- Beautiful tower with stairs on south face
- Stunning Norman south doorway
- Medieval benchends to obsess over
- One of only 2 or 3 crucifixion benchends in Devon
- A rough old beauty of a Norman font
- A grand East Window, very subtle
- Striking seventeenth century effigy and monument
Up here north-west Devon gazes over to Wales and Ireland and out into the Atlantic. Valleys swoop to the sea and steep cliffs joust with roiling waves. A wonderful country on a summer day, magnificent in winter.
Close to Woolfardisworthy in the fifth century St Nectan planted a monastery in Hartland, which turned into a Saxon Minster, and then a Norman Abbey, looking after a huge parish, far too big for one church to serve all.
So chapels were needed, for monks to bring the mass to the souls in their care, and Woolfardisworthy started as one of these.
The chapel grew into a functioning church, burials, baptisms, marriages, full of altars and coloured carving, but still run from Hartland Abbey. Then came the Reformation and Woolfardisworthy became a separate parish as the abbey was broken up. At the same time, the church was stripped of many of its treasures, but enough remain…
Oh, and it is pronounced Woolsery, and sometimes written that way too. Absolutely no idea, me.
Woolfardisworthy Church on the outside
Nice church though, however it is pronounced, good local stone with a cracking tower. The stairs are in that jutting bit, and most unusually for this area of Devon they are on the south side. Bet the locals thought it was money well spent.
Very fine stonework all about too, like this priest’s door with its arched doorway and the neater relieving arch (to relieve the pressure of the stone above) over it; nowadays not used but in the past the priest kept his distance from the congregation, and the chancel was very much where he chilled.
The Norman door, beakheads and chevrons
Then we have this. Holy moley it’s a cracker. The Norman doorway at the main south entrance, battered and bruised, but still oozing power and presence. Imagine your local Saxon chapel, a humble structure of wood most likely, suddenly turned into this… well, not overnight, but in a few years. These strange foreign carvings just the outward sign of not only a change in the worship but also ownership of all the land.
Out here, where the seagulls rule, they were used to Christianity with a Celtic twist, and a Christianity with no clear human boss. There was no division between the West and the East (the East is what came to be called Orthodox Christianity).
But in 1057 there was a separation and the Roman church started to tread its own path, with the Pope as the head honcho, on earth at least, and the Normans carried this to England… and to here, at the ends of the world. Quite possibly the first that the locals had heard about it.
Near all the old clergy were replaced by the Normans and the English Church became what we now think of as Roman Catholic, with the Pope yer man.
We are staying, this doorways says. Wise not to argue with folk who can marshal the forces, the logistics, the skills to create such an imposing structure and so many like it.
A very fine creation too… with chevrons and these breathtaking beakheads as they are called, first found in the south-west France and brought here by the Normans, they were quickly adapted to form an endless delight of variation.
These ones are very English, much more identifiable as individual creatures than some earlier examples elsewhere in the country. Some scholars have claimed that Anglo-Saxon culture influenced their development, others that it was their purpose that drove their evolution.
‘… these terrifying creatures represent the sin and vice that fills the world, which must be rejected by the man of God… to remind us that the world is really like that, however beautiful and serene it may appear, and that the only refuge is to be found in the Church’
Michael Camille, Image on the Edge, 1992
And looking at the beakhead on the left… well, it does appear to be a devil of demon, does it not? With its horned ears and staring eyes, whilst the one on the right… no thank you, not coming to my birthday party…
The capital carvings
It is the mixture of the horror and the sublime that gets me, with the capitals here being the sublime. A delicate piece of carving, and purposeful I suspect. The church was just as much about the beauty of the Divine as about the fear of the sin that can crumble our connection to it.
Inside Woolfardisworthy Church
Inside is delightfully sparse, we can see the bare bones of the church, like the rock strata in the local cliffs, and looking closely the details start to come together until we gasp in love.
First, of course, the space; the local stone, the granite pillars quarried 18 miles off the coast from Lundy Island and dragged 3 miles up from the nearest landing spot, the clear windows illuminating the details, the south transept with its own unique atmosphere…
Marvellous benchends at Woolfardisworthy
… and these benchends, bonzer beauties one and all.
Admittedly they have been covered in brown goo at one point to preserve them, and they have also been carefully restored; the quatrefoils at the bottom and the middle upright on the right hand photo are much sharper and cleaner cut, nineteenth century woodworking tools were made from harder metal, but the rest are totally late fifteenth century or early sixteenth and they are grand survivors.
The crucifixion benchend
Astoundingly, there is still a surviving crucifixion, one of only two or three remaining on Devon benchends, and it just needs a drop of imagination to disappear the goo and see how sharp it would have been, how it would have leapt off the wood in the flickering candlelight, giving it a semblance of the living Christ, acres of stained glass creating a kaleidoscope wheeling across this veneration.
