- A work of early 20th century genius
- Designed by EH Sedding, a famous church architect
- Beautiful use of polyphant stone, red stone, Devon marble and limestone
- A gorgeous pulpit
- A mighty impressive altar, sanctuary and chancel
- A fantastic polyphant rood screen
- Good wood carving in the chancel
- A stunning west window
- This is truly a unique church full of beauty and artistry
Shaldon Church of St Peter The Apostle
Like the storms that roil the sea around this coastal resort, the building of Shaldon Church was a turbulent affair, both architecturally and spiritually, yet looking at it now from the outside it just seems a reasonably artful Victorian church.
But it is so very absolutely not.
The story begins in 1889 when the Rev Marsh Dunn gave a site for a new church; the old one in the ancient parish centre of Ringmore about two miles upriver was no longer fit for purpose. Seaside Shaldon had grown over the previous century or so into a posh resort and a place to retire to, very much the new population centre of the parish.
So the Rev built a temporary corrugated iron and plank church and set about raising the money for a more permanent structure. He chose the famous Devon church architect EH Sedding (1863-1921) and building started in 1893; by 1894 the first stage was done and a temporary cast-iron roof put on.
Which promptly blew off.
Cue loads of finger pointing until things were sorted out and a vaulted stone roof put on.
It was finally consecrated in 1902.
But by 1913
The building has been condemned by Mr WB Caröe (the ecclesiastical architect); the roofs are showing signs of giving way…
Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 17/10/1913
Basically Sedding had overloaded the roof with the stone vaulting and the walls were doing the Red Sea jive and parting.
Apparently Caröe, when he saw the original plans, had mentioned
If this church is built it will fall down
Only to be overruled by the Bishop of Exeter. Here is a hot tip, do not take your architectural advice from a bish.
A door to Narnia
So Caröe fixed it, because it was worth fixing, putting flying buttresses on the outside and reducing the weight of stone on the roof.
All this almost seems Sedding did not know what he was doing. But he did. With bells on.
Because sometimes a door is just a door.
And sometimes it is the entrance to Narnia.
The spectacular interior of Shaldon Church
The listed building guide calls the interior ‘Spectacular’ which is the understatement of the century.
It is work of sensational genius, of dazzling imagination, of a painter in stone, a master architect who took all his deep understanding of Romanesque, Gothic, Arts and Crafts and the burgeoning machine age to carve a remarkable vision, dreamed into a reality in this little south Devon seaside resort.
Here, looking up the nave, let us start with the stone. The blue/green/grey of the Cornish Polyphant, the colour of the River Teign outside and the sea just a stumble away, the sandstone red of the soil and cliffs hereabouts and the limestone white of the breaking waves at the church door.
Then there is the stonework and carving; so much tension between curves and straight lines, the blocky arches and their brattished details, the almost horseshoe roofs, the vertically lined pillars, always that tension, that comparison between old softnesses and the right angles of the modern age.
Because that is what is happening here, I venture, at least partly so.
And the light, the shadow! The nave abuzz, the chancel up there in numinous dusk, no happenstance this but a religious statement; away with the old Church Of England, plain-speaking texts and sermonising, take a pew the Tractarian movement with its ritual and Eucharistic mystery (spoiler alert, not all parishioners were fans of this change).
Light, shadow and shape
Oh my, oh my, the nave, the light, the shadow…
Like the River Teign in spate, highlighting and downlighting every shape, every artistry, foaming into every nook and cranny, pooling around the pillars, glinting off the roof.
And yes, we can see the Early Gothic here, the strong arches, the thick pillars, plus Arts and Crafts twirls and flourishes to captivate… But this could just as well be inside a machine hall, albeit one built by pixies, granite-cavern-dwelling engineering pixies on a fantabulous laudanum jolly from their Dartmoor dens.
The machinery is in the cogs on the arches, the sharp-toothed sprockets in the west window, the rectangular niches on the walls (probably left uncarved because of no money, but genius and happenstance are kissing cousins)…
A machine roof
And just in case anybody suspects I am losing myself in flights of fancy (which I am, but this church deserves it) the roof says, ‘hello, look at my very modern rectangular vaulting’ and how machiney can that be?
With curved ribs to set it off, naturally.
So what I am suggesting is not that this church is a mere paean to the machine age, but that is a glorious meditation on the past to create future wonder.
Though as ever the subtleties of genius allow for more than one meaning.
The marvellous pulpit
Meanwhile, just to keep our feet on the ground… or not, in the case of this gorgeously ostentatious pulpit from Planet Flaunt-It-Baby.
Made of Devon marble (is that deep red Cornish serpentine from the Lizard Peninsula around the top and bottom of the actual pulpit?) with white limestone vertical carving, it is a perfection.
And that limestone is an interesting choice. Here, have a look.
Here are the three colours again, the red cliffs, the grey green sea and the white of the foaming waves… And foam is of course rougher than the sea, thus the more textured limestone; white marble just would not have worked so well.
And what shapes.
Because I have seen limestone pulpits carved in smaller detail, foliage, birdies and all, but these are chunky, and seem to create wave breaking lines much more reliably.
The magnificent Shaldon rood screen
And so to the chancel and the rood screen. Breathtaking. Mind-boggling. And much, much more.
Again that ravishing polyphant stone, and if you ever visit then caress the stone, because it has a texture to die for. It is not called a soapstone for nothing.
