- Beautifully situated, tucked away on the west slopes of Dartmoor
- A fine granite tower and good granite windows
- A cave-like bare stone interior
- Nice 15th century font
- Enchanting carved panels in the tower room
- 14th century carved stone head transept arch corbel
- Beautiful East Window by C Rupert Moore
- Fantastic 19th century altar back in the south chapel
- Two enchanting hatchments
- A beautiful atmosphere in this old Dartmoor church
Sampford Spiney Church of St Mary
Sampford Spiney church is proper Dartmoor, hunkered down high on its western edge, a marvel of rubblestone and granite, a dark cave inside.
This side of Dartmoor Atlantic rains and storms barrel in from their ocean birthplace and strike their first real land obstacle, the moor’s fifteen hundred foot (500 meter) plateau rising like a wall to bludgeon open the clouds.
The church probably started as a chapel of ease for the local manor, open to all, for a priest to visit once a week or less, and then grew. Plympton Priory took it over in the fourteenth century, by which time it was already a stone church with a chancel, nave, and two transepts (protuberances on either side which would make it look like a cross from above). Delightfully, the north transept still survives from that build.
The south aisle (the front bit) was added in the early sixteenth century or even the fifteenth, and the tower around that time too. Apart from a bit of nineteenth century restoration (which included lengthening the chancel) it is as it was… Though the nave and chancel walls were de-plastered then too.
The tower of well-laid granite blocks was likely enough never plastered, it being quite the showpiece.
Sampford Spiney did not become a separate parish until 1772, which is a time to wait but it got there in the end.
Sampford Spiney parish
Nowadays, wandering the parish, it is tempting to wonder just how poor a place it was back in the day, a seeming backwater of a backwater next to the moorland wastes.
Which would be a mistake, a bigly one at that.
The old main route connecting the big North Devon ports of Bideford and Barnstaple to Plymouth, runs just mile and half west of the church through the parish. Crossing the south west peninsular by land was a deal safer than risking the tide-beaten, rock-ridden passage around Land’s End.
Then there was trade; Dartmoor’s tin, wool and peat down to the ravenous markets of Plymouth, goods and produce for the tinners and farmers up on high. Later copper and silver were found in the parish…
The specimens of native silver from this mine [Sampford Spiney’s] have eclipsed all that has been found before in Cornwall-in both size and beauty
On the Discovery of Silver in the Mines of Cornwall, Joseph Carne, 1818
After that there was always the parish produce, wool, timber, stone, cattle, feeding and building the lowlands.
Crocketed pinnacles on the tower
So all this to show that building this beauty was an affordable project, especially in a community where the spiritual was given its due importance.
Mind you, a friendly bit of competition might have crept in as well, and in West Devon crocketted pinnacle tournaments seem to have spread from church to church. Bigger, taller, more ornate seem to have been their happy place, as the beauties above show.
There is also a construction purpose behind them; the weight of the pinnacles makes the towers more stable and less likely to shift in high winds.
Goodly stone windows
Sampford Spiney is yet another church with cracking windows, like this east window here, showing how difficult granite was to carve in detail with medieval iron tools; also how chunkily powerful it can be after centuries of weathering, this being originally sixteenth century and all.
A darling fourteenth century window
Then there is darling, from the fourteenth century in the north transept, the central mullion repaired; that top tracery has a strongly powerful grace.
Inside Sampford Spiney Church
The interior of Sampford Spiney church is a cave, bare stone on bare granite, half expecting a troll to be sheltering from the rain in here.
It used to be white, the walls would have been plastered and lime washed and at one point the pillars were also painted white. The son of the vicar organising the 1867 restoration wrote:
My earliest memory of Sampford Spiney is watching men stripping the monolithic pillars of their whitewash as part of the church restoration work.
But naked stone it is nowadays and gorgeously so.
And the tiles of the restoration…
The body of the church is paved with chocolate and buff tiles.
Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 14/02/1868
…have faded, scuffed and ground into a world of dusty colour whispering truths about the exquisite artistry of age and service.
The granite font
Whilst the font, ooh look, granite again, is another aged survivor, this time from the fifteenth or sixteenth century; probably made by the same dude who carved the font for Walkhampton church in the adjoining parish.
It is a goodly font too, full of presence and balance, well worth a gaze or three.
Wonderful wood carving
And talking about a gaze or twenty, this carving is just superb, sublimely so. The curves almost tactile, the prettiness of the centre flower… just fantabulous.
Mid sixteenth century, I thought possibly adapted bench ends but Paul Fitzsimmons of Marham Church antiques and a deeply knowledgeable expert suggests part of a chancel screen or even from a domestic screen, so let us go with that.
