- Beautiful moorland village
- Traditional High Moor granite church
- Exuberant roodscreen
- Atmospheric chancel
- Very special medieval figurative roofbosses
- Well carved medieval benchends
- Excellent Victorian stained glass
North Bovey parish
Just below North Bovey steep slopes confine the River Bovey; It is a good river crossing point between the marshes that existed North and South.
Tracks led East over the river into Dartmoor with its tin and wool, West to Moretonhampstead and Exeter for cloth making, and North to Chagford, where all the tin mined this side of the moor was checked, stamped and taxed; the money went straight into the monarch’s pockets by special decree.
It is a very traditional place for an early church or chapel, above a river crossing; giving aid and shelter to strangers was a duty the church of the day took very seriously.
There was an estate here in Saxon times and quite likely a church, whether the Pre-Saxon British church was here as well… not impossible at all.
North Bovey church on the outside
How long ago the first church was built is impossible to say; the present chancel is thirteenth century and the rest fifteenth, apart from later restoration. The chancel might have been the original chapel/church or, more likely, built on an older Saxon or even Old British place of worship.
We do know that it was dedicated to John the Baptist back in 1343 because the church tithes and rectorship, some buildings and about four acres of land were given to a Friary in return for a daily mass for the donor, his family and their ancestors. Oh, and the king’s ancestors, just to be sure.
All church lands were free of paying any tax, which became a big bone of contention later when the monarchy woke up to the fact that a goodly proportion of their kingdom was owned by the church.
Facebook is not the first by any means, though the church was surely doing a lot more good.
Two fine granite doorways
A gift worth receiving too, because granite. Who can resist a moorland granite church, especially with a doorway like this?
It is a marvellous reward after negotiating a corkscrewing web of single-track lanes, though truly in Devon the journey through our glorious landscapes is prize enough. So, a second gift then…?
Life is generous in God’s garden.
And here, the plain door fits right in with the that strong simple granite arch, a true loveliness.
And here, the plain door fits right in with the that strong simple granite arch, a true loveliness.
The porch door looks out onto green, framed by granite again.
Dartmoor granite with lush fertility… Why, up here churches are not so much built as grown; find a nice spot of stone, manure and water it, chant prayers and celebrate mass, bless the parish and a church will bloom with enough faith. Promise.
Magic still rules on the High Moors.
A wonderful rood screen
The first treasure to catch the eye is the late fifteenth century rood screen, missing its rood loft and the vaulting that would have supported it, and heavily restored, not least by copious lashings of brown paint. Oh dear me, whoever thought that was an improvement?
But the exuberance of the carving still bounces out to meet us, the many-lined tracery with its dilly little roundels, the concatenation of carving on each side and the severely complicated cornice at the top of vines and little birds… still some original gilding shines through too.
Here the quatrefoils (quatre means four, foils means leaves) on each side of the arches display their wares, with their delicate little centres just like the flower which they are. Of course, originally these would have been painted and gilded, and shone and glittered like a holy garden, which they are…
The old chancel
Through the screen is the old chancel, a rarity to have one from the 1200s in Devon, and it is an intoxicating space, especially with the two original lancet windows on each side and the simplicity. Unusually, no Victorian tiles and just a temporary altar that will be gone shortly, say a century or three.
Passing in one stride from the 1400s to the 1200s whilst in the 2000s, the austere space with a flash of condensed colour, the old plaster, the miniature space, and of course the altar, the holiness of an ancient faith, eight hundred years or more of Divine celebration on this exact spot… serene exhilaration, a warm wave of kindly awe, spreading every which where…
Roof bosses: A Green Man…
Looking up, the chancel roofbosses say hi, a mighty big hi too…
Of course, some folks might say that slapping some modern gloss paint on six hundred year old medieval carvings is, shall we say, a horror on top of a nightmare… .but not me. After all, is that not that what they did six hundred years ago? Admittedly not with DIY store gloss, and with a deal more skill, and using a different palette, but this is now and that was then.
Besides, there are so many grand untouched bosses around Devon, that letting the parishioners loose on these with a bit of fun totally gets my vote. Historically accurate in spirit if not in exactitude… and what is a church if not for matters of the spirit… ?
And boy does this gentleman have spirit, a demon even, a pain that is shattering his soul, bridled by the foliage of sin, entangled in the snares of this world, separated from God and knowing it, what is worse than that?
Devon is full of these carvings, far more than most counties, whether because of local culture (oh, yes please) or just luckily preserved (naaah), and there are such gorgeous variations. They are…
… a folk art in these parts, and to observe many variations is like hearing an old folk song sung, not in unison, but by different singers, one after another, each adding a new verse as they make it up on spot
Three Hares, St Catherine and more
And here are some more folk songs, sung with enthusiasm and style… though the meaning of some of these is not clear. Why?
