- A beautiful position high on the western slopes of Dartmoor
- Views over the Tamar to Bodmin Moor and Plymouth
- Lovely wall plate angels
- Beautiful moorland light
- A very good Charles II coat of arms
- A quiet simple beauty
Sourton Church of St Thomas of Canterbury
In February 1902 the Bishop of Exeter dedicated a churchyard extension of Sourton Church in a blizzard, snow falling heavily around the congregation, settling on hats and coats, blowing into faces, muffling the words of the celebrants.
And though all churches live between heaven and earth, places for the dead to lie in sacred land, earthly ties fading as memories whisper away, death’s mystery reverenced, Sourton church seems more relevant for the role than many.
For it lies so clearly on the borderlands, the wild moors leaping at its Eastern borders, flowing down from Sourton Tor, sending a thinning tendril to run right past its southern side. Fields drop away west, managed, contained, content, civilised, dipping deep valley down, rolling away across the River Tamar to Cornwall’s Bodmin Moor on the far horizon.
The old churchyard was full, which is a relatively modern thing. Before grave stones popped up in the seventeenth century graveyards just carried on growing upwards, bodies were buried on top of each other, often helped by spreading fresh earth over the whole area.
Though in this thin soil here that might have been a trouble and a half.
Sourton in deep history
And that bit of moor that trickles past the southern end of this pretty is now a trimmed lane; for millennia it was a route for cattle and sheep to herd up onto the lush summer moorland and wallow back down before the winter, now walkers take precedence.
Farmers in far flung parishes had the rights to the moorland grazing since time immemorial, and Sourton parishioners earned solid cash for looking after these lowland animals up on the High Moor. Only the locals knew the land well enough.
Transhumance it is called, summering farm animals up on high ground, allowing lowland farms to support more stock; animals feasting on the moorlands in the growing season while farmers make winter hay from the stock-free fields almost doubles a farm’s capacity.
Back and forth they swept, year after year, generation after generation, century after century, in foul weather and fair, famine and abundance, pain and joy, always past this little place, watching it grow, a monk, a saint, a cross, a chapel, a church, Mass bell tolling, the Divine at home, her creation all around.
Because it was a chapel, maybe a simple preaching place before that, belonging to the parish of Bridestowe down in the valley, though when the first signs of Christianity blossomed here we know not.
The fact that Bridestowe church is dedicated to the Irish Saint Bridget, and Bridestowe means Bridget’s sacred enclosure, is a strong hint toward ancient foundations back deep in the mist of time.
Then just down from the church is an ancient stone, nearly two meters tall, tenth century or before, inscribed with ‘OXO’, strongly presumed to be ancient Christian symbols. The stone was rescued from a barn on nearby farm just over fifty years ago, and is another indication of a very early Christian presence here.
More so, a few minutes up the road there is an older stone, dated between the 500s and 700s, now a cross but probably originally just a straight stone, inscribed in Latin PRINCIPI FILIV[S] AVDETI, or ‘Principius the son of Audentius’.
A grave marker? A boundary stone? A memorial? An indication of ownership? None of these totally add up in a non-literate society that did not even speak Latin (Roman culture never made it much west of Exeter).
But the church spoke Latin, the church wrote Latin, the church was here.
Especially as the stone has a somewhat damaged Chi Rho on it, an even more ancient Christian symbol.
Christianity danced its love around these liminal lands way back then.
Trouble with the Reverend
The chancel here is said to have been originally fourteenth century, and the rest of the church fifteenth, all with restorations.
This rugged little tower belfry opening looks fifteenth all the way down; it is a beautiful detail for a beautiful church.
Before this tower, when Sourton church was still a chapel, a chapel of ease to be exact, on 29 March 1376, a court case was decided, a case taken all the way to the Archbishop of Canterbury; it is a wondrous glimpse of religious life here in Nowheresville, England.
For the Lord John Lovewyk (the Lord is an honorary title) Rector of Bridestowe, had stopped providing a chaplain to give daily services at Sourton.
Now there were three types of chapels of ease, the most common being the one where the main parish Rev was responsible for taking services or supplying a curate (these often became parish churches), the far less common was where the priest had no responsibility (the third was a private chapel with its own priest).
Presumably Lovewyk decided to change Sourton to the no responsibility one for his own reasons; the locals were definitely so not impressed.
So they took him to church court (the church had its own legal system).
And they stated that the Rectors of Bridestowe
Have been anciently accustomed and were bound to celebrate every day Divine Service and Mass in the church of Sourton and to administer the Sacraments… by a proper chaplain who ought to be continually and personally resident in Sourton at the charge and expense of the Rectors of Bridestowe…
Sourced from Devon Notes and Queries, Vol III
All this because Sourton
… was so long distant from the said Mother Church of Bridestowe that in winter time when sudden inundations of the water frequently happen the aforesaid inhabitants of Sourton cannot go of the said Church of Bridestowe without great difficulty and danger of their persons
And Sourton won.
