- Designed by a famous Arts and Crafts architect, W D Caröe
- Building using the local red stone that almost glows
- An enchanting undercroft door
- Charming collection 20th century stained glass
- A beautiful altar back
- The design itself is well worth a good inspection
- Simple and well done chancel screen
Woolacombe parish and church
Here once were hamlets, Over-Wollacombe, Nether-Wollacombe, an estate, a chapel of ease, all looked after by the mother church in nearby Mortehoe; folk wrestled a living from the thin-soiled salty valley and the storm-ridden sea, divided by the tide-wracked beach.
Then the railway came in 1874 carrying the tourists and the retirees, the Victorian bourgeoisie, financially invested in the spoils of the British Empire, living La Vida Loca nineteenth century style.
By the 1880s Woolacombe was booming, villas sprouting all over, and in 1891 a temporary tin church was built for the growing population.
Woolacombe was young, Woolacombe was modern, Woolacombe was the future…
So a proper Woolacombe church was wanted with all those qualities, and W D Caröe, one of the main movers of the modern-as-was Arts and Crafts movement, was commissioned. Caröe had just finished the greatly admired St David’s church in Exeter, so when the foundation stone of Woolacombe church was laid expectations must have been high.
And this is what they got when it opened in 1912. Distinctive, hunkered down against the storms marching through the seas between North Devon and South Wales, and gently respecting tradition with a delightful twist.
The red stone is from the area, the design rhymes with a local barn or manor house, but yet there is good sprinkle or three of Arts and Crafts adding a touch or more of glamour.
It really is rather good.
Woolacombe Church of St Sabinus
The north side is a tad more domestic, with the entrance in the porch on the north west end. A ‘Master of spatial painting’ Caröe has been called, and his use of strong lines here, reflected in the rectangular windows, shows how good he was.
Mind you, the north aisle was not completed until 1965. A lack of money and a couple of world wars will do that for you any day.
A clerestory window
This lovely clerestory window seems well worth waiting for, a goodly combination of wood, stone and glass, the design very much of its time and all the better for it.
St Sabinus of Canosa, Woolacombe’s patron saint
Woolacombe church is the only one in Britain dedicated to St Sabinus of Canosa (in Italy) who died in 566. The current betting is on this saint being chosen by Lady Rosalie Chichester, who donated a bunch of money to the church and travelled extensively in Italy.
There is another contender though, favoured by some local folk, and that is an Irish bishop of the same name who was said to have wrecked up here on Woolacombe Sands and decided to stay to convert the locals. Sadly unlikely though, as next to nothing can be gleaned abut him except for this legend.
Though it has brought us this most excellent window from 1969; those waves alone are worth the journey, roiled up green with the sandy hue of shore-bursting breakers about to dash the boat onto the beach.
The window is by R Coomber for Wippells of Exeter.
Oh, and if you want a flood of captivating twentieth century stained glass then Woolacombe church says come on in.
The charming undercroft door
But not by this elf-like door, as enchanting as it is, because this is to the undercroft. Those flowers setting off the red stone, and all those textures and shapes, just delicious.
Inside Woolacombe Church of St Sabinus
The interior of Woolacombe church greets us like beautifully, with its strong arcades seemingly carved from the bones of the valley and the deep-sea-green oak roof.
That striking font is from 1916, a well-considered design.
The powerful arcades
The chunkiness of the arches is most pronounced, wonderfully so.
A memorial to a brave sea captain
And so another piece of crackerjack stained glass, this glorious window, designed by GER Smith of AK Nicholson Studios, was dedicated in 1936 to Captain William John Nutman by his daughters.
Captain Nutman was awarded the Albert Medal in Gold for Sea (one of only 25 ever awarded) by Queen Victoria in July 1896 for bravery; he stayed on board his sinking ship during a nighttime storm in the Mediterranean when everybody else had been taken off by a rescue boat.
He refused to leave a severely injured fireman, saying
If I’m saved this man is to be saved. If we are here in the morning come back for us.
From Peter Searle’s website
and went down with his ship. He was discovered in the morning clutching an upturned lifeboat and still holding the fireman.
An outstanding act of selfless love, well worth commemorating in a church window.
The two figures are St Nicholas and St Elizabeth of Hungary.
The ship depictions are worth a visit alone, beautifully illustrated and surrounded by a couple of fitting verses from psalm 107
They that go down to the sea in ships, and occupy their business in great waters
These men see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep.
Psalm 107, 23-24
And the works of the Lord, the creation of Heaven on Earth, we are here in Billy Nutman’s actions:
Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you.
We are all friends under God, the fireman and the captain and all us other clumsy folk.
Wise words from an angel or two
And the little angels (how sweet these are!) carry more quotations from the same psalm
He maketh the storm to cease, so that the waves thereof are still.
Then are they glad because they are at rest; so he bringeth them into the haven where they would be
But it is not just God and sea, because look these…
Around the saints is this detailing, and it is such a fine feature, a true reason to look and look again at everything in a church.
Woolacombe Church chancel screen
Moving up the nave, more details come into view, not least the screen; very much of its time, more a suggestion of a screen than a real one, the top almost floats, supported by those thin uprights and the minimalist grillwork.
