- Beautifully situated above the Teign Valley
- Grand rustic granite work
- A nicely renovated rood screen
- A gorgeously painted chancel with a blue angel to die for
- Fascinating 16th & 17th century memorials, deeply so
- Very nice selection of Victorian stained glass
- A good, rough Norman font
- This really is a special little church, punching way above its weight
Trusham church down the ages
Generations mist around the little church crowning this hill-folded, combe-steeped parish. Centuries upon centuries of ancestors have climbed the steep lanes to wed, to bury and to celebrate the divine.
Small as it is, the church is the oldest attested in the Teign Valley, held by the Abbey of Buckfast in the Domesday Book but not officially dedicated until 1259. Twenty-two years before that a decree went out from London saying churches ‘not having been consecrated with holy oil, though built of old, should be solemnly dedicated within two years’.
That is a very Devon two years.
The church itself is a stumpy little thing, thick-browed and beetly, keeping low to the ground offering its carapace to the weather that hits it before anything else in the parish.
The rendering is likely twentieth century, though it probably resembles the medieval church closer than bare stone does. Medieval churches were often rendered with a breathable lime plaster and whitened with a coat of lime wash; why, as recent as 1845 a Sir Stephen Glynne was complaining about the ‘glaring whitewash’ of this chunky strongman.
But what really stands out is the simplicity and strength of the structure, how it hunkers down against the weather in its exposed position. Both modesty and power for ministering to the surrounding souls through the centuries in this little parish, a place of spirit for the marvels and vicissitudes of this life.
And in keeping with tradition the granite surrounds have been carefully left clear, here on the west door and window, and they project such stolidity. Those huge stones of the relieving arches and the doorway of four granite blocks just shout ‘immoveable’.
Devon granite cannot be a subtle stone, it is impossible to cut precisely with medieval hand tools, and here its quality of ‘massiveness’ is used at its best.
And the window! Some windows are intricate jigsaws of traceries carefully cut and pieced together. Not this one. It is the tough little street fighter of windows, beetle-browed no less, ready to fight the storms and blizzards that roar down on this church. Protect the parish, protect the folk, protect the Word of God. Its self-chosen task fulfilled forever.
Expect a high five or two from the Good Lord, dude.
Trusham south door
The present church dates from the early fifteenth century, but some of the walls, the south one and the chancel likely enough outline, if not come from, the old Norman church, a simple two cell building, chancel and nave, no tower just a bellcote to toll a bell or two.
This granite south door, the main entrance, is another rustic stunner; if you want a statement made, make it in granite, I say.
The foundations though, that is another matter. Maybe about ten centimetres below soil level then nothing, just subsoil. Interesting that, not in a good way mind you. Though knowing how a fair few of these old church walls go walkabout, not ultra surprising.
The delightful interior of Trusham Church of Saint Michael
Back in 2013 the floor was excavated to prepare for the clean new flagstones, and even allowing for the big disturbances of the Victorian restoration another fifteen graves were found.
In most rural churches before the 16th or 17th centuries, or even later, the church floor would have been a mixture of clay, water and lime, sometimes mixed with small animal bones to make it harder wearing. Beaten flat, dried and then covered with rushes or mats that were regularly renewed, it made a strong surface that could be easily dug up for a burial.
And the good folk of Trusham did fancy a church burial even if it cost, and it surely did cost; 6s 8d (33p) in the later Middle Ages, roughly equivalent to ‘middling expensive’ today, but only open to the right sort of folk at that.
We look at present day churches and see a distinction between the graveyard and the interior but this is a modern fantasy; twas all a matter of status.
A fine rood screen
At the end of the nave there is a good looking screen that gives a sketch of what once would have stood there. Most of it is a nineteenth century restoration by Herbert Read, who also carved the rood (the crucifix) above it and the fine pulpit.
There are still some original carvings with traces of paint left from the fifteenth or sixteenth centuries, mainly the uprights. It is a masterful creation and shows the beautiful Devon tradition of wood carving floating down through the ages.
The gorgeous painted chancel
We go through the screen and find a marvellous chancel all decked out in frills and flowers by the Victorian restorers in 1893, ceilings and walls floriating away.
It takes the breath away after the simplicity of the nave and, hidden behind the screen as it is, the shock of its abundance is a delight; a bewitching little gem carefully preserved.
Oh, and that gorgeous altar cloth by Juliet Hemingray.
The wonder of the decoration goes all the way down, to the small details, as it should, just as the Ten Commandment boards on either side of the altar here have been carefully lettered and embellished to reflect the larger painting all around.
All these different ways of writing a T and more, turning the text into a work of art, most delicious.
While above the Crucifixion scene in East Window, around which is written ‘Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts’ are these ancient symbols of Christ, the Cross and the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last.
The wonderful Trusham angel
And on the south wall is this gorgeous angel, large-feathered, blue-robed, red-haired, and an absolute delight.
I mean, if you going to have wings, get big wings, and if you are going to have big wings, get the biggest babes in God’s warehouse, which this beauty has done and then some.
No coincidence that she is kneeling in prayer facing toward the East Window showing Christ crucified; probably praying for forgiveness for her wing size vanity, to be fair.
