- Fine C14 pillars in the north aisle
- Excellent early roodscreen
- C16 and C17 altar carvings in the north chapel
- Impressive chest tomb, busts and figure
- Awesome tower screen, late C16 carving
- A Neo-Gothic Chancel looking brand new
- A very special East Window
In 1086 Uffculme only had one manor for the whole parish, making it one of the richest landholdings in Devon.
Then, over the next centuries, came the sheep, the wool trade, the mills, the cloth industry, the market town, the industrial town, the horrific African slave trade… and the money, lots of money. But what was money for… ? A dumb question you say… ? But in medieval times, with no consumer society, minimal social mobility, no banking system as such, lending with interest a big sin… what was a girl to do with her cash… ?
What they had was a deep faith, a certainty, as sure as the sun and moon exist, that all were in the body of Christ, all the community of the church.
Maybe donations by themselves never saved a soul (Christ for one had opinion on that) but biblically from faith flows good works, and Uffculme is a good work. It is chock-a-block full of beautifuls, and how that came to be is a story in itself.
Outside, a charming exterior, heavily restored 1846, creating a little gothic dream in its prettily flowered churchyard in the middle of town; cared for with love.
Inside, a fine interior, the north aisle with its round pillars from the early 1300s, the south aisle with it’s more deeply carved white limestone from the early 1400s and the outer south aisle (copying the earlier pillars) from the 1800s… no lottery grants for these.
And then there’s the rood screen. Ah yes the rood screen, one of the oldest in Devon, about 1430 or so and the longest in Devon, though a bit of a cheat as it was masterly extended in the nineteenth century.
The funding… ?
The earliest and likely original part (there might be parts of a previous church incorporated in the nave or chancel) was probably paid for by local gentry, one or more families with lands in the parish. The early 1300s was a time when wealth was very much concentrated with landowners, who were relatively few in number, and along with cash and material they would not be averse to donating their serfs’ labour.
The fourteenth century pillars
The pillars that survive from this age are a wonder of shape, colour and texture, pockmarked with age and use, seven hundred year old chisel marks still boasting of the craftsmanship, they beg for closer inspection, touch and feel.
The rebuilding in the early 1400s was a different matter. Nearly every Devon church was rebuilt and enlarged in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries due to a number of reasons, not least the use of greater ritual and processions in worship, more room for altars and monuments, and seating, fixed or moveable, which took up twice as much room as folk standing.
All this faith-driven, and now, as individuals had more disposable income especially in towns like Uffculme, their faith led to donations from the merchants, tradesmen and others, gifts of stone and timber from quarry and woodland owners, bequests in wills, and money raising by guilds (a kind of local club dedicated to particular saints).
Alongside this would have been the financing of major portions of the church by specific gentry, as the north chapel probably was by the Walronds, who we will meet later.
A very early roodscreen
The rood screen seems to have been erected soon after the new south aisle in the early fifteenth century and the money would have been raised the same way, as well as specific church fundraising. A major part of this was likely to have been church ales, when batches of ale (beer without hops, meaning it has a short shelf life) were brewed on Holy Days and Festivals and sold. Likely enough the barley and labour for this was donated or grown on church land, so the profits were high.
The early screen itself, which still has its original vaulting and colour, is a charm and a fascination. Compared to later screens, if has much thicker uprights and vaulting ribs, deeper carvings and more angular tracery. In truth, it could be made out of stone, and quite possibly it replaced a stone one. So was it meant to imitate stone (which would have been painted too) or was it an early stage of screen design before joiners had learnt to make them with greater delicacy? Or a bit of both?
Hhhhhm… Your guess is as good as mine. I do know this though: it is a goodie.
The roodscreen vaulting
Look at that vaulting, the way the ribs soar away and out with the strength and grace of a leaping salmon, their thickness bringing to mind supple muscle, and the deep tracery between them, with their long pointed arches, emphasising that spring outwards, filled in by some delicate stylised leaf work. Then the intricately carved knots on the joints, gilded jewels dotted around to catch the light and show that behind here is the sacred, the core of the faith.
But enough, we must move on, to the north chapel…
The North Chapel altar
A good choice, as it happens, these carvings stun.
Most of them are original, the colouring is more recent, and none of them belong here. They have been collected together and formed into composites in the twentieth century. The reredos (the back of the altar) carvings are late 1500s, renaissance style with lots of frillery, fun faces and half naked figures (Mary and the Crucifixion are more modern).
The altar carvings
The total eye-openers are the altar panels from around 1530, looking so timeless in their design. The angular postures, the hands adding so much dynamism into each panel, the cocked heads and piercing looks… the quality of these is superb.
On the left a very unfamiliar saint, St Maurice, one of the few black saints acknowledged in Western Europe, probably due to ignorance (St Augustine was North African, and the growth of the use of Latin in the early church mass was heavily influenced by that region but that just wasn’t really thought about).
St Maurice was a Roman soldier, which fits with the armour that this gentleman is wearing, and he was also a patron saint of dyers and cloth makers, which slots seamlessly into the main business in Uffculme town at the time.
