, 1796
But the ploughing in Devon, now that was something I would pay good money to have seen, especially the way of giving commands to the oxen…
… the tone, or rather tune, in which it is delivered. It resembles, with great exactness, the chantings or recitative of the cathedral service. The plough boy chants the counter tenor, with unabated ardour through the day; the ploughman throwing in, at intervals, his hoarser notes…
… I have never seen so much cheerfulness attending the operation of ploughing anywhere as in Devonshire.
Rural Economy of the West of England – William Marshall, 1796
And I bet they threw a few good psalms in as well, praising God, his creation and his bounty as they wandered through the only bit of the Garden of Eden left in the world, their voices softly floating over hills and woodlands, valleys and streams, gently alighting on this sublime landscape with words of love and grace.
Plus a good few naughty folk songs as well, let us be realistic.
The Norman font
The font is quite a toughie for sure. Norman some say, Saxon say others which is not impossible considering the importance of Lydford in Saxon times.
Age just mists off it, it could just as well be from Ancient British times when the first messages of the God of Love bejewelled this glorious landscape in ways never imagined before.
Delicate stained glass
Just as this Victorian artist has taken glass, pigments and talent and just ran with them to create such a luscious little scene of fertility and exquisite charm using just two colours, wonderfully so.
A real miniature masterwork.
Saint Mary Magdalene in Flemish glass
Yet here , in comparison, again just using those two same colours, a Flemish artist of the fifteenth or sixteenth century has produced a very different and arguably more magnificent creation, though maybe not quite as charming, showing Mary Magdalene.
Here set in a landscape, the whole heavily influenced by Renaissance painting, those streaming robes are less set in motion by a natural wind (after all, the rest of her attire is still) but by the storm of the new. For surely this shows
Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb.
So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.
John 20; 1:3
That sudden inner stillness that shock can bring, while on the periphery a gale is foretelling the world being turned upside down, just before she turns and runs back to the disciples to tell them the news.
And the first to be aware of this spiritual supernova is woman. That works for me.
Whilst at the bottom of other stained glass windows are these vignettes, again the same two colours, of the life of Christ and some of the parables. A different style, almost comic book, and still as sweet as the day they were created.
On the left we have the Flight into Egypt and on the right the twelve year old Christ in the temple, asking questions of the teachers there after slipping away from his parents.
The watchmaker’s epitaph in Lydford
Probably the most famous object in this church is this Epitaph to a Watchmaker, written about George Routleigh,, a watchmaker unsurprisingly. It is surely a fine bit of rural poetry with a bucketload of wordplay connected to watches and watchmaking, as here in this excerpt:
That his hours glided away
In one continual round
Of pleasure and delight
Till an unlucky minute put a period to
He departed this life
November 14, 1902
But for me the real delight is in the carving of the epitaph, thirty-seven lines in all, finely chiselled into the hard stone and not a mistake to be seen. A fine achievement.
Bench ends by Herbert Read
The bench ends then come into play, and they are a bit of slow burn, but boy, what intensity when they get going.
Back in the 1800s the place was full of box pews; lovely as they are they did tend to the socially divisive. Each pew was usually owned or rented long term by local families, and the nearer the front the bigger boys and girls you were. The new breed of vicars did not like this at all, admirably so.
So they were removed in 1875 and replaced by chairs and prayer desks, which was a bit unusual. Usually new open benches were put in very soon after, but it was not until 1923 that the present benches started to be installed, and were finished three years after.
Herbert Read was the carver, the third of the top three traditional wood carvers in Devon, and the Rev Thorpe told him what he wanted. The fronts are goodly figures of saints, ’Fathers of the Church’, and other famous Christians whilst the borders…
Wildlife in the church
Well, the borders are something else indeed…
They are just full of plants and flowers and wildlife, all local to the area, and they are enchanting. Scurrying, waddling, pecking, leaping and swimming through flowers and leaves and water plants, the possibility that they might not just be keeping very still in the daytime, ready to continue their lives when the church is shut, just seems a faint conspiracy theory.
But there is something else going on here, maybe Slow Art is a good name for it, though maybe that is a tad pretentious, and it is not confined to this church. In truth every church I have ever visited is part of this movement. This one is fine example though.
Because there are so many benches with so many critters and so much plant life that there is no way one visit here can do them justice… nor two, nor three.
A lifetime might just about do it, taking into account the rest of the glorious woodwork. Might.
Some say churches are our real museums of the folk, but museums are for visiting whilst churches are for living, and the lucky parish folk in Devon get to discover more and more as they grow to know their own church. There is just so much beauty to discover, big and little, fun and awesome, in every each church.
All free, all usually open for us to come back to again and again.
Along with the superb landscapes.
Life is good in Devon.