- Magnificent richly coloured interior
- Fine exterior in a very neat churchyard
- Arresting tower, well maintained
- Fascinating lintel over south door
- Stunning twentieth century stained glass
- Very good Norman font
- Golden woodwork, simple and intricate, a delight
A hint of old world sensibility still underlies this popular seaside village, tucked away in its shallow valley down on the Devon south coast. An Edwardian retreat created for the genteel; a golf course, five tennis courts, a grand hotel of its time… still here, now open to all.
How easy it is to imagine the carefree bourgeoisie who came to play, to amble around the countryside and spend their days gossiping and sipping.
And then the Great War came, the war to end all wars, World War One. Nothing was ever the same. Old certainties exploded, lives ruined, experiences that no human should have.
There is this elegiac sadness around the church. Of loss. Of grief. Of retired officers living out their days haunted by their dreams and mourning lives passed, nightmares jagging their sleeps.
And where else to spend time after such a war than a place where nothing happens except the sound of surf and the call of birds, cut off from the modern world that had so betrayed them – the local folk, friendly and tolerant as Devon always is, suffering themselves, another cushion of comfort.
The church exterior on a sunny summer day seems to have no connection to the sadness inside. Set on the side of the valley surrounded by a neatly trimmed churchyard, it basks like the seals that play offshore. It is in marvellous condition for a fifteenth century church even allowing for its Edwardian restoration in 1904.
Apparently though the top six meters of the tower were removed in 1848 and rebuilt to cure a list to the East. Now the top bit kinks to the West as a counterweight. Hey ho. It is not the first church to know kinkiness, though usually it is the flesh and blood inside that owns the word.
The land flows around itself here in the South Hams, with deep narrow valleys and cresting hills in a lush green ocean of fertility. The churches stand out dramatically with slate black stone and tall angular towers as they sail this rolling sea.
Thurlestone church is different though, the graceful yacht as opposed to the large cargo ships. The white mortar catches the eye first, standing out dramatically against the dark slate stone that so many churches down here in the South Hams use.
The church tower
And the stones themselves have a gorgeous variation in colour, near black to light to… well, light stone colour. It is the west face that takes the biscuit though; a powerful and graceful face to the world. The window is a granite restoration, chunky as granite tends to be and it suits the rest of the tower well.
Delightfully, the stone used in the very recent repairs and renovations came from a local farm within sight of the church.
The old porch
A cracking porch, squat, widened by the diagonal buttresses and then heightened with a crown of battlements. I wonder if they decided to put the battlements on after to adjust the height? Those lamps are a delight too.
The granite surrounds of the outer doorway and that delicious window, almost melting down the walls, bring more texture and colour to the party; A delight. It is a parvise window, parvise being the name for the first floor room of a church porch, if there is one.
The story goes that the porch has a flat roof (true) and smuggled brandy casks were stored there out of sight of customs officers before being shipped on to the hinterland and further afield. Could well be true. They do say that the amount of Brandy smuggled into Devon & Cornwall in the 1700s and early 1800s was worth more than all the brandy that was shipped legally through the port of London. And if that is true, then the Thurlestone folk would have contributed their fair share. London law was often a bit hazy in these parts.
Obeyed to the letter nowadays, of course.
Entering the church
We enter the south porch and are greeted by an old lintel with a carving of knight holding a tree in one hand and a ring in the other.
But there is a mystery about this…
The guide book says that this is from the fifteenth century and the arch certainly fits that date, yet the carving – the knight and the patterning – could well come from Norman times. Is this a reworked piece from the old church… ?
What a delightful little tendril of faith reaching back to the 12th century, if so. We live so much in the modern now that we forget how much folk walked surrounded by their ancestors and deep time, and how important it was to them.
And here also is the first intimation of family ghosts that cluster around this church…
Look up while we are in the porch and enjoy the early sixteenth century foliage-carved beams along with a sweet roof boss of the Virgin Mary, crowned as the Queen of Heaven. She is holding a book, and sitting in a Tudor rose; a relatively recent well-carved piece.
So we enter the church full of pregnant twilight, glowing post-war windows, polished wood and powerful faith shaping an anchor of hope in an ocean of hurt, a refuge in the storm of post-war agony.
Peace perfumes the golden brown shadows, this evening refuge from the recent storm of war quiets the unquiet mind and the windows – oh my, the windows – glow with promises of the Divine.
The 1919 rood, so exquisitely carved by Herbert Read, draws the eye; Christ suffering, sharing humanity’s darkness.
For believers this message that Christ also went through searing pain to bring the New Covenant of love, forgiveness and redemption, must have been a constant companionship to their own hurts.
