- A 14th century church in the deep rural
- A beautiful structure with wonderful windows
- Lovely 14th century arcades inside
- A 16th century rood screen, battered but still with fab carving
- Saints paintings on the screen in a unique style
- Good tiles in the chancel
- A fine pulpit cobbled together from old carvings
- A good George I coat of arms
Sherford Church of St Martin and ancient history
Back in 1057 Gytha, the mother of the King Harold who came to a sticky end at the Battle of Hastings, owned the estate of Sherford; she gave it to her new church in Exeter, St Olave’s, with a nice bouncy curse involved:
…If anyone tries to enrich on it or take it away from the church itself, may God remove him from the land of the living and along with Judas the Betrayer may he bequeath infernal punishments from one generation to the next. Amen.
Presumably this did not apply to Billy the Conqueror who swiped the whole country from her son nine years later, giving St Olave’s and all its possessions to his new Battle Abbey, built to commemorate his victory at Hastings.
There was probably a chapel, at least, here in Gytha’s time, this being a very important person’s manor and all, and St Olave’s would very surely have sent a vicar here.
The present structure is relatively early for Devon, dating from the fourteenth century with fifteenth century additions.
The old church gate
The entrance gate is a cracker, atmospheric of ancient civilisations slowly leaning into past glories, English charm on sun-scorched day.
A wonder of windows in Sherford Church
One thing Sherford church has is some excellent windows (babbling on about a church’s windows is a pretty good sign that you are truly assimilated into the churching world, lost to the rest of humanity)…
Take the above for example, fourteenth century, and there are four of these darlings in the north aisle. Decorated style it is called, with that beautiful flower top centre… But there is more here too…
Stone carvings of nature
Seedlings is what, a representation of God’s bounty, little two leafed seedlings along with that flower head in the middle; wonderfully the seedlings’ leaves also form part of the central flower head, showing what they will become. Magical, so very so.
It is also an exercise in geometry, though medieval geometry was never just the numbers and shapes that we meet our school days. Geometry was a facet of the sacred, part of Creation, only to be explored by reason, the gift of the Divine.
And truly, for your average Joe or Jane, looking at these windows (and the rest of the church) would have been a revelation of order and balance coming as your average Joe or Jane did from a dwelling without many right angles, if any, nor fancy curves.
Building the windows
And these beauties, equally good, show styles from a century or more later. The right hand one is the chancel east window and has been extensively if not fully restored, whilst the left hand is the east window of the south aisle.
This style is called Perpendicular because things were more up and down, but the foliage is still there albeit more stylised.
But apart from the sheer artistry and design going on here, there is another level of deep skill here; the actual construction of these windows.
Each window is composed of smaller pieces. The designs were drawn on plaster, then templates made from these drawings and transcribed onto blocks of stone to make the required portion. Joints and seatings, where appropriate, had to be carved exactly not least because these babes weighed a good amount.
And they had to stay as windows, especially in good old windy Devon. The power of that wind is not be discounted, especially against glass, and so a well compressed window, with all the jointing kept in place by some weighty thrust from the surrounding stonework was mighty fine news.
So that little arch of stones above each window? Traditionally called relieving arches because they relieve the weight of the masonry pressing down but they also do more. They redistribute that pressure, allowing it to squeeze in from various directions, thus making the whole so very much more solid.
Much more effective.
Inside Sherford Church of St Martin
Inside Sherford church is a delight, with further proof that this is a fourteenth century church being the pillars and arches. Octagonal, or eight sided, pillars built from local stone, and we are possibly looking at them as they were seen originally; the wall plaster stops where it was designed to, showing off the stonework.
There is also another possibility that the pillars and arches were also plastered and/or lime washed. Difficult to say either way.
What is for sure is that arches we can see just in front of the screen are higher than the others. a good clue that they are earlier; at first the church might have been without aisles but with north and south transepts shooting off either side, where the taller arches are.
This would have been a pricey church for its time but this area of South Devon, the South Hams, is extremely fertile, thus money.
On top of this Sherford had access to the sea through Frogmore creek at the west end of the parish, now more a sea of mud but less so in the past. Weirs and mills and minings have caused a fine amount of silting of Devon’s creeks and estuaries.
Worldly riches are but a distraction though, at least according to the Way of Christ, and one function of churches is to open our souls to the Divine through beauty, which this Victorian stained glass surely does in spades.
Food for the soul indeed.
Sherford rood screen
The old rood screen, or rood loft as was (probably early sixteenth century), is also still a beauty; the guide calls it ‘somewhat mutilated’ and this has a truck load of truth to it. Age, woodworm and misguided restoration will do that.
By golly, it is still a beaut still with all that.
A Beautiful Inhabited Vine Scroll
Just look at that carving work, that is quality that is. The brown goop? Victorian restoration, definitely somewhat misguided albeit with the best of intentions.
An Inhabited Vine Scroll is the technical name for this, the meaning clear to all except us Godless moderns.
