- One of the prettiest church gates in Devon
- Delicious tower and spire overlooking a pretty rural valley
- Very special ambience of age and spirit
- Fine roof bosses
- Lovely medieval bench ends
- A goodly medieval parclose screen
- Ace Victorian floor tiles
- Deep connection to the Stucley family, mad lads of their day
- Very nice stained glass
West Worlington Parish
There is many a different church gate in Devon but this surely has to count as one of the prettiest, tunnelling through a traditional thatched cottage. These are now private houses but originally might have been the Church House or even a very old vicarage.
Strangely enough, West Worlington St Mary’s is only about 500 meters from East Worlington St Mary’s, which in this landscape of the occasional human seems a bit of an overkill. Most likely there were two old estates, East and West, going way, way back, and neither landowner wanted their peasants snaffling off to someone else’s church.
Plus maybe a touch of keeping up with the Joneses, that’s a motivation never to be underestimated.
West Worlington Church of St Mary
The church is a doozy, with a probable thirteenth century tower, fourteenth century chancel and fifteenth century rest. That twisted spire takes the grand prize, covered in oak shingles (sometimes called shindles down thisaway) as it is.
This kind of roof used to be far more common in Devon, as did spires. In a county of plenteous oak trees it only seems common sense to use them so much.
But in 1976
“… there was a bad thunder and lightning storm over the village with a severe strike on the spire blowing the top of it apart and striping its wooden tiles damaging around 1/3 of it
The noise was deafening, just like an explosion and the force of the strike was felt by a nearby resident who was blown off her feet and sent across her living room, luckily only suffering some nasty bruises.
It was such a sad sight to see the village landmark essentially destroyed.
Nevertheless, the villagers raised money to have the spire rebuilt, employing a specialist builder and using the same type of materials, ie wooden tiles. I think you would agree the builder did a pretty good job.”
From a local resident at the time.
They even put the twist back into the spire. That is classy, that is.
Mind you, the original wriggle did not come from cowboy work but from medieval building techniques. They used green (fresh) oak because seasoned (dried) oak is hard as iron. Medieval tools were made of softer metal than modern ones; carving old oak was next to impossible.
As oak dries it moves and shrinks, tightening up all the joints. Here it twisted in a wriggle and a jiggle as it did, whilst still tightening and closing the joints, most all pinned with wooden dowels, in the way it was designed to do.
The result would have been a super solid structure, set like concrete, twist or no twist.
Inside West Worlington Church
Some churches just caress the heart on the very first encounter, tendrils of tumbling wonder rainbowing the brain, an atmosphere so delicate yet so potent, a heady awesomeness of deep history, art and sprit.
This is one of them.
And so strong that I still remember the first time I entered back in 2016. The first step inside, the frisson of excitement booming into awe.
There is nothing specific, it is just a perfect little medieval church in one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world.
Does life offer anything better?
A stone angel in West Worlington
And there are heavenly angels to greet us, carved on the pillar capitals, the host of heaven in this little church tucked away in the green hillscape of mid Devon.
The whole parish would have been involved in rebuilding this church in the fifteenth century, and near all would have donated time, goods or money; the local big families probably donated the most, of course, but by this time the parish was starting, at least, to be run by the parishioners and not just by the gentry.
Cash of course, always welcome, standing timber, charcoal for furnaces, food to feed the workers, ale and cider, oxen lent for carriage, pulling the sledges carrying the heavy stone and wood, and labour, especially in the winter months when farm work was not so busy.
But cash especially, to pay the stonemasons, the carvers, the stained glass artisans, the experts.
This was a parish creation, and boy must they have been proud.
Raising money for the church
Of course it helps to have the moolah in the first place, and West Worlington is a small parish… but it used to be smaller.
Back before 1439 there were two tiny parishes side by side, Affeton and West Worlington, and the de Affeton’s of Affeton had the right to appoint the priest of both.
It was in 1439 that John de Affeton, the patron of both parishes, got the bishop’s permission to combine the two, allowing for one church (the Affeton church became the private chapel of the Affetons) and one priest yet still the same amount of tithes.
Tithes were a kinda ten percent income tax that went to the patron of the parish or the priest, usually payable in produce as rural England was not a cash economy.
The patron of the parish had the right to appoint the priest (for life, it was mighty, mighty difficult to fire a priest), though the bishop usually got a say in this too, and to decide how the tithes were split; usually some went to the patron and some to the vicar.
But the patron could not just pocket the necessary and tootle of down the local casino; well, they could, but they would no longer get invited around to tea and crumpets. They were expected to keep the church up to spec and to donate a goodly amount to the poor, and in general they did.
The new church
Meanwhile John de Affeton’s only child, Catherine, married the High Sheriff of Devon, Hugh Stucley; When John died the Stucleys became the parish patrons and during or just after this merry go round the church was near totally rebuilt in the 1400s.
It is not beyond imagination that the new family wanted to start with bang, and probably donated a fair amount to the rebuilding.
Like these gorgeous roofbosses in the nave, with more modern colouring very nicely applied. The dynamism of the foliage carefully contained in a square. Lovely.
Medieval bench ends
And then these equally impressive sixteenth century bench ends, totally delicious and very interesting into the bargain.
