- A quiet little church with a lot of charm
- Good medieval angels in the nave
- Foliage roof bosses
- A very tall tower arch
- Attractive 1941 wooden wall memorial
- Simple medieval font
- Some nice stained glass
Rackenford parish is grass country, grass kept green and growing by the rain that sweeps in from the Atlantic and the warmer temperatures of south west Britain. It is a soil for grass too, not really for crops; far too clayey, acidic and wet.
But back in the day, before new roads opened up Devon, when there was no wheeled traffic, packhorses were the main transport and oxen ploughed the thick fields, crops had to be grown for survival.
It was a hard life, a continuous struggle, though folk being folk humour and good fellowship was there in abundance.
The church was their community, where they all came together, where they met and gossiped and joked and organised festivals and Holy Days and church ales (drinking and eating was involved, muchly so). Even if they did not attend a service often (and a fair few did not) it was the community.
Rackenford Church of All Saints
A sweet church, as this charming priest’s door leading into the possible thirteenth century chancel, and the windows from century or two later, show. Very sweet.
Calling it the priest’s door gives the idea that it was just for the priest, but it was not. Other folk took part in the service here, maybe a chaplain, maybe some singers, some young acolytes possibly, all considered part of the clergy at varying degrees and all to use this entrance. They were very separate from the ‘laity’ as the congregation were called.
And just to underline the point, folk did not call this area the ‘chancel’ as we always call it today. It was called the ‘altars’ because the altars (more than one) were the whole point of its being; the sacred mystery at the heart of their faith, the Eucharist and the true appearance of Christ in the bread and wine.
Plus prayers for the dead.
The south door
The laity used this doorway through the south porch; here the stone archway is fourteenth century whilst that very good door is nineteenth.
The porch though is a bit later, built as porches became places to do business and seal oaths amongst many another thing.
Entering Rackenford church
So here is the church, but not what mean as the church. Up ahead there would have been a rood screen all the way across separating the altars from this area. Now we call it the nave but until relatively recently this only was the church.
Church wardens would have been responsible for its upkeep, elected yearly by the parishioners which sounds like democracy but was not really. The wardens usually came from the farmers and maybe merchants (in a bigger parish). For one thing they did need to read and write somewhat.
It is a lovely space here, simple and clean, a modest country church full of peace and love. Very different from the colour and smells of medieval times.
It was expanded in the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century with the addition of the north aisle (on the right) and the west tower (behind us), and likely enough a new roof. A screen as well, but that has long since gone.
Originally there would have no fixed benches, the first ones probably built in the 1500s and since then there has been regular remodelling.
Church angels and roof bosses
Here, on the wallplate, are some grand survivors, what-seem-to-be angels but without wings, two from the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century, one Victorian replacement.
That expression on the left had one is a delight, a combination of the crafter’s art and Old Father Time, and this I adore about churches; how art and beauty, big and little details, gradually transform to more beauty and more art, a combination of humans and nature creating something more than either can do by themselves.
Living art in the exact spot it was created for.
The church wardens, would have commissioned the carver to make these, and discussed the kind of design they wanted, and probably half the parish discussed this too until all were happy. After all, the parishioners were paying for this from special church rates, with maybe one or more major donors.
These folk lived with each other constantly, so opinions were likely expressed face to face as well; knowing Devon, that would have been certainty!
The ancient roof bosses
The church wardens also ordered these delicious roof bosses, very clearly cut and almost modern in their stye, the top left one especially.
Their colour though has gone, and enjoying the detail and the brown is not what the folk back then have done. The bosses would have been carefully and magnificently painted.
Living art, beautifully evolving.
Here, another church another simple sanctuary and are no they best? Until, of course, the next complicated one come along. Just the white and the colour reflecting off each other, with those dark altar rails at the front.
That peeling plaster? They will fix it. Churches were never static perfection, especially with the rain and damp we get here in the South West.
But with the sun out and pretty flowers on the altar… perfection is a train coming down the tracks.
Looking around the nave
Looking down the nave that tower arch is keeper too, mighty tall as it is. Nowadays we screen off the tower to keep the church warmer, usually with a full screen.
