- Set in pretty little creek-side village amongst gorgeous countryside
- An imposing hillside position
- A tall, powerful tower
- Light and spacious interior
- A beautiful rood screen with Renaissance paintwork
- Very good 19th and 20th century stained glass
- An impressive repurposed 16th century Easter sepulchre niche
- Stunning roof bosses
- Well worth seeking out
South Pool Village
Remote, they say? Hard to get to, they mutter? My Aunt Nellie! South Pool is on the main highway of the middle ages. The sea.
And well sheltered too, down an estuary and up a creek, no big bad waves and nasty currents here.
Arguably a tad sea-less at low tide, mud not being a well-known medium for boating and all, but pop in with a rising tide, beach yourself, tide goes out, load up with goodies, tide comes in, off we go, full of wool, stone, grain and cured fish to flog in Exeter, Plymouth or further afield, and Bob’s your uncle.
And that is a reason why South Pool has a magnifico church.
Admittedly, nowadays it is a mighty pretty little isolated village in a county chock-a-block with mighty pretty little isolated villages, sitting oh so prettily at the head of its oh so even prettier creek.
That is a picture of the village above, by the way. In stained glass. In the church. In the really, really very extremely nice church.
South Pool Church of St. Nicholas and St. Cyriac
Well, it is one reason anyways for such a church. Another could be that it is a mighty old churchy place. You see, the Celts with their Celtic Christianity liked to plant their monastic cells down estuaries and up creeks, being seafaring folks along with well liking to keep deep hidden, often in oval-ish enclosures, which this one’s churchyard is somewhat.
Speculative, mind you, but a goodly kind of speculative.
This version though is from the fifteenth century with bits and bobs hanging around from other centuries.
The brutal tower
A real humongous tower too, not just in size, imposing as it is, but in sheer brutal presence, a rock cliff reaching heavenwards; that bulgey-out thing running up the front is the stair turret.
These towers are very much a local thing, and work so well with the local slate stone.
Entering South Pool Church
It is a big church inside as well, light and airy with plenty of echoes, just right for tap dancing down the nave, not that anybody ever would. Definitely nobody, especially not me.
The centre section, the nave and chancel, seem to be fourteenth century or so, and the aisles, transepts and tower added in the fifteenth. Whether that meant enlarging the nave and all is an open question.
Notice too, if you might, that the arcades are in granite, brought from quite a way away, likely by boat. Adding a touch of class to the rebuild, I’m thinking.
There is the old Norman font on the right too.
The South Pool rood screen
And up the business end of the nave is this fifteenth or early sixteenth century rood screen, a wonderful one (is there any other in Devon?), looking all light and airy and so goodly proportioned; those openings all perfectly balanced with the door.
And then the colouring, all near original, now almost pastel giving a very ethereal feel to the whole.
There are nearly two hundred rood screens in Devon I have heard, though I do not know if that is counting the later Victorian ones, which have their own enchantment.
But this one is very unusual.
Renaissance decoration on the rood screen
The wainscoting, the panels at the bottom, are all painted Renaissance style, with faces and figures and creatures and scrolls from some very airy imaginations. They are enthralling.
And very rare, very rare indeed. There are only two other church rood screens with similar, Blackawton and Chivelstone, both nearby; though Cornworthy church is arguably in this set, fuzzily so.Otherwise all the others in Devon either have saints and holy folk in this position, or the paintings have been scraped off.
So why this marvellous painting? No clear reason, there is nothing documented, but a number of possibilities have been put forward.
They might have been painted that way originally, though not when the screen was built. Painting often came later when a parish had got together enough cash after all the expenses of construction. Though this would mean that it had been left unpainted for a long time, much longer than usual, to allow the Reformation to start up and religious images to be a no-no.
On the other hand they might be replacements for saint images because of the Reformation’s no-no. That is a distinct possiblity. The pictures might have been badly damaged or more by religious zealots or just considered a bad thing.
Or… ? I do not know the answer, but I do venture that having this style in two or three nearby churches says something very meaningful. I suspect that a painter came from abroad with latest fashions and these churches leapt on the idea.
All politically correct images, in the days when politically incorrectness could mean saying au revoir to your head.
But the woodwork, the dazzling woodwork, with those tiny flower heads at the bottom of the tracery and then all the curves and foliage and stylised leaves going up. Really very classy stuff.
Interesting colouring too. Red lead apparently, when most screens would have been gilded here.
Some say it might have been the parish was too poor for gold, though I doubt this. Too poor for God just does not really add up back then.
It might have been a design choice, because it looks lovely, or maybe it was being coloured when the Reformation hit, as suggested above, and the Rood (a big statue of the Crucifixion) had to be destroyed, and they just gave up. Red pigment, by the way, being a fairly common under-base for the gilding to be placed on in Devon.
Again, so much speculation about so much magic.
The finely carved cornice
And talking of magic, these veined leaves want a word with us; to carve that degree of intricacy is mind blowing, and the colouring in its full freshness must have been out of this world. Even now its power comes roaring down the centuries.