For all visitors, of the faith or not, the serenity offered by this house of God surely gave peace to the despairing and anguished, both then, now and forever…
And for the light of the Divine, there are the windows full of passion, love and colour.
Magical stained Glass
The Flight into Egypt shows Mary, Joseph and the Baby Jesus fleeing the wrath of Herod who was intent on massacring all the firstborn babies in his kingdom.
It seems as if Herod isn’t really dead. He keeps living under different names, like Saul and Nero, or Hitler and Stalin. He still seeks the child to destroy Him. How close Our Lord and His family had become all of a sudden when we met them as fellow refugees!
Maria Von Trapp (The Sound of Music Von Trapp), a refugee herself
The ground is rocky, Joseph is exhausted, the donkey is on its last legs and Mary is full of tiredness attending to the Baby Jesus… and only we can see the angels massing in a blue dream behind her, praying and imploring God.
But he won’t help and the angels are powerless. God has chosen a human life, a life of trouble and poverty.
Jesus knows what a hard road is.
Sir Galahad in the woodland chapel
But hurting folks want to know that they or their loved ones have been fighting for something valuable. Something worth dying for. Something good. And this window offers something.
It is for a young lad who died in 1919, whether from the effects of the war, Spanish Flu or other means, and it shows Sir Galahad from the Tales of King Arthur. Sir Galahad was the purest knight of the Round Table and was the only one good enough to obtain the Holy Grail. He devoted his life to God.
In Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem he arrives at a ruined woodland chapel
Between dark stems the forest glows,
I hear a noise of hymns:
Then by some secret shrine I ride;
I hear a voice but none are there;
The stalls are void, the doors are wide,
The tapers burning fair.
Kneeling in front of an altar in the forest with the Lord Jesus blessing him with light, offering his sword to God, the angel above him holding the Holy Grail, doves of peace around him, this is a youthful warrior accepted by Christ for having fought the good fight. This is everybody’s son who had fought and died in some way or another.
This is comfort.
Around the church
Looking around the rest of the church, difficult as it is to take our eyes from the stunning windows, the Norman sandstone font is carved with a ‘palmette’ pattern and time roars backwards, past Greece and Rome times to Ancient Egypt in 2500 BC when this was first used.
Deep time and everlasting grief can be unexpected companions on the way of healing.
The intricate woodwork glows softly in the comforting dimness. The delicate foliage of the late nineteenth century pulpit surrounds St Augustine and St Chrysostom and appears again on the choir stalls, there is a life size statue of Jesus the Good Shepherd behind the font, carved angels float above the chancel playing music and the golden brown reredos (altar back) has sculpted scenes of the Annunciation, the Nativity and the Crucifixion.
The chancel roofbosses
Instruments of the Passion of Jesus transform the roof bosses in the chancel, some dating back to Medieval times though with the more recent repainting it is difficult to put an exact period. We can say definitely that they are in the tradition of Devon bosses with symbols meditated on for centuries.
Here are the three nails used for the crucifixion, Christ’s smock that was gambled over by the Roman soldiers, the cock that crowed after Peter had denied knowing Christ three times and the thirty pieces of silver that Judas received for his betrayal.
Along the walls are post WWI memorials, many military, along with older remembrances.
The south chapel
The colours in the Lady Chapel are a sight to behold, enhanced by the strength of the Epiphany in the window above the altar. The Virgin Mary whose own son was sacrificed just as the families of local folk were, just as the families of all affected were.
The window, like most of the others, is by AJ Davies.
Either side are older memorials from the seventeenth century.
On one side a devoted scene with Thomas Stephens and his wife Julian kneeling at prayer with three sons and three daughters with a baby in swaddling clothes above. Sadly, the swaddling clothes mean that this baby died, just as many of the children of the parishioners had died. Grief is eternal and for many of the mourners seeing the memorials scattered around the church surely was a form of sharing, of being in company that understood.
Love and heaven in Thurlestone
On the choir side of the old organ case there is an inscription: ’Amor non clamor ascendit in aures Dei’, ‘Love and not shouting reaches the ears of God.’ I think the creator of this window knew this in their heart.
Surely an image of heaven. Children playing, lambs gambolling, bunnies grazing, three field mice on a family day out, a wren singing, a bucolic landscape and a host of angels. Oh, and roses.
Heaven can never have too many roses.
We bloom among the blooming flowers,
We sing among the singing birds;
Wisdom we have who wanted words:
Here morning knows not evening hours,
All’s rainbow here without the showers.
Christina Rossetti (1877)
There is a heaven and this is the promise. After the horrors of the war, they wanted and needed this. Angels will sing and children will play and life will be cured.
And love will rule all…