- A well proper Dartmoor granite church built from the bones of the moor
- A brilliant Memento Mori carving above the entrance
- A stunning 20th century traditional-style rood screen by Herbert Read
- Interesting use of tiles in the chancel
- Charming bench ends by Violet Pinwill
- A very moving 17th century alabaster memorial
- Stained glass in memory of prisoners of war in Borneo
- Well worth a visit high on the moor
Look on a map and Sheepstor is a thick finger of fields reaching into High Dartmoor, hard wrestled from the wilderness, granite walled and rough grassed. All roads end here, afterwards just the wind on the heather and the sound of the sheep.
Ah, the sheep, source of riches in the Middle Ages when Britain was the Saudi Arabia of the industry in Europe, turning wool into gold.
But go beyond the fields and the moor is gullied and earthworked, streams coursed and granite-stoned buildings sinking back into the peat, the remnants of ancient tin mining stretching back to the Bronze Age four thousand years ago.
Prehistoric folk from Sheepstor likely hauled the tin down to Plymouth to trade with folk from the Mediterranean, in 1168 the parishioners were classed as ‘tinners’, in 1715 it was said that ‘all the parishioners were tinners’, now no more tinning but there is a crackingly bounteous church left behind from the 1400s.
Sheepstor Church of St Leonard
The tower is a real star here, coursed granite stonework using stone dragged straight off the moor, my that must have taken enough work to write home about.
Then there are the those pinnacles with their battlements and their crocketting above. Very West Devon these are, only found in this region, and some churches seem to have thought the bigger the better. Like this one.
Cannot say they were wrong either.
The west door
Being clever folk too, they used a different stone for the surrounds, Roborough stone to be exact; much softer, much easier to carve, and here it is on the tower west door. Very elegant surround too for a church in the wilds.
The miracle of death in stone
Over the main entrance is this poppet, a skull with wheat growing out of it above an hourglass . Above it are the words (in Latin) ‘As the hour so life passes’, below it ‘Death is the door of life’ and on the scroll ‘The soul will return’. The whole is dated around 1640.
It might seem a tad macabre and all a bit Goth to us now, but to a Christian of the time it was very optimistic; death is inevitable (this at least is inarguable) and from death comes resurrection and everlasting life through Christ.
The wheat symbolises life from death (the skull and bones) and Christ, who was the ‘bread of life’ and the bread in the Communion.
Those bones, they are thigh bones, and a skull and thigh bones came to mean death because sometimes old skeletons had to be cleared from graveyards (usually in towns or cities). They were put into ‘Ossuary (bone) Chapels’ to be treated with reverence. Rather than bunging the whole kit and caboodle in there, they would just place the skull and thighbones, the largest parts of the skeleton and/or the most likely to be in reasonable condition.
Inside Sheepstor church
Inside Sheepstor church is a very clean space. Those granite pillars are a delight, and one thing that is undoubtedly true about this beautiful stone is that it always has an interesting texture. Smooth is good, but a bit of rough granite, especially with some glittery quartz in it, is a deep pleasure.
The magnificent Sheepstor rood screen
But the bestest delight is this heavenliness, a shimmering craft of genius from around 1914. It is based on drawing of the old rood screen that was scrapped in 1861, was designed by Frederick Bligh Bond who was the Devon rood screen expert (I so want that job) and carved by one of the best workshops in the South West, Herbert Read, working in the deep local woodcarving tradition.
What about it so buzzes my thrill? Oh, if I only could count the ways!
The depth of the vaulting, for one, it springs off those uprights relatively low down, allowing time for the elegance to dance with the curves and the three-dimensional depth to be highlighted. Those vaults really float to the front.
Then, with that clear depth, the tracery in the windows is stronger; they really are openings in a thicket of saplings; plant filled but clear openings.
Then the cornice on top, intricately carved with leaves and vines, deep as well.
The whole is a bosky scene, the vaulting being young trees, the cornice being upper foliage, the openings peeking between the saplings filled with the tracery of plants and bushes, the whole arising from the ground foliage of the wainscoting, the panelling below.
Vaulting to die for
As we come closer we can bask in these intricate patterns rhymed off the nature flourishing outside.
Whilst from afar the whole wooded scene gloriously lives, here we can see the stylised leaves and plants, between the vaulting ribs, those three plants in each window, leaves waving from each of the three upright stems, and of course the vegetation in the cornice above.
My, I do love my job!
Peering through the rood screen door into the chancel though, for once a tad flummoxed.
I love Victorian tiles, I totally adore them, and these are a brilliant collection, absolutely stonkingly so. It is just a teensy weensy bit overwhelming, in the same way that suddenly walking into a crowded pub fill of chatter and music can be a little much… or a lot much.
It is an odd thing, and well worth seeing for sure; usually Victorian church tile placement works admirably, here it is brave.
Encaustic and Geometric tiles
Taken individually though, the tile designs so cavort in the best possible way. There is a lot going on here, and put together it works so well.
It is a mixture of Geometric and Encaustic tiles.
Geometric tiles were single colours and used to make geometric patterns, encaustic tiles were made of different coloured clays to form beautiful designs within the tile, like the flower and foliage patterns here.
Using coloured clays instead of glazes means the colours do not wear out when walked on.
The granite arcade
Looking back down the nave this lovely fifteenth century granite arcade (row of pillars) is magic. One of the many (and there are sooo many) delights of these Dartmoor churches is that they use ‘moorstone’ which is the granite just mooching around the surface.