The Staplehill memorial
Turning around we come back to human glory with this sober suited family painted on board up on the north wall of the chancel, over two meters wide; Hugh and Sabina Staplehill (died 1583) and their children at prayer.
Their faces are very individual, their clothes not so much; Hugh does have a very impressive hat next to him, the coats of arms refer to the union of his and his wife’s families and the bible is open on the prayer stand at psalm 128.
There is a fair amount of that old friend ‘symbolism’ wandering around here, and thanks to Clive Easter’s fascinating paper on Devon’s Monuments 1530-1630 we can get so much of interest from this.
This is very a local well-to-do family at prayer, very much of the new Post-Reformation Protestantism and declaring their faith for all to see; that clothing is a big clue.
The book itself is angled very purposefully for all to read as well as towards the head honcho, the Daddy, indicating that he was the go-to dude for religious instruction and in charge of his clan’s spiritual progress; something that was highly recommended by the new church.
The open bible
Then the text:
Blessed are all they that feare the Lord and walk in his wayes
For thou shalt eat the labours of thine handes: Oh well is thee and happy thou shalt bee
Thy wife shalt bee as ye fruitful vine
Psalm 128 vv 1,2,& 3
That first phrase ‘Blessed are they that feare the Lord’ was taken to mean ‘justification by faith alone’, a major Protestant thing, distinguishing it from the Roman Catholic which insisted that good works were totally needed for the Divine to give one the high five (and yes, it is more complex than that, good works flow from faith for one thing).
The whole psalm, that readers would have known, goes on to say what a happy and prosperous family comes from all this, including that wife like a vine thing, so here we see the Staplehill folk showing how godly they are because happy and prosperous, and vice versa.
I assume that Christ might be considered a bit of a failure here, dying in poverty and all that, not even monetising his fandom, but what do I know?
Portraits peering from the past
Then, to reinforce their godliness, the family has chosen a memorial that is like a modest brass, but not brass because that would have been much smaller, and not stone because that could have been prideful.
Mind you, some might say a two meter wide painting is a bit passive aggressive in the pride stakes, and then again some might not.
A beautiful creation, those wonderful faces looking at us from the sixteenth century, each one with their own character, their own interior life, their history and future, I just wish they could tell me everything.
But Anne, the youngest, does have a connection to the next beautiful family memorial here.
The Stooke memorial
This, to John and Mary Stooke, originally placed on the south wall of the chancel in 1697 looking across at the Staplehills, now in the north aisle, made from wood as well though easily mistaken for stone.
So Anne, she married into the local minor aristocracy, Sir Peter Courtenay, and the story goes that a servant stole a bag of gold from one of Anne’s grown up sons; this servant fled through Trusham (‘up the old Tinkley Lane through Trusham village… ‘) hotly pursued, and threw away the gold in desperation to exit history forever.
The gold landed on the Stooke farmland and seventeen year old John found it, proceeding to use it as the foundation of making his fortune as a cloth merchant in the area.
Sadly, the jury is out on the truth of that story, but there is no denying how remarkable the memorial is, especially the portraits of the two who lived through such turbulent times, from the Civil Wars through the Great Plague of 1665 to William of Orange’s 1688 successful invasion of England that started in South Devon with 463 ships and 15,000 men.
They surely both look as if they guarded their tongues as wisely as their money, though, to their credit, they left a pretty penny towards charity and local almshouses.
A brassy humblebrag?
Both the Staplehills and the Stookes were buried in the chancel near their memorials, but only this brass grave covering survives from the Staplehill grave and it is a cracker, and also a bit of mystery.
You see, this style of lettering is more difficult to engrave, and to lay out, than the normal ‘printed’ style; all those curves and swirls whilst keeping everything in that confined space. Was it a design choice? Or was it another Staplehill humblebrag, seemingly self-effacing but costing an arm and a leg?
Whatever it might, be, it most certainly has a lovely feel of musical rhythm, of flowing water, of gusting wind, the impermanence of life caught for a moment…
Very fine stained glass
The gusting wind of life is here too, in this ‘Raising of Lazarus’ window, where confusion and shock surround Christ and that somewhat dazed not-now-dead lad.
Such a dynamic composition, a goodly depiction.
Pretty flowers in glass
In contrast to this delicacy, a few strokes of a brush by a master artist and we have the whole of creation in a glass pane.
A colourful crucifixion
And yet another contrast here, in the East Window, where the grief is palpable, and the harlequin design riots into the brain, fireworking the message of a brand new reality, a New Covenant, that Christ’s death is sealing, rhyming with the rainbow of God’s Old Covenant back in Ark time.
Time, folk, and the old Norman font
Meanwhile the Norman font sits calmly watching so many generations come and go, the stout top cinched in by the belt of moulding like the stomach of a hefty Devon farmer, scarred and eroded by age and experience…
Charles was born here in Trusham, he understood so beautifully the role of the church in life and death…
Where for some a faith breathes softly, loving all in the midst of this gorgeous creation and for others a quietness whispers, remembering, hoping, enchanting… all altering our being far beyond anything we can imagine.