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
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
Wonderfully carved fluted font at Abbotsham, Devon
Death at Abbotsham – the scythe had long since gone although parts of it remain if you look carefully
Here you can see the fuller bench end at Abbotsham, showing the design above Death.
This image shows craftsmens’ tools carved into a bench end at Abbotsham. These may be connected to the Passion
Interesting curved forms on a bench end at Abbotsham
The ancient Norman doorway at High Bickington Church, Devon
This bench end appears to have been cut into pieces – there are two other portions elsewhere in the church
A damaged bench end, probably defaced in the Puritan period at High Bickington
Another damaged animal, headless.
This image shows four singers. The “feathers” emerging from their mouths represent singing.
An image of a renaissance German mercenary or landsknecht. It is interesting that the person who carved this must have travelled abroad.
This fragment is all that remains of a much larger earlier piece. Nothing else remains at the church
This wonderful font has an attractive ropework base and classic early mediaeval decoration.
This image is said to represent someone from China but in fact the headdress is late mediaeval.