- A very impressive tower indeed
- Goodly rustic west window
- Fascinating interior with some special pillars and arches
- Lovely pulpit by Ethel Pinwill
- Fine chancel with gorgeous work by Salviati
- More captivating carving in the altar by Violet Pinwill
- Enchanting organ pipes
- Delightful range of stained glass
- An old Norman font
St Ermund and Stoke Fleming Church of St Peter
Saxon St Ermund is a lonely dude, there is only one mention of him anywhere, here in Stoke Fleming, on the edge of the world, the seas deepening off to global exotics, where the church was once dedicated to him.
A local lad likely enough, Ermie probably lost his church at the Reformation when church dedications were frowned upon as popish practises; they only started being used again a century or two later and so often by that time the old patron saints had been forgotten.
So an old church this with a much younger dedication to St Peter, sitting on its hill commanding marvellous sea views. The present structure was built in the thirteenth century with remodelling in the following two centuries.
The guiding tower
The tower is the thing here, standing proud above the coast, thick, powerful buttresses clamping their way up the walls while those horizontal string courses dash rainwater away from the surfaces. These local towers have a presence of their own.
Built from softish slate-stone and originally lime-plastered or harled then lime-washed white, it was the main landmark for many an anxious mariner tootling for the safety of the Dart estuary and the big port of Dartmouth.
This was a cosmopolitan place back in the day, less English than Devon multi-cultural, trading down as far as the Eastern Mediterranean and the west coast of Africa; tin, wool, dried fish, cloth and myriads of sundries pouring out, with wine and luxuries pouring back in, including sadly the treasures of piracy.
Though piracy worked both ways, an easy blood sport practised by all, and this tower would have played its part in warning of offshore danger since at least the 1100s. Mind you, it has been lengthened and strengthened since then, with the top stage probably put on in the 1400s.
Whether St Edmund himself cosied himself up with a flagon of the local cider to meditate on the vastness of life on this hill… ? Well, why not, surely saints are allowed a tad of me time along with us all.
An old granite window
The west window is the only surviving original window in the church; the wall is mighty thick here so it was probably punched through the twelfth century structure in the 1500s.
A rough, tough, dainty granite from the moors to give light to the old interior, the two stones contrasting well and those pointed arches on either side of the shallow arch in the centre creating a finely agreeable composition.
Inside Stoke Fleming Church
Expectantly entering the church, we are wonderfully greeted by the arcades, thirteenth or fourteenth century, with their strong use of deep-carved, shaded-grey pillars and honey-pink arches in a bright space. They are such a brilliant, strong design; the graceful bulk of the pillars would overpower the arches if they were not such a vigorously pinkish red yet together they form a church-defining whole.
Throw some buckets of rhinestones into the mix and we have the start of a Dolly Parton church, and what a dream that would be.
We forget sometimes that these churches were creations, not just buildings. The choice of materials with their colouring and their placement, the sight lines and how the stone was carved, were all thought through and built for effect; designed if you will, to use an anachronism. And the effect is the main thing, these buildings were art, they were meant to evoke emotions and they still do.
Proof of this is in the choice of stone. The pillar stone probably comes from Purbeck, about 100 miles (160 kilometres) down the coast, the red stone more local. Taking into account the logistics of ordering, the sea and land transport (remember the steep hill), and all the extra expense in time and labour, let alone money, means we can start to imagine the determination that shaping such an artful space took.
But the church was never this good looking. Back in the 1800s it…
… Was about a shabby and dilapidated edifice as was possible still to occupy. The roof was hopelessly decayed; the arcades were out the perpendicular; the windows were debased even for the churchwardian age…
Dartmouth & South Hams chronicle: Friday 22 March 1872
But now it has treasure, such marvellous treasures…
A wondrous pulpit by Ethel Pinwill
Here the pulpit, a wine glass pulpit it is called, a true masterpiece of late Victorian Devon carving, designed by Edmund H Sedding and created by the Pinwill sisters, probably by Ethel Pinwill at the age of nineteen in 1891.
It is so elegant too; that heavily carved main pulpit could so easily be overpowering but saved for gracefulness by the gentle vaulting springing from the single column below.
As well as by the three dimensionality and airiness of the carving. What could be blocky and stolid is floaty and curly, less carved from the wood as gently settling like soft feathers onto a slab of wood to form these wondrous patterns and scenes.
Elijah and the ravens
This depth of graceful work can arguably be seen best in this scene from the Old Testament of Elijah being brought food by the ravens
So he did what the Lord had told him. He went to the Kerith Ravine, east of the Jordan, and stayed there. The ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning and bread and meat in the evening, and he drank from the brook.
KJV: I Kings 17: 5-6
Just that rocky background, with the wings of the ravens at full stretch as they go old school Deliveroo, and Elijah’s hand raised as if both in prayer and in gratitude as he receives God’s takeaway in the bleak landscape… beautifully carved indeed.
With a dash of the whimsical
Best of all though, for me, are these delights, English whimsicality at its best, little country scenes with piggies and bunnies and a village in the background, with a church no less. Wonder why this gets my vote… ? Hhhhm.
Elegance, artistry and playfulness, what a delightful combination.
The Three Marys window
Rivalled only by the gorgeous beguilement here, the Three Marys window, not so playful but surely a prettiness upon a glamour, sprinkling a permanent springtime into this little portion of the church with its flowers and stars and pastels. But pretty is as pretty as does, and we want this little darling to deliver on full throttle, which it does in spades.