Well, partly because we have lost the ‘grammar of images’ that folk had back then, partly because each church would likely have developed its own variations on the meanings as stories were told and children taught through the generations, and partly because of the Reverend William Henry Thornton who was rector here from 1866 until 1916, a mighty fine innings.
Holy Billy, as no one called him ever, wrote:
I myself have blended into the church at North Bovey all sorts of spoils, from all sorts of churches, and in so doing have provided much interesting occupation, and a long series of puzzles for the future antiquarian
So there is no way we can be sure that the bosses belong in the chancel (nearly always we find this style of boss in the nave, where the sinners are), nor are in their right order, nor even come from this church and were not gathered in from another.
There are some grandly carved little wall plate bonnies that do possibly come from Widecombe, just over the hills; Holy Billy thinks he has us turned around and about… except… .
They are enchanting. That is what counts.
Holy Billy: 0. Twenty first century visitor: 1. A win for us I am thinking.
Oh, and here we can see The Three Hares, maybe a sign of the Holy Trinity, below them St Catherine with her wheel, and the two on the left could be warnings against pride and vanity.
And so we come to the granite, goodly Dartmoor granite for a goodly Dartmoor church, the world is in its place and all is splendid…
A stone with soul, a stone that colonises our soul, colours more subtle than a dissembling politician, a roughness that ignites the nervous system.
Up here on the High Moor granite lives and breathes, boulders and clitter strew the landscape, drystone walls soar across the hills, valleys huddle together bedecked in bite-sized acid-green fields, tors retreat back into the peat over aeons… plunge a shovel into the earth and granite says hello, wave to the skyline and granite waves back, visit a house and granite says ‘welcome’…
Heaved from its doze and shaped by hand, slowly and patiently (it is a hard stone) moulded into churches that are adopted by the landscape… one day future archaeologists will argue whether these churches are natural features or man-made and many a day even I am not sure.
But I do know that sitting in peace looking through a granite window is time well invested…
Medieval benchends in the nave.
… and that medieval bench ends in a granite church are just wonderful.
Especially when we find brilliant variations like the above, the earliest on the left (1400s) then later (early 1500s?), and later yet.
The first one is pure gothic growing more beautiful with age, carved like church windows of that era and possibly that is the meaning; the church as a building and as a community, even giving you a place to park your bum.
After that a more floriated one, engagingly so, without any religious imagery and probably with the initials of the pew owner on, and then full on Renaissance, imagination loosed, pure decoration, though the Tudor roses on there are very wise, flattering that family tended to keep heads on shoulders; keeping religious imagery out of churches even more so.
Gorgeous stained glass
Religious imagery which the Victorians did so adore putting back, especially in windows, and boy did they like their stained glass, deservedly so too. There is some dazzling little darlings in this church, and this gorgeous statement is one of them, ‘King of Kings, Lord of Lords’ with all those marvellous angels clustered around.
As ever, bring binoculars or a good zoom lens to get the best out of this art.
St Mark and St Luke
Here are the symbols for St Mark, a winged lion, terribly grumpy in this picture, and St Luke, a winged ox, though those wings are not going to fly that hefty lad anywhere soon. Delightful little details they are for sure.
St Michael and his dragon
This gentle angel though flies on rainbow wings through a universe of rich, deep colour and fantastical truths, being St Michael as it is.
One of my favourite windows here, the reds and golds along with that metal-sheened dragon slinking into the shadow, Angel Mickey’s right hand holding the scales of justice oh so daintily, his disappointment-filled stare ‘Like dudes, have not you finished with sinning yet? You think I like sending some of you babes to hell?”, the flower and foliage border… And the cross and the banner of the Resurrection, so much more effective at conquering the dragon of sin than a sword…
Two sweet angels
Or these endearing darlings, bewitchingly feathered, high up in a window permanently enjoying the view… though what they get up to after the church is closed is anybody’s guess with those cheeky faces.
The ageless church
This church mixes the recent with the old, always alive, alive in faith, in storm and sun, in the community who might not all share the faith but still value this place of reflection, and even alive with folks like us who visit from afar and take it home with us…
Just as Holy Billy mixed it up, Medieval sampling and Victorian creations, with verve and panache…
Especially the tower, with its crown of render and the lower string course (the horizontal line sticking out) that goes over the west window so rectangularly, the dinky little pinnacles up top (I feel I want to pat it on its head and say ‘Aaaw, it is all alright, size is not everything’), and the granite…
… and the granite…
Dartmoor soul, Dartmoor bone…