There are a fair few of them in this church and none of them have any overt religious symbolism on them, no saints, no Instruments of the Passion, none of the kind of thing to be expected up here in this part of Devon.
So they are likely later sixteenth century, when all that kind of stuff was no longer approved of by the new Protestant overlords. And also they seem to be an appealing marriage of Renaissance and Gothic; they have the old Gothic motif, the mouchettes (on the left) and arches and foliage but carved large and swirly, Renaissance style.
We are looking at the fusion of old and new, I suggest, just before the full Renaissance totally took over; a bodacious fusion too, this carver was inventing their own genre with such confidence and passion. Stunning stuff.
The West Worlington screen
At the end of the south aisle is this old screen; some way it is a remnant of the sixteenth century rood screen, some that it is the parclose screen (from the same era) that separated the south chapel from the chancel on the left, since moved to this position.
My vote goes for the parclose, as there is not sign of destroyed vaulting nor an intricately carved cornice up the top, both of which half-dismantled rood screens usually have.
It is a nice little survivor, that linen fold panelling at the bottom (because it looks like folded lined) being relatively rare in church screens here.
But come closer…
The spandrels in the screen
The spandrel carvings are a touch of deliciousness, and splendidly they rhyme so well with the bench ends. These are Gothic symbols, flower on the left and pomegranate husk on the right, carved big and curly, Renaissance style, just like the bench ends.
Whether they are by the same carver or not we can only imagine, but it sure looks good and that is what counts.
The chancel is nice Victorian space, cleaned up as they did. It probably needed it too, and the folks who restored the church back then did a very respectful job.
They tended to have a habit of slotting in an up to date altar and floor tiling into the chancel area, which has happened here, and as this was where folk to receive the Communion I can see their point very well indeed.
Delightful Victorian floor tiles
Though they certainly were not shy in fluttering flamboyant floor tiles around the place, and these surely prove that. Using just five colours the floor springs straight into our eyes and a lovely sight it is too.
All that patterning without overdoing it.
Enter the infamous Stucleys
In the chancel as well is this older memorial to Thomas Stucley, the local bigwig, who died in 1663, buried in a vault underneath the memorial.
Now Tom here, he was a minor player in the grand theatre of the Stucley family, though he did have his day. During the seventeenth century’s Civil Wars, his brother was chaplain to Oliver Cromwell, Tom supported the King, and that left their house, Affeton Castle (a mile away from this church) fair game for both any passing Royalist or Parliamentary army, a double whammy so to speak. No wonder Affeton Castle no longer exists, just the gatehouse remaining.
And then there was Lewis Stucley who betrayed Sir Walter Raleigh in 1618 and was hissed forevermore in Devon as ‘Judas’ Stucley; not a moniker to bear with pride.
To butter the sauce, he was not only paid £500 for the betrayal but was then caught ‘clipping’ the blood money that he had received, shaving off the edges of the coins to sell the silver, and then tried to blame his son for everything.
But the Grand Prize has to go to the Thomas Stucley who died in 1578 at the The Battle of Alcazar fighting for the King of Portugal in Morocco.
Before that mistake, the lad managed to betray the King of France, Queen Elizabeth I (twice), the King of Spain (not sure how many times), the Pope and as for the Irish, he seems to have betrayed them every month or so just to keep his hand in.
Queen Elizabeth’s top adviser called him
‘A faithless beast rather than a man’
Which isn’t really something to put on a CV, though ‘Lusty’ Stucley (as he was nicknamed) probably imagined it was a compliment.
Now fun as these stories are (and old Lusty there was a definite one-off, he even had two popular plays written about him after his death) there is something even more magical.
All these folk passed through this church and likely parked their behinds on the existing sixteenth century benches, touched the walls, marvelled at the screen and gossiped with their community.
If that is not magic then I do not know what is.
Mary in Stained Glass
As is this beautiful stained glass, from the rapacious appetites of the Stucleys to the divine ecstasy of pure love, Mary is every parent with their child here, and of course there is more.
The child Jesus with such a look of compassion and tenderness with his direct gaze, and already he is starting to look away from his mother whilst still using her for support, a prophecy of what is to come and yet what will be always be as well. A love that never dies.
A more formal portrait
Whilst here is a far more formal portraits of the Virgin Mary, with her lily of purity and a more subtle emotion, surely a Mary who has already been through the mill and still carries her love with her though now shaded by sorrow.
The church, the landscape and the folk
There is something about this church, the whole is greater than the parts, that has made it so beautiful and powerful. The fragrance of history mists around it along with the bouquet of a fine aged landscape, redolent of ancient folk, ancient faith, ancient community, more than in many another church I have enjoyed.
It is the sense of use too, this is not a museum, still it is creating history, humble as it; far more important than all that tomfoolery that folk get up to looking for power, money, attention…
It is about the history of care, for the church and for the people; admittedly the Stucleys might not have been poster lads and lassies for this, but the parish folk were and are.
Back through the old gateway
And the church gateway sums it up, quite possibly seeing folks passing back and forth since the sixteenth century, humble, modest, nicely presented…
And beautiful as all get out.