Very rare this work too, and very high quality. Not something a poor parish would be contracting.
And this all was gilded. Just imagine that if you will.
The South Pool Easter Sepulchre niche
Meanwhile, here is an Easter Sepulchre Niche from the sixteenth century, a rare and beautiful find. Ignore that effigy for a moment, it is a cuckoo in the nest, placed there later.
The Sepulchre Niche functions both as a tomb for a priest of South Pool, Thomas Bryant, and as a main performer in the Easter Week rituals that were becoming more and more theatrical and powerful.
On Good Friday everybody crept to kiss a cross which was then placed in a wooden casket or wrapped in highly colourful cloth, along with a consecrated host; this was then placed on the flat space its niche and parishioners then watched over it, taking turns until Easter Morn.
Mind you, this is a generalisation, regions and parishes did have their own ways of doing things.
All this symbolising the Crucifixion, the Entombment of Christ and the Resurrection.
Because on Easter Morning the cross was unwrapped, choirs sang, bells rang, and there was a grand procession around the church and likely the churchyard too. The rood loft might have been used for the singing, and/or the church roof tower.
This was a hugely solemn and yet powerfully joyful event, full of colour and music and passion, the centre of the Christian year.
Thomas Bryant and a false effigy
And it was not uncommon for folk to pay for a knock-out sepulchre niche which also functioned as their tomb, and this is seemingly one, with that highly defaced Resurrection carving on the back and other mighty fine stonework.
The inscription says:
Here lies Thomas Bryant, later rector of this church and of Portlemouth
Portlemouth being the adjoining parish, and if Tom boy was rector of both he got the tithes of both so he most surely had the moolah to splodge out on this sweetie.
That effigy though, that so does not belong there; it has had its feet cut off to fit for one thing, and whilst he is wearing a surplice and stole, a Roman Catholic effigy would more likely have been all dolled up in his ‘celebrating mass’ bling. This is possibly a later priest, more Protestant inclined, who snuck in later using fake ID.
Identity theft, anyone?
The magnificent east window
The Victorian East Window is quite a jolt too, showing as it does a vision from the Book of Revelation. A magnificent beast, grandiose and over-the-top as it so enjoyably is.
Bit like Revelation to be fair.
And I beheld, and, lo, in the midst of the throne and of the four beasts, and in the midst of the elders, stood a Lamb as it had been slain…
The Lamb being Christ, and the four beasts the symbols of the Four Evangelists.
The Lamb of God and the Seven Seals
Here, take a closer look, because that Christ Lamb is standing on a book sealed with seven seals, and only he can open it, as pointed out in the previous verse.
Weep not: behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, hath prevailed to open the book, and to loose the seven seals thereof.
Mind you, opening the first four seals set free the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
Can we just put it down to a glitch in the Matrix?
Ancient roof bosses
Looking up is essential in a Devon church, along with a fine pair of short-focus binoculars or a good zoom, and here in the nave is one of the many reasons why. The colouring is just spot on, bring out the carving so well.
They are also very sharply cut, much sharper than near most if not all medieval roof bosses I have come across. They are conventionally dated as from the sixteenth century, but I wonder… I would lay a small wager that they are seventeenth or even eighteenth.
Whatever their age, they are darlings.
A parliament of owls
And then there are owls, Who can possibly say no to owls? Especially with a little baby one in the centre? Well, Medieval and Early Modern folk, that is who.
Folly, blindness in the daytime, a night creature hiding from the day was just a start, hanging around crypts and graveyards at night, a sinner through and through avoiding the light of Christ and a bird that was thought to foul its own nest.
Blindness, folly, filthiness, a sneaky night time killer, this was not a fun description.
On the other hand they could represent sinners, and this might be the meaning here, but they were also used to slander the good gentle folk of the Jewish faith with vile anti-semitism, and then later to insult Roman Catholic after the Reformation, and even later to slag off Puritans.
John Bale (1495 – 1563), also nicknamed ‘Bilious’ Bale (that was not a compliment) wrote Catholics were
lyke… the owle, which seeth all in the Darke and nothyng in the clere lyght
The Apology of Johan Bale
Though to be fair as insults go that is mighty non-bilious, I could do better in my sleep, and probably have to be sure, but it does illustrate just how much ‘owl’ was used sneeringly, just as some might name-call using a different animal nowadays.
So sinner, heretic, general all round baddie, a warning against all the stuff and maybe sideways snark at the heresy du jour.
Roof boss figures
Here in the south chapel are two very different roofbosses a kneeling man and an angel with a scroll.
The kneeling lad is a bit of mystery, especially with that straight face and this hands, more gun-slinger than at prayer. Maybe it is the size of the hands that is important here, along with that obvious codpiece and what could be a sallow leer. Lust? Greed?
That angel though, very sweet.
A squirrel of St Francis
This squirrel too, from a St Francis window in the nave, sweeter than lemon squash she is.
Just like this church, this beautiful light-filled church on the shores of the southern seas, full of more treasure than I can show here…
Village and church and glorious landscape and all who live therein, humans and creatures, a proper Devon combination.