- A beautifully simple church, thirteenth century and onwards.
- A grandly rugged Norman font
- A charming and fascinating memorial to the Isaacs
- An entrancing Victorian altar back, colourful and elegant
- Good wall mosaic in the chancel
- Some lovely Victorian stained glass
- A peaceful old space just right for resting in
West Down Church of St Calixtus
We know that this church’s mighty rare dedication to St Calixtus is probably the original one because someone wrote about ‘Doune Sancti Kalixti’ in 1329, but we had no evidence for a very early church here until 2013 came along.
Because it was then that a young lad called Jack Lawrence found an old stone in his garden, dating from the seventh century AD, with both the celtic name ‘Guerngen’ carved into it as well as a Christian cross. It probably ended up in his garden when rubble was removed from the church about 200 years ago.
So did Guerngen found an early Celtic Church monastery here? Or was he a local big man buried in the local monastery? Because a monastery is what it would have been, with a few monks going around the countryside preaching and ministering. And as Braunton, a big Celtic Church foundation, is not so far away, this is a serious possiblity.
But now all that has disappeared and we are left with speculation and this lovely.
Around West Down Church
What would be magical, unlikely as it might be, is if St Calixtus was the very original saint of this church. An early pope (217–222) who was martyred for his beliefs, he attracted criticism from his fellow Christians for being too merciful to murderers and adulterers. Not a bad habit to have in many a way.
And this church is old too, its shape has been almost unaltered since it was built in the thirteenth century, though the north transept might have been added in the fourteenth.
The tower we cannot be sure about as it was rebuilt in 1712, though there is a hint that it might been Norman, which we will come a bit later in this article. Why rebuilt? One thing better left unseen in our Devon churches is the foundations, mainly because even when exposed they can be a challenge to see. Surely God will look after her own house?
Or not, as the case might have been here.
That clock dates from 1712 too, one of the earliest in Devon. One handed as well, as they were back then, and using local beach rocks as weights for the pendulum. Nice touch that.
The chancel stonework
The chancel was rebuilt in 1675, that plaque above the door says so, probably for the same reason as the tower. Church building renovation was practically non-existent in that century in Devon.
It has left us with a lovely priest’s door here, with a good original window and a Victorian one on the left, but the stonework is the real beauty here I am thinking.
Entering West Down church
Inside we are in the same space that our thirteenth century ancestors would recognise with some slight differences. No pews, the floor would have been beaten earth and clay with rushes, and there would likely have been some sort of screen or cloth across the chancel opening, but our imaginations can supply all that.
It is a marvellous space, simple, modest, calm… a space to sit awhile and listen to heartbeats.
Looking the other way down the nave we can see that tower arch, which looks far more Norman-like than from 1712, being semi-circular and all; the Normans did not use pointed arches. The thinking is that it might be a copy of an original Norman arch.
Whatever the truth, it is a very fine arch with more lovely stonework.
A rugged Norman Font
And talking of Normans, this big old bruiser of a Norman font is waiting by the door and boy oh boy does he make his presence known. Bearing the marks of life in the rough, they say he is Norman but I place my money on this hard-bitten gentleness baptising the dinosaurs whilst turning a Tyrannosaurus Rex into an apologetic vegetarian with a glance.
They say it was discovered buried in the nave floor, I say it just decided to grace us with its presence after a few centuries kip.
A true wanderer as well, coming originally from North Somerset, Dundry stone to be precise.
The fabulous Isaacs’ Memorial
Another treasure is this adorable seventeenth century wall memorial to Francis and Grace Isaac; The hand holding shows they are married, but there is such an elegance in their manner that somehow we know this is no symbol, this is love; a devoted couple looking forward to be together for all eternity.
But there is a secret code here, a word to the wise so to speak (and thanks to Dr Jonathan Foyle for pointing this out)… Between them is the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and Grace has a five petalled Rose on her chest symbolising the Five Wounds of Christ. Both Roman Catholic symbols. Both incredibly naughty in a so very anti-Roman Catholic country as England most definitely was in this period.
Now Grace was born into the Chichester family, many of whom remained secret Roman Catholics up here in North Devon, and Frankie, well Frankie…
In 1642 Parliament decided that even man in the kingdom had to swear an oath to support the (Protestant) Church of England and against all ‘Popery and Popish innovations’. We still have the lists of folk who did this in Devon, called the Protestation Returns.
And Frankie appears on the list for West Down as Francis Isaac, Gent. (as Stephanie Brooke pointed out) And here the mystery deepens because six folk on the list signed their own name, whilst Frankie is lumped in with all those who did not; his name is just written by someone else.