The thing is, it is hard to find let alone see. Go to the back of the church, behind the last pew, into the deep gloom of the tower space, turn on a torch or smart phone, and then gasp in awe. At least that is what I did, especially as I had no idea there was anything there.
It is brilliant, and worth visiting this church alone for.
An old medieval dude all alone
Talking about being alone, this hombre has been here all by his lonesome since the fourteenth century at one end of the transept arch. The opposite end is just a block of stone, why not carved is a mystery.
Truth is, being left alone in a church for a handful of centuries sounds like a well-thought through plan to me, though I might be an outlier here.
Stained Glass in the East Window
It shows Christ the King, referring to the Kingdom of God which is on earth as it is in heaven, his Mom on one side and St George photobombing the other.
Seriously Georgie lad, go bomp a dragon or something, an apostle might be a tad more welcome here? Still, he does look mighty suave.
Probably something to do with George being patron saint of England. Very probably so.
And that is interesting, because folk really did think that God was on England’s side. That’s no fault of theirs, the past is a different culture and all that.
It’s a lovely window though, made by J Powell & Son, designed by C Rupert Moore (1904-1982) who is equally as well-known for his aeroplane paintings as for his stained glass.
Angels and The Holy Spirit
On high are these sweet angels with two-tone wings and the Holy Spirit coming down from God the Father, hidden above.
Christ in glass
And a fine depiction of the man himself. Christ’s halo is treated beautifully here; usually it is divided into three symbolising the three nails used to crucify him, thus his victory over death.
In this case though it seems the divisions are made by three of arms of the cross as on the Resurrection Banner, traditionally a red cross on a white background; it is present in many illustrations and carvings from the Medieval onwards.
A magnificent Victorian altar back
Which is lucky, because there is one of those grand beauties just chilling right here in the south aisle, the reredos (altar back) to the south aisle chapel.
Paul Fitzsimmons, an expert in church antiques, has informed me that it is nineteenth century work using seventeenth century timber, and it is really very, very nice.
The Baptism of Christ
The central image is the Baptism of Christ
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptised by John in the Jordan. And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
These brawny figures have come straight from the local moors, they are working men not book-bound intellectuals, standing in a local stream they could be at that. Their elegance is that of parish folk, powerful folk doing hard work, here filled with the Grace of God.
The thick tree branch is a whisper of the cross, Christ hanging on a tree, the crucifixion to come, whilst Christ bows his whole body in acceptance of his fate, and his dedication to humanity.
A mini-magnificence for sure.
Foliage on the altar back
Equally good are the chunky yet intricate foliage and patterns, here a grapevine, elsewhere acorns and oak leaves, around the baptism.
All in all a most bodacious piece, and a most bodacious gift into the bargain, received by the church in 1954.
A hatchment with talbots
Also here in Sampford Spiney are two very fine hatchments, the above being one example.
Hatchments were made on the death of a local member of the gentry, displaying his or her coat of arms with additional ornamentation, and displayed outside their house for a period of mourning.
At one point, some say after the funeral, others after twelve months, the hatchment would be moved to the local church.
This one here is for Humphrey Hall who died in 1801, who is himself buried inside this church under an inscribed stone along with his wife:
Underneath are deposited the remains of the Honble Jane Hall wife of Humphrey Hall (of Manadon in this County) Esq who died 10th July 1790
Also of Humphrey Hall of Manadon Esq…25th September 1801
Old Humphrey’s crest is a talbot, a breed of hunting dog similar to a beagle or bloodhound; now extinct; it was probably recognised as a breed from around the seventeenth century, though earlier it was a dog’s name, as in Chaucer,
And then they cried, “Alas, and weladay!
Oh, the fox!” and after him they ran,
And after them, with staves, went many a man;
Ran Coll, our dog, and Talbot and Garland,
Ran cow and calf and even the very hogs,
So were they scared by barking of the dogs
The Nun’s Priest’s Tale, Chaucer
As a breed it was mainly white, but this information does not seem to reached the painter of the hatchment here… nor does this floppy-eared treasure look much of hunter, but hey, it is the thought that counts.
Shelter from the storm
And writing this it surely is the thought that counts, as we look at what might be a crime scene but is the church during the recent pandemic.
The thoughts of the dead and the sick, suffered and suffering, folk remembrances remaining after personal memories whisper off into history; no hatchments for memorials, just our own personal Gethsemanes to homage, and friends and family to salute.
And always this rough old Dartmoor bonny built for shelter of the body and spirit, from storms both external and internal.
Here for us all, century upon century upon century.