Instruments of the Passion
And there is something else going on here. When we define these as ‘benchends’ we are saying that their primary purpose is to support the benches for seating, yet already I can hear the hoots of laughter from the medieval ghosts floating around here.
These were carvings that turned a blank benchend into a prayer and a meditation, a journey of faith and a path to the Divine. Here are some of the Images of the Passion of Christ (along with the previous crucifixion), ‘Passion’ here having the Latin meaning of ‘suffering’ and denoting the events leading up to the crucifixion and death of Jesus, with the bottom right image being symbols for Mary and Jesus.
They would probably have been placed in order (the benches have likely been moved around) and folk took their own highly emotional journey, maybe holding a candle to each image in turn, following the path to the crucifixion, maybe spending time meditating on just one.
Quite possibly reading passages from a Book of Hours (kind of like an early prayerbook) whilst doing so, which would have had some descriptions of the events in English, or even reading aloud to others clustered around, discussing and sharing their faith together.
No more just beautiful art, but an interactive highway to God, if you will.
Now we can glimpse their living, through the murky glass of history
Drawing away, we can turn and adore this rough sweetie from the 1200s, with a few bits of colour remaining. It is the base of that square bowl that makes it for me, the stone underneath giving the impression of being squeezed out by the accumulated weight of the generations baptised in the font.
Then there is the very bottom, looking for all the world like the rocks we find on the foreshore below the cliffs down the road, the plinth emerging from these primordial creations. There is a tension here, form from chaos, creation from nothingness, faith from ignorance…
Walking up the nave the south transept is worth a gaze or two. It always seems to have the most gorgeous shimmering light whatever the weather outside.
And so the chancel, the sanctuary an appealing placement in the old, thick walls with the finely carved yet simple altar and the Victorian window, it is such a calm and peaceful space.
The East Window
The highly stylised east window itself is a slow-burn enchantment. There is far more going on here than is first apparent, I venture.
The figures are almost ritualistic, beautifully coloured, yet the backgrounds are intricately foliage-patterned, they are standing on flowers and grass, and thick vines surround them with nature’s power… or, more accurately, the blood of Christ which they symbolise. There is a tension here between our inner life, the habits and assumptions that we create our lives from, and the world outside full of change and uncontrolled growth.
And here, the crucifixion is the slow-burn tsunami of intense change that surges into followers’ hearts like a rampant vine… take a closer look, if you will…
Mary Magdalen herself seems to be undergoing this change, soft and subdued, not weeping and wailing but looking as if the Holy Spirit is already touching her, here at the foot of the cross, in the middle of this horror. This is not the Crucifixion as blood and sacrifice but as redemption, and she is feeling her skin as if discovering a new Mary, a strange Mary, a Mary she is going to love and a Mary that is going to love.
After all, Christ did not just say ‘Love your neighbour’ but ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’. That is important.
This moment of change is what the window is all about.
Death no longer matters.
God is love.
And the Kingdom of Heaven is within us.
The Richard Cole Monument
In the north chapel there is a fine monument to Richard Cole, who died aged 46 in 1614, fully armoured ready for the resurrection… possibly. More likely he is prepared to defend this little area of the church, because he seems to have made a major power grab here, a veritable coup d’etat, as his will states:
… my body to be buried in the North Ile of the church of Woolfardisworthie aforesaid and the same Ile to be seemly inclosed and repayred at the sole costs and charges of my Executrix…
Which basically means ‘All your north aisle belongs to me’. Not the first to do this in that era, but not many put it in their wills, and it shows a new post-Reformation behaviour that no longer regards the church as a totally divine space, but to be put to more worldly use. Their own family’s use as it happens. No surprise there, then!
He also gunpowdered a new landing beach through the rocks at Bucks Mill cove (then part of the parish), this pathway still visible at low tide, to enable his tenants to land the large herring catches made in those times. And whilst that might have increased his rents from the tenants, it quite likely improved their lives too.
It is a lovely memorial though, with its original paint, Dick showing a lot of steel in his face, and a grand amount of little details, like this hour glass with wings, showing that time flies for all and ends with death. Or fruit, seemingly. I choose fruit.
Churches and light and colour and beauty
The sun plays artfully here, with the thick church walls and the lightly coloured glass. If you are fortunate enough to come on a sunny day, then take time if you will to rapture at the shades and shadows, the colours and textures.
Mind you, this is true for all churches, and once this apple is bitten we are truly gone, seduced and enchanted by every church, spending our hours floating in their beauty and grace.
Life can be that awesome. I promise.