Of course the front altar is a more recent development, originally the main altar at the back would have been exquisitely framed by the gently arched entrance into the chancel.
With quite a stark sanctuary fitting the rest of the building, splashed with colour from the stained glass and that rather interesting altar back.
There is a tale here.
An elegant altar and altar back
The whole, altar, candlesticks, altar cross and altar back, is a memorial to the folk from the parish who lost their lives in WWII, the candlesticks themselves donated in memory of Air Gunner Richard Trebble and Sub-Lieutenant Derek Worth.
Richard was lost on the last day of the war in Europe when his familiarisation flight over the North Sea never returned, and Derek was killed in a training accident in Scotland in 1941. Derek’s funeral was attended by the whole village, Richard’s body was never recovered.
The helplessness of parents in that awful war must have been a nightmare. Pride and terror sitting together, always there, always whispering.
A candlestick for the community, a concrete prayer to the Divine, a light bearer for the light of the world, the brief flame of the young lads’ lives, blazing briefly in that war against evil, to be remembered, them and all others, in a little seaside church in North Devon.
Woolacombe’s gorgeous Annunciation
All this bravery memorialised in this spectacular painting of the Annunciation when the bravest person in the New Testament, a woman, a low rung in the long ladder of the wealthy-male dominated society of the time, said yes to a life of withering pain and ocean-deep love.
The depiction is gorgeous, the vivid colours, the elysian landscapes, the folding of the clothes, those ravishing blue wings rhyming with Mary’s robe, the scrolling text carrying on a wood block tradition from the Middle Ages, and the bible open to the book of Isaiah
Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.
Isaiah 7:14 KJV
Ultimately though, faith or no faith and all stops in-between, surely the art alone here makes this a piece to cherish.
Back down the nave
Just as looking down the church we see, along with that glorious march of pillars of local stone, a more recent twentieth century artwork…
The West Window by Dom Charles Norris
A west window that glows deep orange at sunset and shows the four gospel writers, roughly sketched as to make them every human bearing witness to the story of the Divine on earth, glowing with the inner fire of deep faith.
It is by Dom Charles Norris of Buckfast Abbey in Devon, created in 1983.
The hidden angel in the screen
Still in the later latter half of the twentieth century the screen down at the west end also takes a bow. It so seems 1960s or 1970s but I have not been able to track down anything about it.
Except of course, this section has an angel hidden in its kaleidoscopic patterning, emerging from all those rich colours of creation. Maybe another biblical riff…
Do not neglect hospitality to strangers; for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.
Hebrews 13:2, trans: David Bentley Hart
So God’s messengers and messages are not broadcasting full throttle, we discern them by our faith-filled actions.
Plus, once identified, they rock.
To be fair, that last thought is not quite in the bible.
A WWI memorial window by Kempe
There is another war memorial in this church, this one to the dead of WWI, created by the famous Kempe studio and installed in 1919.
The central scene shows the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, with the devout Simeon uttering the first four words of the first line of the Nunc Dimittis
Nunc dimittis servum tuum, (Domine, secundum verbum tuum in pace…)
Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace according to thy word.
But this window is unique for another reason…
St George and Lady Liberty
On either side are a well-armoured St George for England and a Lady Liberty for the USA, with the American motto
E pluribus Unum
One from many [One nation from many]
This depiction of Lady Liberty is a unique, the only one by Kempe, and tribute by to the American involvement in WWI; it is most very surely a beauty.
Apart from the style and the lush detailing, the contrast between the weaponed-up Georgie boy and the domestic Liberty lass is terrific.
Is this a comment on the nature of Liberty, created and nurtured by us, the common people, yet protected by the armour of God?
More lovely Kempe stained glass
To continue with the Kempe studio, here are a couple of their achievements from 1930, when the business was being run by Water Tower, Kempe’s cousin, and most of the design work was by John Lisle.
The Annunciation and The Nativity, blingtastic as ever and all the better for it (for those of us who like a bit of glitter and glimmer), but there is more here too.
The way Mary’s head is turned away in The Annunciation, with a slight undecided expression as if not yet able to fully accept the existence of Gabriel. Maybe also still so unsure about taking on the rather big responsibility that the Divine is making her an offer for, an offer she could have refused.
In the Nativity her pose is flipped, but he expression is very different: Gratitude? Hope? Love?Awe? Beautifully done for sure.
Bling on bling
As beautifully done as the cascade of sparklers engulfing Gabriel here, plus those peacock feathers for the wings, not forgetting that face full of compassion.
But really all the glamour, in the ancient meaning of that word, touched by magic, pregnant with enchantment, the soft whisper of the numinous, the Holy at work on earth… yup, all of those and more.
A calm place to sit
Which is also shown in a very different way in the careful design for this rather special church, arguably somewhat unassuming from the outside but a cave of wonder within, just like this bare stonework making up the sedilia (seats for the clergy) in the chancel.
Devonians old and new have built a very special space here.
A place that has all that colour and spangles from the stained glass, that heavenly altar back and also has the space for contemplation and hurt; for the sadness of death and pain, and for the holiday joy of a seaside resort.
Just like life really.