In Devon banks down darkest lanes, bench ends beguiling


Bench end showing Death at Abbotsham Church

Death waits at Abbotsham – a reminder to all who sit in churches and elsewhere that their time will come

In different counties different downs roll deep their view to unravel, and so it was in Devonshire I rode on good Le Gringalet in search of things distinctive to pass away my hours.

Here is a most green of counties, a shire of verdant vibrancy in normal times yet cast brown by our long winter, spent as it was indoors before flame and fire avoiding of the freeze without. Never had I seen this county thus before yet clear it was before me now – and cold.

No ruby red, no cream upon the scone nor cheese crusty set upon my trencher. So into darker fields Le Gringalet led me towards two old parishes I thought I knew me well, named Abbotsham and High Bickington. What changes here since last I rode with Arthur in warmer days, wafting through lands and away on our hunting!

Abbotsham now by Appledore is closer, accreted such by dwellings that its once famed views of Torridge’s effluxion have now but eased below the eaves of roof tops many. Yet that church still it stands though starkly, so afflicted as it is by the varied violations of Victorian scrapers. But inside, what wares to while away the surface of your eyes!

This church, most charmless and cheap from outside yet once within giveth of its gifts with generosity unbounded: a bevy of bench-ends becoming and becalming at one and the same time. Look here at Death, his scythe he settles on we see. And there a workman wrapped forever in a woven bracket carved from wood. On another, Our Lord laughed at by later vandals is defaced upon the cross while too another bench blows mischief at some bounder riding backwards on his bay.

Bench ends are here distinctive while high above old faces beam, fragile survivors of all the worst of favours that those in Victoria’s reign could through upon their fame…

So let us move inland now to Old Devon where country folk, changed though they have, speak calmly as in all centuries they have and as, with God’s grace, they shall in future do. Let us ride out to High Bickington, remote and blowy on its rising ground bold standing in its grip of green damp grasping.

Here is a church much as I remembered it! A church charming and cheery despite the cheese of green decay which now impregnates its stones. In this church silent you can sit and hear the wind, a-feared as God Himself intended by the howling of the wind which did in centuries past cast down the spire of Norwich on St Maurus day.

In this damp room of sanctuary sleepy let settle your eyes in the gloom and touch those things my fingers brushed in centuries gone by. A sad remnant of a decorated carving – a rood screen perhaps long gone? Glass glistening and gold in places growing older and more faint by the years as Godless and unholy men predate the world without.

Yet more bench ends beckon and these beguile as well they should. Chanting singers sweetly sound in silence, four in a row; on another a Landsckecht, loosely ribboned loiters ready to work for whosoever wafts coin his way. Headless creatures hunted by the horrid in puritan times are hacked to faceless now, their forms only faring better through lack of subsequent protrusion. And finally, chance a man from China? No – this praying penitent points palms upwards as pigtail pony-like points back; a headdress of more humble times harks in the silence of the stones and tiles.

Let us leave these places now to sleep some more and centuries see out. It saddens me to think them sentinels of a silent age but still they stand and stoutly too, carrying their message to newer people long after I have left these lands and am but dust upon the earth.

In fields which still to me are there

from times when last I walked

I visited them once again to stare

And still to me they talked

Up in the roof space, an old face looks down at Abbotsham

Up in the roof space, an old face looks down at Abbotsham

Bench end Abbotsham

At Abbotsham, one of a number of such designs in other churches in Devon – a man bent double for all time

Primitive face carvings on a bench end at Abbotsham, Devon

Primitive face carvings on a bench end at Abbotsham, Devon

Image of the font at Abbotsham

Wonderfully carved fluted font at Abbotsham, Devon

Image of Death on a bench end at Abbotsham

Death at Abbotsham – the scythe had long since gone although parts of it remain if you look carefully

Image of Death on bench end at Abbotsham church

Here you can see the fuller bench end at Abbotsham, showing the design above Death.

Image of bench end at Abbotsham church showing instruments of the Passion

This image shows craftsmens’ tools carved into a bench end at Abbotsham. These may be connected to the Passion

Image of a bench end at Abbotsham church

Interesting curved forms on a bench end at Abbotsham

Image showing Norman door at High Bickington

The ancient Norman doorway at High Bickington Church, Devon

Image of early bench end at High Bickington Church

This bench end appears to have been cut into pieces – there are two other portions elsewhere in the church

Image of defaced bench end at High Bickington

A damaged bench end, probably defaced in the Puritan period at High Bickington

Image of Another animal bench end at High Bickington

Another damaged animal, headless.

Singers on a bench end at High Bickington

This image shows four singers. The “feathers” emerging from their mouths represent singing.

image of Landscknecht bench end at High Bickington

An image of a renaissance German mercenary or landsknecht. It is interesting that the person who carved this must have travelled abroad.

image of mediaeval carving at High Bickington

This fragment is all that remains of a much larger earlier piece. Nothing else remains at the church

image of The font, High Bickington

This wonderful font has an attractive ropework base and classic early mediaeval decoration.

image of man in pigtail on bench end at High Bickington

This image is said to represent someone from China but in fact the headdress is late mediaeval.

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Filed under British Landscape, Devonshire, English Counties, English History, English Landscape, Gawain and the Green Knight, Historic Churches in England, Historic places to visit in Britain, King Arthur, Sir Gawain and Le Gringalet, Touring Britain, Touring England

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