The vine and grapes are the blood of Christ the Saviour, the birds are souls, and they are fed by the blood of Christ; the message (amongst others) is that the blood of Christ feeds and saves us, if we do but partake.
And for medieval folk partaking in the Mass meant seeing it and joining in the mystical experience; they did not need to actually consume the wine and bread, the blood and body of Christ.
Indeed, usually at the moment of the sacring, the consecration of the host, a bell was rung to be heard out in the fields, and folk who had not made it to church would pause and pray and be part of the Mass.
Tracery in the rood screen
So what was the original colouring, for coloured it most surely was?
Well, conservators (Hugh Harrison and the late Eddie Sinclair) have had a good look, and part of it was gilded with silver on a red ochre background, with a crimson overglaze, giving almost a rose-gold appearance, and part of it gilded with gold, and then there would be the reds and greens of more paint to keep the high bling company.
What brilliance, what lush magnificence!
Also, if you will, note the tracery carving, similar to the Perpendicular style windows from before, still foliage based with all its little buds and leaves.
Fabulous carving on the wainscoting
Lower down on the wainscoting the carving is equally magnificent, even if still gooped all over. This was a very classy screen in its day. Still is I venture, for all its damage.
Oh, and the saints depicted? From the left, St James Minor, St Andrew, St John Evangelist and St Peter.
Medieval paintings of the saints in Sherford Church
The figures are…
Skilfully executed… of high quality and are clearly painted in a sophisticated, confident style, very different from many Devon figure panels and suggesting a Flemish influence
Eddie Sinclair, Conservation Report
They even have their names written next to them, here St Bartholomew and St Philip, though my guess is that this text might be later as the medieval worshippers would have easily recognised the saints… plus they were not so hot at reading.
Similar can be seen at Holcombe Burnell of this county, though there they get the names of some of the saints wrong.
Part of the charm of these is the background landscapes, a rare feature and maybe underlining the Flemish influence.
Faces from the past
Getting closer, and getting our eyes within a few centimetres of church prettiness is so rewarding, the faces come alive as each brushstroke pulls our attentions inwards.
But Diane Wilks says it better than me…
The figures are quite statuesque with intensely drawn individualistic faces
Showing the Path to Heaven, Diane Wilks
Mind you, they do need a good scrub, but then the same could be said about my place. And has been, to be fair.
Sherford Church chancel
Through the screen lies the workaday chancel, white limestone altar back, that flash of strong red, and muted Victorian floor tiles, all splashed with pastel light from the east window; a delightful space indeed.
Fine Victorian tiles
With some of the floor tiles being very most elegant, as this one here shows. The surrounding foliage gentling the inner shield, the fleur de lys (lilies) against the blue, both symbols of the Virgin Mary, and then the double interlocked triangles symbolising the Holy Trinity.
Very, very nice to be sure.
A Piscina and a Holy Water stoup
Another charm in the chancel, in the sanctuary to be exact near the altar, is this fourteenth century piscina on the left, understated elegance in its classic trefoil shape; trefoil refers to the three ‘leaves’ at the top of the carving.
Piscinas have a drain into the church walls; they were used to rinse the communion vessels and the priest’s hands after Mass, making sure that all the leftovers of the consecrated bread and wine ended up in holy ground.
On the left is another fourteenth sweetling, near the south door this one, a holy water stoup; probably a bowl with the blessed water was placed here and folks would sprinkle themselves with it and say a short prayer as the entered or left.
Mind you, seeing the state of the wobbly trefoil up top, seems like someone has been indulging in the holy water a bit overmuch at times.
The battered pulpit
Talking about somewhat wobbly and a few sips over the holy water limit, this dude would really like a word.
It is, of course, the pulpit, a somewhat cobbled together pulpit to say the least, from the nineteenth century; the carved bits come from the rood screen, the planks from somewhere else.
Recently the conservationist Hugh Harrison removed some of the carvings and analysed them; the remaining medieval colouring under that brown mud matched the screen’s exactly, making doubly sure that the woodwork really did hop over from the screen.
He then moved some of the carvings back to the wainscoting.
Apart from the function of affording the figure panels greater protection, it has visually restored the balance to the carving of the screen and united the dado (the wainscoting) with the rest of the screen.
Hugh Harrison, Hugh Harrison Conservation, Sherford Conservator’s Report
A closer look reveals…
More marvellous carving on the pulpit
…how the carvings match the frieze and the wainscoting on that screen so exactly.
And, of course, just how tippety-top they are.
Everyday wonder, everyday magnificence
Sherford really is delectable church set in an enchanting parish and well worth a good visit.
But as ever, we can applaud the objects, the screen, the stonework, the paintings, the wood carving, the tilework, the glass but there is always more; how they dance with the light and shadow, how they swim with the sounds and textures…
Constantly changing, constantly enchanting, bringing the marvel and awe that feeds our human thirst for soulful beauty, found so easily in our Devon churches.
And to take time to live in this atmosphere is time very well spent indeed.