There is also marble below, and statues in another stone above, further up (not shown) a rood (Christ on the cross).
But there is more, and here be genius. Inlaid in the stone, vertically, is polished brass which gives a slight golden tint to the doorway.
The whole rhymes with Gothic, those mouchettes above the lower arches, though no Gothic mouchette was ever as large as those, and has definite Crown of Thorn vibes, but also, for me at least, sprockets and teeth and gearing vibes, the machine age given a look in again.
And once more it emphasises the extreme division between the chancel and sanctuary, the Sacred and the Secular, using light and dark and delicate stonework to make a near-solid boundary.
That being a very loud declaration of a modern-as-was theology in the Anglican Church, Anglo-Catholicism on steroids, the mystery and the sacredness of the Eucharist and the dominance of ritual.
Trouble at the altar
But here they got into a bit of trouble, deep doodoo to be fair, because what Sedding had designed altar-wise was illegal under church rules. The altar was stone.
And that was a hugely big no no.
Because technically, and sometimes technically is very important, Anglican churches have Communion Tables, not altars, though nowadays they can be made out of most everything because we be chill, but back in Victorian times (and earlier) this was very important.
It comes down to the nature of the Eucharist in the Anglican liturgy, what it is and what it is not.
What it most definitely is not is a sacrifice. Sacrifices are so Old Testament, when holy peeps sacrificed away to atone for their sins.
But for us New Testament dudes, the Good Lord himself made the ultimate sacrifice to atone for all our sins, and we live in a faith of love and forgiveness; grace if you will.
This means that an altar is now entirely unnecessary. No more sacrifices for sin are needed. In fact, an altar is positively misleading, for it implies that we need to go on offering sacrifices as those Old Testament priests did. It denigrates the achievement of the Lord Jesus and saps our assurance by implying more atonement is needed.
Thanks to St Andrew the Great, Cambridge for this cogent explanation
So communion tables were the thing, which sometimes might have looked like an altar and quacked like an altar but were most definitely not an altar. They were tables for everybody to join in the feast of the Eucharist, to celebrate and remember Christ’s Sacrifice.
So no altar no stone, as Bob Marley never sang.
Anglican theological reggae, now that is an under-exploited niche!
The difference might seem very pernickety, but believe me it is very important. It is the difference between salvation in Love and Grace, or having to earn your spurs so speak.
In fairness I do not write a theology website, so more knowledgeable and subtle perceptions exist most everywhere in the church, but clumsily stumbling along this path does it for me.
Sedding and the vicar had failed to get the altar design passed by the church, so before the consecration of the new church it had to be removed with lots of harrumphing from the theology nerds in the congregation.
Though the stone altar front was snuck back in when conniptions had cooled, and the Church of England had changed in its understandings, as it so brilliantly does with its open-minded exploration of faith.
No Pharisees here, no sirree.
The spectacular chancel
It is a marvel at that, the position as well, high in a polyphant cavern. Kneeling at the altar rail is a very disconcerting experience, in a mighty powerfully good way.
Because that is how it is designed to be encountered, and, faith or no faith, surely it is worth experiencing through Sedding’s vision?
Beautifully carved woodwork
Coming to the wood carving, there is some lovely going on here, like this flowery priest’s seat…
Or these pretty poppy heads on the choir stalls.
Who they are by is a question. They surely look like the Pinwill Sisters’s work, but…
The order for these seats was entrusted to the Plymouth firm of carvers, Rashleigh Pinwill and Co., who, through pressure of work, were ably assisted by Mi. Herbert Read, of Exeter.
Teignmouth Post and Gazette, 27/07/1894
And of course these might be referring to seats for the temporary church, though if it was, by using such quality workshops it would be likely that the same woodwork was kept for the new one.
An open question, and one easily cured by bathing in their delightfulness.
Genius at play
But always it is Sedding’s grand genius dominating, the details of this church (and I do love my details) just seem to fade into the background. It is such a one off, and such a mind-warp to visit it in the most valuable and vivacious way.
Because this a fun church, old Teddy Sedding has taken his architectural paintbrush and splashed all the palettes of church architectural history around in a deeply passionate way with a huge grin, to make something sooo unique.
I see the machine age, an age of optimism, amongst many other visions; others might see differently.
It is art, great art, that is what happens. Deal with it.
Heaven in beauty
And coming out into the hot sun is like leaving a nightclub at sunrise after many hours of hyper stimulation. The world outside suddenly seems slow and vivid, an alien landscape after the real-life fantastical sensuality of the interior.
And looking up at the west front with its simple stone crucifix, the message of the church is so clear.
Behind the surface world is our wonderment, our genius, our capacity for deep beauty and, most importantly, our awareness of all these and more. Not just in stone and glass, but in relationships, in love, in compassion, in creating the Kingdom of Heaven in this world. Now.
And Sedding is creating this beautiful Kingdom on Earth, or at least a facet of it, with his artistic vision. He is telling us a deep truth about possibilities of life and love and faith.
And Christ, who showed us our deep, beautiful humanity by living and suffering so immensely as a human, all the while forgiving and loving, shows how to be truly intensely human in the outside world.
It is a Christian message, no surprise there for a church, but it need not be just for us Christians.
Because as long as beauty exists and we can bathe in it, there is a chance of hope and love for us stumbling apes.
Though to be fair, if gorging on the spectacular artistry of this creation alone does it for you, then that is a big old high five from me.