It is a confession of faith, a visual prayer, a meditation…
To explain, the lady on the left, traditionally Mary Magdalene, is the lady who anoints Christ a few days before his crucifixion. ‘Christ’ means ‘The Anointed One’ and by this act she is confirming that he is the Messiah, the Son of God.
In the middle is the Virgin Mary with her lily of purity and her traditional blue robe.
On the right is Mary the sister of Martha, who preferred to sit and listen and listen to Jesus’s words rather than help Martha in the kitchen. Martha complained and Jesus pointed out
“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are anxious and disturbed about many things, but there is need of one thing: Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her”
Luke 10: 41-42, from The New Testament, David Bentley Hart
Listen. Worldly needs are as nothing to my words.
And do not bother cleaning the kitchen. Oh my Jesus, high five bro, that is a message I can be soooo deeply down with.
And this, as we see again and again, shows the true use of stained glass, as a visual meditation which we can enter and explore our relationship with Christ and our faith for those of us who bend a knee, and as a beautiful expression of support for those of us trying to give up kitchen cleaning.
And as a delightful side note, the distinctive group of stars of Orion’s Belt in the constellation of Orion was an important aid to navigation for seafarers, and was also called the Three Marys back in the day. Just right for a coastal church that has helped so many sailors home safely.
Stoke Fleming Sanctuary
At the end of the nave is the chancel with a Victorian interior in a beautiful mix of muted and strong colours, just enough splashes of the strong to keep the attention.
The altar back by Salviati
The reredos (the altar back) is by the famous Dr Salviati of Venice, who did various little projects around Europe, places like the Central Lobby of the House of Parliament, the Albert Memorial, the Paris Opera House, the… but why go on? We all know that those are seething with jealousy at his ravishing little masterpiece in Stoke Fleming.
On the two side panels are the Alpha and Omega, the first and last letters in the Greek alphabet to represent Christ, and the lily there is also identified with the Annunciation while the passion flower on the right with Christ’s Passion, his crucifixion… So the first and last of Christ’s human life, matching the letters.
Details in marble
On either side of the altar are marble slabs of the Ten Commandments, Creed and Lord’s Prayer. The detailing is most excellent, as here in the delicate carving, painting and gilding. Real quality for sure.
The wonderful altar by Violet Pinwill
Letting our eyes wander down to the altar, the carving is again top class. No surprise then that the creator was Violet, the youngest of the Pinwill sisters, in 1911, by then the last Pinwill carver in Devon and arguably the best of them all.
Three scenes from the life Christ, under a frieze of vines and birds, (souls feeding on the blood of the Divine, the grapes).
Put a muzzle on it!
The central image here is Christ calming the storm in a surround of palm trees to signify Peter’s martyrdom… But there is something going on here, just look at those angry waves, they curl to devour, this is a beast of storm.
And by happenstance, Violet has caught the mood exactly. In the original Greek Christ does not say ‘Peace, be still’ in a commanding, gentle way, instead he snarls at the beast…
And a great squall arose, and waves fell on the boat…
So he got up, scolded the wind, and said to the sea, “Be quiet! Put a muzzle on it!” And the wind broke of off and there was a great calm.
Mark 4:37-39: The Gospels, A New Translation, Sarah Ruden
He is snapping at the storm demon, or the genius of the storm, good and hard, and the nasty little critter shrivels away faster than a greased rain drop; in a world where science had not yet explored the details of the natural world, demons and spirits were what ran things here on earth, obedient to none but the Divine.
And in case the disciples were wondering, Christ had just shown his true Divinity. Again.
Though they were not really convinced until he popped up after the crucifixion, a good representation of humans and our sin-tempted faith.
Magical organ pipes
But after the storm comes rainbows and prettiness, almost as magical as this extraordinary set of organ pipes, probably the nicest I have come across. Breathtakingly magical.
They were painted by 22 year old Edith Whyllys in 1874 in memory of her brother who drowned in a shipwreck, and a better memorial I cannot think of, a bewitching English flower garden
Personally I suspect this organ has no sound, playing delicate symphonies of scents, enchanting flower perfumes enthralling and beguiling the God-dreaming congregation, transporting them to spiritual ecstasies.
Or at least, that is how it should be.
More enchanting stained glass
Not that these babes need any enchanting or beguiling, they seem awash in ecstasy upon ecstasy, colours flowing all over, beautiful visions of the Four Evangelists.
The Faith, Hope and Love window
Whilst here, with wings fluttering our very hearts, crowning an enthroned Jesus, these angels are part of a Faith, Hope and Love window as here.
It is profoundly spellbinding window.
Whilst the Three Marys window displays pretty on its sleeves, this one draws us in to discover more and more details, magic on magic, from the plant life below to the shading of the wings and the folding of the fabrics. Then there are faces.
The lady being escorted by that angel is probably the donor, Margery Caley, and boy is she in a grand company.
And there is so much more quality stained glass in this church. So much more.
The old Norman font
Equally wonderfully, this lump of a Norman font has been kept and honoured, a link to the centuries of care for the souls of this parish. I love pretty, very so, but beauty by itself can be shallower than a dried up puddle, whilst beauty with spirit, history and, most importantly, love of folk, is what churches are.
In my book at least.
And this humble red sandstone font, its texture calling for our hands to run across its surface, valued for its role in bringing the love of the Divine to us here needing it…
I bet all the other pretties in the church cluster around here at night, listening to its stories of folk loved and cured and comforted, and know that they are here to love humans, showing us, in some way or another, our paths as we clumsily try to love each and every other of ourselves.