Here though just a curtain. Us wimpy moderns will be well cold.
A 20th century wooden wall memorial
Down near that tower arch on the north wall is a most delicious and unusual memorial, carved from pine, for Arthur Chamberlain; Arthur was cousin to Neville, the famous – though some might say infamous – British prime minister, who himself came to Rackenford in 1935 to stay with Art in his manor house.
Whether pine was a design choice or whether it was forced upon the carver by the privations of the war years is impossible to say at this distance in time, but the big blowsy curves and that simple clear lettering make it a keeper.
The Chamberlains were an interesting family, heavily involved in local Birmingham (where they came from) and national politics for many years. Very dedicated too.
Art’s dad, another Arthur, an industrialist as they called business folk back then, was one of the first to reduce the working week from 60 to 48 hours in his company.
Now maybe that is something to be proud or not, no position me, but it does show just how hard folk worked everywhere to earn a crust, down here in Rackenford too.
A medieval font
The medieval font is a bit of slow burner though, a simple design well-executed, probably originally painted, it has an interesting depth too.
The tracery patterns carved on its sides seem to meditations on natural patterns and shapes, a full four leaf (quatrefoil) and then halved, and then halved again.
It is mighty difficult to overstate the importance of baptising a child in the Middle Ages; those who died before they were baptised (and infant mortality was so high) were thought to be destined for hell. This is not necessarily what the church taught, church teachings were far more varied than some might think, but it was believed by a fair few folk.
Even midwives would perform an emergency baptism of a newborn if it looked like a tragedy was on the cards, after birth or even during birth. The priest gave them some water and oil, blessed as appropriate, and taught them how to baptise, likely enough to the huge relief of the parents.
Stained glass around the church
As so often in these little Devon churches there is some worthy Victorian stained glass, and this piece fits the ticket exactly.
It is two of the Four Evangelists looking very formal, but really it is the clothing and the background foliage that really catches the eye the here. Wonderful that the artist has put flowers on the robes of the two, helping them almost merge into the background.
This window is meditative, to think about the folk and what they wrote, there’s nothing here to say ‘I share that feeling’ and surely that was its intent. Thinking. Pondering. Reflecting.
He is risen
Whilst this one takes another path, that of immediate emotional involvement; check out the faces for a start, the angel’s compassion and Mary’s awe and befuddlement.
A scene from Mark’s gospel it is, when Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome mosey up to the tomb of Jesus to anoint his body only to find the lad has absconded, even though dead, and a young man in a white robe at the information desk.
“And looking up they see that the stone has been rolled back – for it was extremely large. And entering upon the tomb they see a young man sitting to the right, clothed in a white robe, and they were amazed.
But he says to them, “Do not be amazed. You seek Jesus the Nazarene, who has been crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look: the place where they laid him.”
Mark 16 5:6 (translated by David Bentley Hart)
It is a pretty window, fitting the whole scene in a narrow space, and far more immediately emotional than the previous one. Here, I venture, one aim is to involve the viewer immediately with that sense of wonder and awe that must have been present.
It is now traditional to put wings on the young man in white and turn him into our conception of an angel. A pity that, I am thinking. In the book he is just ‘clothed in a white robe’ and that totally underlines the gnomic uncertainty of the scene. Who is this dude?
With wings on, then angel for deffo, and questions have been answered before being asked, solutions handed around on a pretty plate, no thinking required.
Without wings then all is a fog of strangeness, awareness only stuttering into life over time, reluctantly and incredulously, that God is, and has been, truly, really, physically in this world. Underlined by saying‘Jesus the Nazarene’, not Christ, not the Messiah, just their Rabbi Jesus, their friend and mentor who they all have had their suspicions about but now… what wonder, what awe.
Mind you, Matthew does have an angel with a ‘appearance like lightning’, an earthquake, the Roman soldiers knocked senseless and a few other theatrics, but for my money Mark captures the moment so much more modestly and powerfully.
A pure delight
It is a lovely church, full of little pleasures, even something as simple as this lovely window with its old glass, showing the inside and out at the same time.
There s a metaphor there somewhere, but truly popping in here for an hour or two with eyes wide open and heart following closely is enough.
A pure delight.