So without going all Da Vinci Code on this marvellous couple, is it not maybe a tad interesting that an actual ‘gentleman’ did not sign his own name? Did Francis allow his name to put down without taking the oath, pleading a bad hair day or something? Or was he truly Church of England? And were these two both a Catholic couple or was it just Grace?
No idea, moi, but I do know this: Looking at these wonderful faces, full of love, a gentleness deep in tender care, then the possibility that the Divine gives a bent atom whether someone is Roman Catholic, Protestant or even Syriac Orthodox just seems ridiculously barmy.
Humans eh! Inventing God in their own image since day one. Oh dear.
West Down church chancel
And so the Divine, the altar for the heart of the Christian mystery, the Eucharist and its transformation, whether real or deeply symbolic, into the blood and body of Christ.
It is a lovely space, still retaining a 14th style window, probably copied or even retained from the original during the seventeenth century rebuilding.
But the true star here is what the Victorians did to the space, and they surely did well, cleaning up and inserting a new altar, altar back and clean floor tiles along with stained glass without trashing the structure.
The altar back (reredos) is a gem, one of those dreamy Victorian paintings often found in this position, underrated, unknown, so deserving of a bit of love and appreciation… so let us give it some.
It is the Annunciation, when the Angel Gabriel (with those sensational wings) announces to the Virgin Mary that God has chosen her to be the mother of his son, and would she be ok with that? It is a beautiful story in the Gospel of Luke, with Mary pointing out the flaw in Gabby’s news
“How shall this be, as I have intimacy with no man”
Before agreeing to her role after a bit more of a discussion…
“See: the slave of the Lord; may it happen to me as you have said.”
And here in this dreamscape befitting an angelic apparition, with the lily of purity between Gabriel and Mary, a background of flowers symbolising God’s creation, and the Holy Spirit coming to enter Mary, the moment when the Divine takes human form…
Stylised? Of course, but I venture the exotic, near-psychedelic nature of the scene brings out the wonder, the transcendence, of the moment.
Whilst above it is the end stage of the Divine as human, Christ crucified, with an older Mary full of grief; at this moment does she still think she made the right decision? The answer is on the right, possibly, with John, a young man, whose life also has been torn apart by the death of the Messiah but his faith is still alive.
But the Resurrection, where is that? Well, that is at the altar, at every Eucharist, when the Divine lives still in this world; this little collection has the core of the Christian faith mapped out, and there is no need to be Christian to appreciate how it is done, and the beauty that comes with it.
A wall mosaic
Nor indeed the beauty of this mosaic on the east wall, a lovely thing to admire.
My, those Victorians were good.
Faith, Hope and Love
More than pleasant is this window in the south transept, showing Faith, Hope and Love, beautifully posed.
Hope is usually shown with an anchor, probably due to the verse in Hebrews
For God is not unjust, so as to forget your work and the love that you have shown toward his name in having ministered – and in ministering – to the holy ones. And we desire each of you to demonstrate to the end the same earnestness for a full assurance of hope.…
… we who who have fled for refuge should have a mighty encouragement to lay hold of the hope set before us: Which we have as an anchor for the soul, safe and unyielding…
Hebrews 6:10/11 & 18/19 Trans David Bentley Hart
And the anchor was a common symbol used by early Christians.
The hand over the heart of the Lady of Hope signifies faith, which ties well in with the bible passage.
Lost at sea
But here is an anchor that has a different kind of hope, a hope of an afterlife and of comfort and steadfastness.
Above is the Holy Spirit, and below the book is the bible, for faith, and the anchor is also for a seafarer, that placement on the rock indicating that he died at sea.
The Parminter memorial
It is part of a rustic memorial for a couple and their son, nothing to get into the grand book of church memorial design, but a sweet local design from slate and marble, created for love.
Their son, Thomas, probably died from disease or accident, but his ship only had another 15 days to live. The St Vincent caught fire just outside Plymouth, was towed in scuttled there.
It had been built in 1829 and was used to carry convicts to Australia, then emigrants, then seemed to have stayed on that run. Such a tiny little North Devon village and yet still plugged into the massive globalisation of the nineteenth century.
The old north transept
And so to the transcendent in this ancient church, the north transept, tranquil, numinous, holding the peace of God in its grasp.
Over in that curved niche in the far wall is an oak effigy, near featureless now, possibly of Sir John Stowford who either built this transept or paid for it to become a chantry chapel, where a priest would say daily masses for his soul, his family and mention the local community as well.
Now a place to breathe away the world, whether the Divine is part of our lives or not, maybe wondering what Sir John, Grace and Francis Isaac, Tom Parminter and the thousands of folk who have prayed and rested here would think of things today.
How many churches have come and gone down the centuries? Celtic, Orthodox, Roman, Protestant, Church of England and now more secular but the church is still valued at the heart of the community in these rural communities.
There is magic here.