- One of the best rural churchyards in Devon
- A rough granite church for all folk
- The history of the build wonderfully apparent
- A fantastic situation in the landscape
- The porch door, the windows…
- A very special atmosphere
Thrushelton outside of time
This well-treed church coddled in green; birdsong-drenched, sun-stroked, breeze-whispered, foliage-entwined, roughly coaxed from deep rock… breathe deep and moments here are forever…
I could spend eternity here…
Thrushelton is a church outside of time, still echoing faintly the chink of chisels, the creak of windlasses, the scrapes of the plastering boards, fading away as finishing touches are applied and folk gather around the brazier one last time to sup cider, to chat about the next harvest and Mabel Mudge’s latest brew.
It is a church to enjoy like music, for its parts as well as its whole, composed by the community of farmers and farmworkers whose families still live around, nurturing the land as ever.
It is no wonder we call it ‘The Farmers’ Church’
How we built it, cared for it and still care for the beauty in our midst… how we grew the structure… is a quietly beautiful understanding worth enjoying…
And I say ‘we’ because this, in its own small way, is everyone’s church.
Thrushelton church and chapel
Here is one of the prettiest churchyards I know, and that is high praise in Devon, especially as I know a lot – a serious lot – of churchyards. The hillside swoops and soars like a green-winged angel, the church plays peekaboo amongst the trees, the wild plants caress the gravestones, and the leaves glitter like fabulous gems… serenity from another dimension…
But hereby hangs a tale, as they say…
The church started life as a chapel of ease, first mentioned in the fourteenth century but with signs of thirteenth century work. It was built so locals could attend services without the problems of travelling to the parish church about three miles away in Marystow. Three miles doesn’t sound like a lot, but in winter, with steep Devon hills, waterlogged foot paths, fording a flooding river… Brrrrhh.
But a chapel of ease was only for services, not burials, baptisms or weddings. It was not until 1504 that they got permission for burials here, and likely for baptisms too. Until then they had to carry the coffin the three miles to the Marystow.
The coffin? Why yes, even though the dead were only buried in woollen shrouds they still used a coffin for carriage and presumably brought it back for the next punter, hopefully giving it a good scrub between journeys.
Thrushelton church journey
The stonework is rough; bewitchingly, marvellously, gorgeously rough, proper farmer stuff; the last time I visited here I went next to the mother church in Marystow, and the differences between the arcades (the rows of pillars separating the aisle) just sang out, a rough folk song of faith and a more refined aria of belief.
You can probably guess which one I live in…
Enter by the south door, move across the south aisle and we are in the thirteenth century (as ever, could be earlier) nave and chancel, the original little chapel where the priest travelled over from Marystow to perform the Mass and the folk came to venerate the living God.
Imagine a wall where the south (on the right) aisle pillars are now, smaller windows, maybe not so many, no East Window as we see now, and shrink down the chancel arch and the pillars supporting it until you can see an arched entrance like a large doorway. Across the chancel entrance there would likely have been a simple screen or even a curtain, to keep the powerful sacred a mystery.
Whether the nave has been increased in size or not since is an arguable point. I suspect so, but it is not clear.
The plaster, oh my the plaster… The Victorians did many wonders for our parish churches but they did like to denude them of all plaster… not this one though, and if we dug into the plastered walls we might well find the original layer from seven centuries ago.
The fourteenth century work
Walk up the nave (climbing into the pulpit is not a bad idea), look across to the south aisle and we can see the fourteenth century pillars from when they added the aisle. Being fourteenth century, the pillars (also called ‘piers’) are square faced octagonal, as fits the period.
They are made from blocks of granite, not a single piece like later pillars; and rough granite too, a rough jewel for a rough life, for modest souls who laboured all the hours in the week creating their own place to celebrate the Community of Christ.
At the same time they opened up the chancel making the entrance bigger and pushing the pillars back to the sides.
Why? Well, probably to open up the sacred space so folk could see the mass take place, not a whim of the locals but a change in the liturgy where chancels were opened up though almost certainly with a simple screen across it. Also, and this was a major change, people were expected to actually take part in the Eucharist once a year, at Easter, though only the bread, not the wine.
This change was ordered in 1215, but time moves slowly here, as it should.
But there is also a mystery about these pillars and arches. The arches do not fit. They seem not to belong to the same period as the pillars. Bear with me here…
The south aisle
Come back to just inside the south door and look up the south aisle. Take out the benches, which are fine utilitarian Victorian, and imagine a beaten clay floor maybe with rushes or clean straw, and a wall where the end arch, the one across the aisle, is.
This was a space of gathering, to pray in little groups, to fall into themselves as they follow the latin chant, even, whisper it not, to stand at the back and chat… Folk could have brought their own seating too, haphazardly scattered around the church.
