- Charmingly placed through a farmyard in deep Devon
- A beautifully near-unaltered exterior from the 15th century
- The original 15th century entrance door, just wonderful
- A stunning interior, simple and full of interest
- A beautiful ceilure
- Very nice medieval early bench ends
- A goodly 17th century pulpit
- Astounding amount of various Victorian tiles
- Definitely a church to spend time in
Satterleigh deep in time
Age is such a masterly artist, painting our understandings of the universe with awe and humility and wonder. A perfect texturing for this WWI memorial gate here, silvering and softening the wood as memories of that nightmare subside into myth and reverence, even this minute parish shaken by those remote terrors.
And age is what this church is about, softly navigating the centuries until age steps back and says ‘Enough, my creation is complete’ and hands it off to the Churches Conservation Trust to preserve and honour.
Satterleigh Church of St Peter
Gentling into the graveyard, Satterleigh church of St Peter lies next to Satterleigh Barton, a manor going back to Saxon times or even further, probably originally a chapel for the owners and estate workers.
A little parish formed after, and thus it became a parish church. In the churchyard is the base and shaft of an ancient cross, and before churches were erected preaching crosses were used for folk to gather at, though how old the cross remnants are is not known.
But an old, old church in a poor parish. Where in 1435 the Exeter Bishop had to step in to help raise funds to rebuild a church here. The exact Latin says ‘build’ but they made no distinction between building and rebuilding back, and the parish system was well laid out by those times. This was almost surely a rebuilding, maybe enlarging, more likely a complete revamp
But this is a design going back many, many centuries, a simple nave, a smaller chancel for the sacred, and a bellcote, no tower, with originally a single bell.
This wooden bellcote was added around 1600, and age has been at its tricks here, once again silvering and weathering towards a beauty unachievable by human hands alone… though that little opening up there, with its petite rain cover, that is a sweetie, and so human too.
Us humans do have some uses after all.
But there were bells here earlier, 1553 at least, and as the stonework suggests an earlier bellcote, so there would have been always a bell or more to toll the mass across the fields.
And toll they did, because what we now think of as the sound of church bells, ‘change ringing’ as it is called, only came in later and needed a different mechanism in the bellhouse. This one has the old mechanics which just allows for a bell to toll a single note in the same continuous rhythm.
A fifteenth century door
But earlier yet, the south door says hello from the 1400s, the original oak door from that rebuilding, everything hand cut, rustic charm entrancing us along with that age thing.
Oh and that little dinky arch at the top of the doorway, that is cute that is.
Constructing the door
But it tells us more from the back.
This is a ‘batten and plank door’, only two planks wide with the planks on the outside and the battens (the horizontal bits) on the inside. It is far more of an investment than is immediately obvious.
The construction probably started in the autumn or winter with choosing a rightly shaped and sized oak tree or two and stripping off the bark, killing the tree; the bark was sold to a tannery, and the wood had a chance to dry out somewhat until it was cut the following year.
Then cut down, the trunks roughly shaped with an axe and the planks sawn with a long two-man saw using a trestle and a lot of muscle; not many planks to a tree back in the day for sure.
The carpenter would then shape all and ‘clinch’ the battens and planks together. Clinching was striking nails through both battens and planks (soft nails too, hard metal technology was not yet on the scene for nails) and then hammering the ends over to make them ‘clinch’ together tightly. Like here, if we care to look closely.
And nearly six hundred years later look what at such a sight it has become. Total magic.
Entering Satterleigh church
Opposite the door is this babe from another age, and a deep age at that. The painting from the early eighteenth century, the psalm itself, ninety-five as it is, at least two thousand eight hundred years old, maybe more… now that is age, and when age is mentioned in churches it so often refers to objects.
We forget the words all too easily.
For this is no object as such, this is a thought, a wonder, an awe, a poem that has illumined ideas, beautified insights, thundered a truth through the ages; nowt less than the celebration of a single Divine of infinite love and human’s relationship with such a radical idea, gospelled the world by a Jewish faith aflame with the Messiah, to the tiny parish of Satterleigh, here in the glory of Devon.
Now that is a thing or ten I venture.
It is called the ‘Venite’ (Latin for ‘come’) and is used in Matins, the morning service that was the normal Sunday worship until relatively recently; communion usually took place at the most four times a year.
It is for singing. When folk saw this they would hear the psalm sung in their heads, in Anglican chant, probably without music during the time it was painted here.
And they would know that were going to experience the Divine in this house of God.
The nave and chancel
A Protestant house for sure, because make no mistake this is a Protestant church, as it existed between the seventeenth and mid-nineteenth century, before new forms of worship changed church interiors.
But it is a Protestant church very much adapted from the Pre-Reformation, using some of the furnishings, and still using that layout going way back further to pre-Roman Catholic times, before the the West and East had their falling out in the eleventh century.
That tympanum, for one thing, the plaster thing that fills in the arch halfway down, would likely have had a painting on, maybe a crucifixion scene (Jesus on the Christ with Mary and John below) or, more likely the background to a carved crucifixion scene suspended from the ceiling or supported by the rood screen, or a rood loft as it was really called.
Oh, and there would have been a screen under that tympanum.
