- Gorgeous Perpendicular church built in only 20 years
- A light-filled, intensely spacious interior
- Excellent Medieval rood screen paintings
- Fine Medieval carved woodwork
- Fascinating and rare medieval stained glass
- Very elegant Georgian box pews
- Set in such a wonderful landscape
Torbryan through history
Upvalley from Torbryan Church, on a limestone bluff in Dyer’s wood, overlooking a small nameless stream rising just a stroll further on, at the entrance to a cave complex, a hermit lived a life of prayer and contemplation in a tiny chapel enfolded in the wonder of the countryside.
Beyond the now ruined chapel is Tornewton house, the ancestral home of the Peters, who owned Torbryan after the de Brionne (from Brionne in Normandy) clan relinquished it around 1400 after 250 years.
And here we find the name of Torbryan, Tor from the Old British (or Celtic if you will) meaning steep hill and Bryan from Brionne; before the de Brionnes burst onto the scene with William the Conqueror the place was known simply as Torra or Torr.
Floating back downstream past the ghosts of the Ancient Britons on their hill, the de Brionnes proudly asserting their Norman heritage, the Peters joining the county movers and shakers, the hermit gazing into the heart of God, we arrive again at this beautiful Perpendicular church magnificently ensconced in this hedge-entwined landscape.
Torbryan church on the outside
It is a beauty, a rare example of a Perpendicular church built seamlessly just in a space of twenty years (1450-1470 since you asked). Was it the Peters family deciding on a new church to celebrate their new ownership… ? Quite possibly partly, though most of the churches of Devon were rebuilt in the 15th and 16th centuries owing to the wealth pouring in from wool, cloth and ocean trading.
But most churches took longer to build, and most churches were not as comprehensive in their rebuilding. This one wiped clean the previous church structure and started from scratch.
The multi-buttressed, soaring tower with its octagonal stair turret, the large windows, the battlements in red stone, all these are local south Devon style.
The most striking sight is a fully-rendered lime-washed church. We are so used to seeing bare stone churches, that we no longer realise that these are a relatively new style. Back in the day near most churches were lime-rendered and lime-washed, protected from the rain and frost whilst still allowing the walls to breathe and damp to get out. It is a fine sight indeed and well looked after by The Churches Conservation Trust
The porch entrance
We enter by the very grand two-storey south porch with its vaulted stone ceiling and four carved angels to welcome us, and a seventeenth century door well-aged like a fine brandy. This is an expensive church. More often in Devon the porch ceilings are wood, and as for an exterior stair turret up to the second floor… fugeddaboutit; cheaper options were nearly always chosen. Already we are having a strengthening suspicion that this is something special.
Entering Torbryan church
And it is.
I could, and will, rave about the screen, the paintings, the glass, the pews, the carving but the most astounding is the space, well-proportioned, beautifully divided, full of graceful limestone arches and ethereal pillars, space bounded by the high curved ceilings and the lofty walls.
The arcades flow up from the box pews (oh my, the box pews!) with exquisitely carved capitals and bearing the high ceilings with consummate grace, the whites, mixtures of milk and clotted cream as should be in Devon, are interrupted by flashes of gorgeous medieval colours from the nave windows, and the ground-level browns of the woodwork accentuate the stature of this rustically elegant masterpiece.
And the sound… listen to the sounds, the tappings on the wood, the feet on the flagstones, the echoing conversations… and the touch, never forget the touch, the different textures demand to be stroked, pressed, grasped…
All this built in twenty years and hardly altered since.
The Torbryan roodscreen
Down the nave the roodscreen charms our attention into the magical universe of deep Devon faith. It is alive with colour and carving, a bond of originality and restoration; the colouring is mainly 19th century but the saints below are pure medieval.
And here, for the saints, we need to get down to floor level, see them as they were meant to be seen, kneeling in reverence because only that way, with the paintings filling our vision, can we experience the awe that they still carry.
Mary Queen of Heaven and The Dowry of Mary
On the main doors The Virgin Mary is being crowned Queen of Heaven by Christ, accompanied by the music of angels and set amongst the gilt and coloured foliage of gothic splendour.
Pause… breathe… listen to the music as the painting comes alive… because sure as eggs are eggs this is how the medieval folk experienced it, not as static art but a living, melodic scene, with the bustle of the congregation as the courtiers, and enveloped by the scent of incense and the murmuring Latin of the priest.
And England and Mary had a deep bond, going back at least as far as 1051 when the country traditionally became known as the Dowry of Mary, the gift of Mary to the Divine, the “Holy Land, Our Lady’s Dowry” and her main shrine in the country, Walsingham, as the ‘New Nazareth’.
But we English, being the servants of her special inheritance and her own dowry, as we are commonly called, ought to surpass others in the fervour of our praises and devotions.
Thomas Arundell, Archbishop of Canterbury, 1399
That old mystic poet Robert Graves, claimed that Merry England originally meant Mary’s England, and whilst a mystic poet is no historian when we hear that the war cry at Agincourt was…
Our Lady for her dowry; St. George and St. Edward to our aid
surely our senses tingle with the deep, burning passion that blazes from this little old door and its little old painting.
The saints of the screen
Onto the rest of the community of saints clustering on the screen, their place between the sacred chancel and the secular nave making concrete their roles as intercessors between heaven and earth, a meditative channel to the Divine for us sinners.