There is something deeply moving about this, no violent quarrying, no despoiling of the earth, just gently taking the surface stone and lovingly caressing it with chisel and all to give it another character, yet still sitting in its old neighbourhood.
While back up the moorland the unchosen stones creep down at night to peer in the windows and whisper ‘Oooh, look at Jim, he has done well for himself, become a pillar of the community and all. Very handsome’.
And the later benches cluster around to give big hugs.
Violet Pinwill’s twentieth century bench ends
Ah, those benches, designed by Violet Pinwill and carved in her workshop, another of those ‘best in Devon’ places, between 1914 and 1939.
They are very much of their time, beautifully carved, and could so have leapt from the pages of children’s history books and bibles of that era.
There are a bunch of religious scenes unsurprisingly, like the Stoning of Stephen here on the left, Christianity’s first martyr, and also unexpected historical scenes ranging from the crusades (on the right) to the signing of the Magna Carta.
Not that the crusades would get much leg room in a church nowadays, so definitely a no no, rightly or wrongly (and I come down on the rightly side, for my sins), but they are of their time and give us a window into another era. Besides, it is only a carving.
I would venture, and this is only my venture, that the two pieces were carved either by two different folk or at separate times. The crusader one has much more depth and three-dimensionality, and much better carved figures (and horses).
Compare, if you will, the figures in each scene holding their right arm up. The crusader one (possibly Peter the Hermit) has a fluidity and naturalness to his pose, whilst the stoner on the left has a chunkiness and stiffness that just seems far more artificial.
Though after all that it could have been a design choice, so I might just be wrong. Would not be the first time.
Instruments of the Passion
Violet also did these designs, which are much more traditional, showing Instruments of the Passion, symbols appearing on the medieval bench ends in Devon.
From the left, Crown of Thorns, the nails, hammers and pincers of the Crucifixion, the jug of water and cloth Pilate used to wash his hands and the Sacred Wounds of Christ.
But Violet understood traditional Devon, and she also made the foliage and Gothicry on each bench end different, just as they did four hundred odd years before.
That is classy, that is.
An emotional memorial
Then there is this grief, an alabaster memorial of 1641 for Susanna Elford showing a double tragedy in very sweet and sad way.
Susanna, according the symbolism here, died in childbirth along with her babe, shown here on the left wrapped in swaddling clothes which gives that meaning. Just for emphasis, Suzy is pointing to her babe, and her three elder daughters are plaintively grasping her coverlet as in ‘please do not leave us’.
Weepy time for sure.
Then there is the theatricality, arguably foretelling the Baroque frillery that was coming later. Top left and bottom right (hard to make out, this one) are two angels holding back curtains, as if presenting this as a scene in a play.
Old Man Death has a walk on part as well, top right, peeking out from behind the curtain, just to make sure all get the point. Though for a counterpoint at bottom left is a phoenix, for resurrection and everlasting life, just to let Mr Boring Skeleton there know that he is a loser.
These kind of memorials, to death in childbirth, started in the latter part of the 1500s and became more popular in the early 1600s. Unusual too, as they did not start with the aristocracy and spread downwards, but were always with the merchant class and small time gentry.
Why? Well, one interpretation is that they were a sign of the rise of marriage for love and/or companionship.
“One of the most progressive contributions of the English Renaissance to the status of women, for it assumed that the wife was capable of the sympathy, understanding and intelligence necessary to maintain her side of the partnership”
Elizabeth Honig, via ‘Church Monuments and Commemoration in Devon c.1530-c.1640’: Phd thesis, Christine Faunch
And Squire Elford living on the edge of civilisation in the parish in the clouds, who had lost his little Suzy and his daughters’ Mama, missed her deeply and wanted to show it.
But what so gets me are the two little girls on the right clutching their favourite things, a special ribbon, a treasured poem, still wanting Mama to wake up and play with them, put the ribbon in her hair, read the little ditty… wondering so much…
Stained glass saints and the Borneo connection
There is a 1950 window here connected to Sarawak in Borneo given by the Sarawak Civil Service; it commemorates the sufferings of the prisoners of war and the internees of the Japanese during their occupation of that area in WWII. St Leonard, the blue robed dude on the right, is a patron saint of the imprisoned, thus the chain.
Sarawak, of course, not being the most obvious contender for a little Dartmoor village’s connection to the outside world, but in an odd twist of fate the first British ruler of the Raj of Sarawak, James Brooke. is buried here. His story, and that of his descendants who ruled there until 1946 more or less (the Japanese military had their own input during WWII), is a contentious one, and not for here, but we do know one thing…
He has a ginormous tomb in the graveyard, out of red Aberdeen granite…
Aberdeen granite. On Dartmoor. Which is made of beautiful Dartmoor granite. Next to a beautiful church made of beautiful Dartmoor granite.
Words fail me.
Though forgiveness is all, as the lad on the right famously said (more or less anyway), remembering to love all at the same time. God can take care of other folks’ sins, it is challenging enough to care for my own.
Though Aberdeen Granite on Dartmoor, bet he never imagined that one!
It is a beautiful church this, in an area of such deep, tough history, as deep as the granite that it wrestled a living from, and built such a prayer to the Divine with.
A prayer for a path of Love by the deeply ancestored folk of Sheepstor.