The ceilure and the tympanum text
How can we be so sure about that there was something dead special just there? Well, look at the ceiling above that spot, the ‘ceilure’ in technical talk, which is fifteenth century; painted and gilded, often with stars to represent heaven, a ceilure’s purpose was as a canopy for the rood (the crucifixion statue).
Prayer and belief
But cometh the reformation cometh new perceptions, and one thing the reformers thought was ‘images bad, Word of God good’. Not that the Word of God had not been thought of as pretty ace beforehand I hasten to add; after all we are talking about Christianity here, albeit different flavours.
And of course one thing driving this was the spread of printed books, a very modern thing back then, and more and more scriptures and sermons in English in print, with a more literate society.
So the images were whitewashed over, statues chopped up, and the Word of God became the new sacred.
This text was put there likely in the late-ish eighteenth century, possibly nineteenth, with lovely flowery additions too.
Mind you, the bottom right lettering is a tad ‘crammed’, shall we say? Must have been an awkward conversation between the painter and the church wardens there. Even I would find it difficult to slide out of that one.
A new pulpit for ancient words
But before the text came the spoken word, and the congregation made sure of this by building this pulpit in the early seventeenth century (1620-1640). Next to it they made a reading desk for the priest to sit facing the congregation.
This was radical, this was the new church; beforehand the clergy had spent most of the service performing rituals around the altar in Latin, very beautiful, wonderful and spiritual rituals (I am so not taking sides here) but now it was different. The Rev was with the congregation with an English bible and popping up to deliver his sermons right amongst the folk.
The sounding board up the top is later, possibly 1680 – 1700, and would have been put there to help the preacher’s voice carry (all dating thanks to Paul Fitzsimmons at Marham Church Antiques).
Cracking bit of carving (strapwork as it is called) on that pulpit too.
Old bench ends still alive
Still in the nave, some of the very original benches from the 1400s are still hanging around, probably a bit later than the actual building of this iteration of the church but still nicely early. Proper gothic stuff too, stylised geometric foliage on the left and gothic decorative foliage on the right, both very similar to stone carving of that period and earlier.
The right hand could also be the Tree of Life, a deeply spiritual representation of a Divine truth in Christianity. After all, in the Bible, the history of humanity starts and ends with the Tree of Life.
In the beginning there is the Garden of Eden and the eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil by Adam and Eve. Not their best shimmy, to be fair.
But the Tree of Life is there too, and around that is a big reason why they had to up sticks and leave paradise, in case…
… [the man] reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever
Though that, in some theologians’ interpretations, is less a punishment than a metaphor for humanity’s exploration of the Divine, that can only come from free will rather than God doling out booty bags to her pets (there are reasons I am not a priest, and this explanation is likely one of them!).
And then, in the final chapter of the final book of the bible, The Revelation of John, after umpteen appearances throughout that book:
How blissful are those who wash their robes, so that they shall be given sanction by the tree of life, and may enter by the gates into the city
And humanity meets up again with the tree again when choosing themselves to embrace the Divine.
In deep Devon, starting with millennia old oral meditations of a modest Middle Eastern folk.
That age thing again.
The glorious chancel
And so to the chancel, with altar and all, and this is another age thing. It is a Victorian restoration, the benches and this altar rails, but seems to be preservation of the layout of the seventeenth century chancel, more or less. Remember protestantism.
Nowadays those of us who bend an Anglican knee are used to the service being centred around altar, back then not so much. The service took place at the front of the house, and the chancel was hardly used (though generalising about 12,000 odd parishes is a mug’s game) except for the very occasional communion.
And the communion usually took place around a table, with folk sitting around it or possibly kneeling, the illustrations we have show both. Like here, with a slightly bigger table, and possibly communion rails, possibly not.
But definitely farmers, big Devon farmers made from beef, cream and hard cider, ensconced on those benches and woe betide any priest introducing any newfangled nonsense.
Superb Victorian tiles
Except for these, because this little church has one of the prettiest collection of Victorian tiles I’ve come across in Devon, and so carefully chosen too.
Not a variation in colour, no, apart from those well placed black tiles above everything is cream and rust-red, but a totally gorgeous hoard of designs.
Above, in front of the altar, are two different grape designs which fits their position for the Eucharist just dandy.
And more too
Scattered around the chancel and down the nave, there are so many more, so many, many more, so beautifully, awesomely more.
And yet so subtle too. In some churches the Victorian tiles jump up when we enter, loudly gabbering ‘over here, over here’ but in Satterleigh they stay hushed as we are softly deluged with all the other beauty, material and immaterial, until we glance down and they give a soft grin and our hearts are lost forever.
They do so fit the church to a T as well. Nothing fancy, nothing grand, but totally gorgeous. And foliage, always the foliage, the Divine’s creation flowing and tendrilling around our legs as we love the this well-aged enchantment.
Palestine in Satterleigh
Now carefully cared for by a charity, and so deservedly so, allowing folk still to share in a church of the ages, journeying from that ancient Middle Eastern people with their exquisite contemplations on the Divine to a Devon parish with its exquisite contemplations on the Divine.
The hot sun of ancient Palestine always burning at the heart of this rain-washed, green-drenched little parish in a rackety old rowdy island riding the chilly, churning waves of the world’s seas.