Working out who paid for these is beset with challenges. We do not know where they come from, whether they were carved for the church, a private home or a private chapel. They are of such quality that I would venture a private chapel or home, perhaps the Walrond’s ancestral seat in the parish which might explain their placement in the chapel. If true (if!) then the commissioning family would have shelled out for them.
A very fine chest tomb
The funders of the rest of the carvings in the Walrond Chapel is a no brainer, considering they are a box tomb, some busts and a reclining figure of various generations of the Walronds, starting around 1630 and going on to 1690. Nothing says, ‘we are the big boys on the block’ more than a bunch of expensive memorials, and just to underline this the earliest one, the box tomb (above) has these marvellous lasses facing forward.
As a commentator said, ‘A wonderful and hefty bunch. The carver had a limited knowledge of the body’s proportions but a deep understanding of womanhood. Quite glorious’.
Me? I say they are Devon babes, brought up on beef and clotted cream, helping a cow calve with one hand, carrying a couple of newborn lambs with the other, all the while giving an uppity prize bull a stare that freezes him on the spot and scuttles him away to reevaluate his manhood.
Proper Devon they are.
Here they are dressed as charity (or love), hope and faith, and on the side is justice, a reminder the local squires were the go to for law and order, though knowing the shenanigans and nepotism these kind of folks got up to, they were probably used to dispensing justice on the side… as well as under the table and out the back door.
The style of the tomb is debased Renaissance, apparently, and the two figures are grandfather (died 1627) and grandson (died 1667), which is interesting at least to see the different styles of clothing they wear. And hair. Definitely the hair.
The Walrond family monuments
Sitting on top of the tomb are three busts brought over from neighbouring Kentisbeare church and the man is the missing link between the grandfather and the grandson on the tomb, a Henry Walrond. Behind them is the son of the grandson on the chest tomb, another William Walrond, who died in 1689.
Worth a closer peek they are too…
Henry died in 1650, and the clothing represents the Commonwealth period, Cromwell still being in power and too much finery frowned upon. All of them are shown with books, a prayer book or bible, demonstrating their religious piety but also their literacy, which was a bit like showing off your top of the range BMW.
The son shown (they had at least two) sadly died before the parents, his hand resting on a skull being the giveaway to the passerby.
The reclining figure
And the last of the Walronds, gilt-armoured and curly-wigged as a few years of the Stuarts will do to you, not even mentioning those jowls…
Things is, these are marvellous carvings and even though the colouring is later it is likely reasonably accurate. All these folks have their characters on their faces, remarkably so. Though my favourites have to be the Devon ladies… not a peep of a smile from the squirearchy. Hey ho, life is so serious when you have placed yourselves on a pedestal and you need to keep balancing.
A stupendous Elizabethan tower screen
So wander down to the tower arch and… well, sometimes we walk into a church, look across the twilight at a murky something, think, ‘huh, that looks interesting’, move closer… and stand in stunned silence for minutes… and minutes… and minutes… very, very, very long minutes. The universe reboots as awe floods our minds and, after the restart, Cosmos 2.0 launches.
This is one of those times.
One figure would be a find, two a joy, a whole screen of the darlings just a drug of delight forever. They are such fun. Boy, would I like to meet the carver.
Put them in a contemporary Art Gallery and see them fly off the wall.
They are decorative, no religious meaning, coming as they are from the early seventeenth century, a time when religious carving was not welcome. They formed the west gallery originally, which was dismantled in 1928 and turned into this tower screen.
Looking back at the screen, some spaces have a coat of arms and some do not, and here is the clue to how this was paid for; the families who placed their coat of arms here opened their pockets. Think of it as an advertising backdrop, a clumsy analogy because this was not a capitalist society, but still it is relatable. The families were showing their devotion, their social position, their genealogy and their generosity as a start. They were players. Plus they probably just wanted to drop some cash for all this glorious carving; that alone might have been a good enough reason for many.
The grand Victorian chancel
And so to the 1846 renovation, a new aisle, west end, steeple and this excellent chancel, all dolled up in red and stone and gilded bosses, forming a stunning coherent whole happily near unchanged since it was installed, the red carpet being the main newcomer. Well worth time spent.
The Victorian contribution to our churches
Not forgetting the extraordinary east window; almost abstract, those colourful patterns just leap off the glass.
And yet, this renovation is a step change in church funding, up to now most money has come from the local landed gentry and the parishioners, a mixture of tradesmen, a few merchants, and the general working populace. Yet this was paid for an attorney, a retired Bristolian doctor and the rector (he had money), this was a new alliance, the church, the law and medicine, the bourgeoisie if you will, and more than that, retirees and non-locals, a different era.
And the same thing was repeated all over Devon, especially as it became such a popular place to retire to. We see many Victorian renovations (often desperately needed), rebuilds and new builds, with an abundance of lush stained glass stretching into the twentieth century, majorly funded from this new group.
And it is terrific. The interiors were cleaned up, conserved, adapted with cutting edge Victorian style, polished, beautified, the rebuilds so often have a beautiful simplicity while the new builds range from the glowing jewel of Sheepwash, to the phenomenal genius of Shaldon… Yet we still have so many Medieval darlings to dance with as well.
It is a fine time to be alive and churching in Devon. What else could be better… ?