Probably by now, if not before, there would be religious wall paintings. Now it is looking far more like a church than a chapel.
Being twenty-first century dudes, we might think the south aisle extra space was for more people, but not necessarily. Just as importantly it meant space for another altar or three, one against the east wall and maybe one or two against the south wall. These altars would have been dedicated to different saints, including the Virgin Mary and St James.
Why St James? This chapel was on the route from the north coast to the southern ports where pilgrims could take ship to one of the most popular shrines in Christendom, St James of Compostella; folks took this route from Wales, from Ireland, from Bristol and beyond even.
But there is another thing going on here, something marvellous, something beautiful; people were getting more involved in the their own faith, their own spiritual life, and creating their own paths through Christianity.
The altars would have been looked after by local groups, called guilds, maybe one by the great and the good, another by the young lads, another by the parish maids; they raised money for the altar cloths, the candles, the incense and kept all in good repair as well as donating money to the priest for the masses. Each would have their own saint, their own spiritual guide.
But still those arches, they just don’t fit the pillars.
The fifteenth century work
Along wanders the fifteenth century and somebody decides to add a south chapel, a local big boy or one of those guilds, or even the community.
How do we know fifteenth century? Well, look at the new style pillar in the picture above on the left. It is a monolith, a single piece of granite, rounded, thinner, more elegant and with a carved capital. That is fifteenth century that is. If you care to, look at the previous picture as well and you can see how the pillars and arches change at the end of the south aisle, and where the new chapel joins the chancel the chancel.
And those arches, they are fifteenth century too (or even sixteenth), same style as all the other arches in the church. So they replaced all the arches when they put up the new chapel.
Why? Guessing… Maybe they raised the wall height, maybe they reroofed the place because they added the tower then too? And at the same time decided to replace the arches. Because style? Fashion? Display? Or even engineering, if they replaced a thatched roof with a heavier slate one?
And that ivy… the parishioners still change the decoration with the seasons, and who is to say this is not an unbroken tradition from the 1400s? Because look…
Roof bosses and a font
This church like all Devon churches had foliage all over, carved on the roof bosses, as here, and on the now disappeared rood screen and benchends, painted and gilded…
Even more dreamily, this was a long tradition, as we can see – these bosses are not only by different hands but from different times.
The old granite font
And the font, a good solid granite font for good solid farmer’s lads and lassies… and an interesting date too. They say it’s from the 1400s but dating a lump (a gorgeous lump though it is) of granite in a tiny chapel as was, deep in the countryside… and considering they got permission for burials in 1504… that seems a good enough date to me.
Highly speculative, I know, but a boy can dream, no… ?
Mind you, they also put in new windows, almost certainly at the same time of the rest of the remodelling, so there is that too…
The porch entrance
The porch is fifteenth century too. The granite hood mould splashing over the door, pooling at the ends, from where, once a year, on dark Good Friday Even, when all are abed, it sheds a tear for the Crucified Lord.
And maybe, at that very time, every living being wails a desolation that claws the countryside heart, falling to silent awe to wait with the parish folk at vigil in the church; until Easter dawns, the Resurrection always, and a chorister sings joyfully from the church tower; all is right with the world again.
The tower and some classy stonework
Oh the tower… an interesting beast, with the best stonework of the church (along with the porch), which makes sense. For this kind of height and weight you definitely need to hire a high-grade professional. The local reddish rubblestone and the granite blocks are laid in a strong pattern, varied, colourful, textured, belichened and weathering beautifully.
Take a closer look…
Proper Devon stonework
And something more… The tower and porch stonework are similar, so here we have the final stages of the church, together. It is possible they were built after the aisle and before the chapel, but this is expensive work both in money and time, and the later fifteenth century arguably makes more sense.
And then? Then they all went home to tea, of course, and returned regularly to celebrate their faith to the sounds of the new bells ringing across the landscape.
Until the Victorians popped up and lovingly repaired and restored the old church, much of the woodwork likely rotten, and inserted this chancel with simple tiles and dark modest woodwork to centre the attention on the altar; and just as back in the day when the original chancel entrance was opened up to reflect changes in the liturgy, so this new open altar area reflects the revitalised importance of the Eucharist.
Though they were careful to preserve so much, for they too, amongst the mossy paths, the crooked stones and the squat church, they too could hear the lowing of the oxen as they delivered the last material, the final pounding of the new thatch into place, the artisans chatting as they applied the last coats of gleaming paint… still murmuring in the breeze…
Some say the Divine contains the poetry of the universe, I say churches sing this for an instant upon a moment, dreams of the faithful and the searching, the wondering and the wandering, composing new verses to transform into stone and glass and wood and colour, and in this simple church we can absorb the melodies of the ages, beautifully, powerfully, elegantly…
I could spend eternity here…