That there Johnnie Lovewyk was absolutely marmalized, turned inside out and mincemeated, ordered to get that chaplain back like yesterday and cough up all the costs of the case, his and his opponents’.
Confession must have been quite a thing when it next rolled around.
Beam in your own eye, eh vicar?
Inside Sourton Church
The simple interior shadows those fervent passions of the past faithful, the faith they felt so deep as to take a court case all the way to the foreign lands of Canterbury and London.
And from that court case there so many things we can take away, not least including:
1) Do not mess with Dartmoor folk. Just do not.
2) If you are going into a battle about old customs with folk who police transhumance traditions arguably going back to the Iron Age, then just do not. Just. Do. Not.
3) In England even at that time, the law (at least, church law) was there for all.
And of course this was a court case about being able to be properly Christian. People cared.
People breathed their faith.
Jollied along by this stunningly sweet little angel on a church wall plate, one of a fair few. I have seen more than a number of wall-plate angels in my time, but none quite like these.
They seem to be have been carved by a not-a-woodcarver, and no the worst of that; maybe passing drovers sheltering from the rain or resting for a couple of days before making a final push into the moors whittled these while chatting weather and pasturage?
Yet more simplicity in the sanctuary, a place for the sacred at the edge of the wild.
And rhyming with that 1326 hoo-hah involving old Rev Lovewyk, in 1845 there was dispute about who was to pay for the restoration of the church, including the chancel, Sourton folk or the Vicar of Bridestowe.
Because traditionally in parish churches the chancel was the vic’s responsibility , the nave the parishioners’. Reading between the lines, the problem was that Sourton church was actually a chapel of ease, or at least was for a very long time, as we have seen, and chapels were the sole responsibility of the local folk.
This time the parishioners did not have a leg to stand on, so they rebuilt the chancel themselves, though not on the original line of the old foundations.
They had been specifically told to keep to the lines.
This might have been a passive aggressive protest, or just the moorlanders’ disinclination to take instructions from foreign folk, but just as likely they found the original foundations too weak even for a nineteenth century chicken coop.
Other little country churches have been found to have ‘interesting’ support too.
The East Window
The yellow hued east window is a nice touch, bringing the colours of a warm sunny day, golden wheat ripening, buttercups glowing, mead glinting in a glass… comfort on the many days of rain and cold up here against the High Moor.
A Charles II Coat of Arms
Talking of mead (a wine made from honey) this resplendent royal lion seems to have had a few too many himself, though here the drink would have been hard cider, scrumpy as we call it in the south west, or even a glass or ten of the local oat ale.
Scrumpy is a killer, highly alcoholic, very dry, and can give hangovers to the uninitiated that leave them preferring a painful death. To the locals it is delicious and warming, and was eagerly brewed on most farms.
Mind you, up around Dartmoor hereabouts oats were the main crop before modern varieties of wheat and barley eased them out, and folk made their ale out of oats as well.
Delicious? Opinions differ. One traveller thought it was
Lyk wash as piggies had wrestled in
[Like the waste that pigs had wrestled in]
But then again folk from foreign lands such as London or Somerset have strange tastes, and the Dartmoor folk drank it well, even if it did ’cause vomiting in strangers’.
The Full Coat of Arms
The lion lives in this very nice Charles II coat of arms, restored 1916 by Herbert Read, very flouncy indeed. Bet the parishioners enjoy this one.
Sourton Church in the Borderlands
Every church is far more than the sum of its material details, carrying with it histories, passions, spiritualities, evolving faiths, communities, landscapes and parishes to name a few. Sourton church is no different.
But this one, sitting on its boundaries of the wild and the civilised, the spiritual and secular, the living and the dead, with its generations of cattle and sheep, herders and travellers wandering past its doors, is very special.
The Good Shepherd
For the sounds of sheep still float through this window, flocks and curious singletons still amble past, the landscapes still shape their routes, and the Good Shepherd still lives here (as my good writer friend Janey so kindly observed).
And just as the first folk who knelt at his birth were the rough, marginalised shepherds from the hills of Israel, so the rough, marginalised shepherds of the wild moors followed the road here, chanting drawing them on, bells drawing them in, finding their own path to this House of the Good Shepherd.
Sheep, sheep, don’t you know the road?
Yes, Lord, I know the road
Sheep, sheep, don’t you know the road?
Yes my Lord, I know the road
Don’t you know the road by the singing of the song?
Yes, Lord, I know the road
Don’t you know the road by the clapping of the hands?
Yes, Lord, I know the road
Georgia Sea Islands traditional
Meeting the same awe as their ancestors back in Bethlehem, clustering around a manger, gazing at God.