The saints were likely chosen by the donors and well-read folk who had an interest and knowledge of these in particular. How much discussion would have gone on with the parishioners is difficult to say; likely a fair amount as by the time the screen was built the local parish were strong in the ownership of the nave.
Some rare ones were chosen. Here, from the left, are: St Elizabeth of Hungary, St Catherine of Siena, St Helena and St Zita, all with delightfully detailed clothing and St Helena herself in Burgundian court dress, so I am told.
The box pews
Away from the screen colours lie the box pews, where every which shade of brown seems to glow quietly, beautiful Georgian woodwork that, once again, deserves a wonderment from ground level.
Yet glance inside the box pews and we can see the original 16th century bench seats, thick oaken planks, hand-sawn and bottom-polished. The box pews are but a frame around the original fixed benches, and whilst this is not unknown in the rest of the country, in Devon it is very unusual.
One of the original benchends has been carefully exposed by the The Churches Conservation Trust, a simple gothic pattern which is a tad surprising in such an expensive church. No intricate carving, no figures, no symbols (apparently they are all like this)… which might be a sign of lack of cash, or that the pews were installed when the Reformation was throwing shade on images, or even maybe just a design choice to avoid taking attention from the marvellous space all around.
But truly it is a privilege to have such an amount of old oak woodwork, two hundred years apart, to just enjoy.
Medieval and modern stained glass
Torbryan is full of saints, less so than its heyday but still enough to show how a church was (and is) not so much a building than prayer solidified…
Here, floating high in the lights of the East Window (binoculars or a grand zoom lens needed), are some gorgeous ones in medieval glass. From the left: Sweet St Dorothy with her basket of roses, ninja Saint Margaret killing her dragon with a cross (girl scout badges in those days were so ultra…), Mary Magdalen with her jar of ointment and St Sidwell with her scythe.
St Sidwell was a Devon girl, a pure lass who loved God with all her heart, possibly Celtic, possibly Anglo-Saxon, very likely a historical figure from around 600/700 AD. She was beheaded with a scythe near Exeter by some reapers paid by her wicked stepmother (where have we heard that trope before… ?), and where her head came to rest a spring of pure water appeared, where miracles happened.
By 1000 AD St Sidwell’s church and the spring-fed well were a place of pilgrimage and they still exist, though the church has been completely rebuilt after being destroyed in WWII; her well is now inside a building behind the church, most recently a vegan cafe.
Bet the Sidwell lass never expected that.
Mind you, she probably never expected the scythe either…
The stunning East Window
As for the rest of the East window… well, just look. Colours upon colours. Twentieth century work made in Exeter, designed by Archibald Nicholson, showing Christ enthroned in glory surrounded by a collection of some of most delicious angels I have seen; those green winged ones especially are a joy, closely pursued by the three adorable cuties at the bottom…
And, pitch perfectly, more saints to continue the tradition, with St George, St Nicholas, St Barbara, St Walstan (the patron saint of farmers, nice touch that), St Michael and St Gabriel.
Being as we are on the subject of stained glass, come back to the nave for a gander and every window has its angels high, seraphim to be exact with their six wings covered in feathers, gently guarding the congregation and letting them know the Divine presence is everywhere for them.
Stained glass would have likely completely filled windows, but time and the Long Reformation, from Henry VII to Oliver Cromwell, has taken its toll. They do say that the Rector during the Puritan times saved the upper glass by taking it down and hiding it, and also whitewashed the Rood Screen paintings, but likely enough a lot of damage had been done earlier too.
But there are more than angels up there…
Stained glass in the nave
There are signs of a faith that filled every corner of the church, like these examples from around the church. Clockwise from top left: The five wounds of Christ, the lance that pierced Christ’s side on the cross and the sponge that delivered vinegar to him, the Communion chalice with Christ’s initials on the wafer and the last words that Christ spoke on the cross, ‘It is finished’.
But here’s the things… they are so high, so hard to see yet wondrously they have a background of pretty flowers (I vote daisies) that are impossible to make out from the ground. The stained glass artists had no need to put such detailed beauty here, but they did… because they were for God.
Medieval carving, pulpit and altar
Of course the carving is another delight, with the pulpit said to be made from the parts of the old rood screen that encased the pillars, quite likely as other medieval pulpits are more elaborately carved. Even so, the leaves travelling upwards are enchanting, surrounding the preacher in foliage.
The altar, on the other hand, is apparently made from the original pulpit and this I can believe. The carving is more ornate, more magical…just look at the vegetation here, the vines on either side and the beaut in the middle. Technically it is called a crocketted nodding ogee arch, but seriously dude, that is like calling a buttercup a Ranunculus Acris. Who wants to do that?
And here we see three stages of a blossoming flower creeping up both sides of the arch to meet at the top, opening slightly, then more so, and then a golden burst of flowers the top.
Beguiling gothicry, heartfully exquisite.
The church itself at Torbryan
There are, as ever, other treasures but always we come back to the church itself, a place of such strong faith that it raised soaring graceful beauty from stone, wood and glass, looking for no ‘return on investment’, no ‘status statement’, but because they knew, deeply physically knew, that the Cure of Souls, the salvation of the spirit, was the height of importance.
A wise folk, a beautiful folk, my kind of folk.