A Book of the West/Volume 1/2
VILLAGES AND CHURCHES
Devonshire villages not so picturesque as those of Sussex and Kent—Cob and stone—Slate—Thatch and whitewash—Churches mostly in the Perpendicular style—Characteristics of that style—Foliage in stone—Somerset towers—Cornish peculiarities of pinnacles—Waggon-headed roofs—Beer and Hatherleigh stone—Polyphant—Treatment of granite—Wood-work in Devon churches—Screens—How they have been treated by incumbents—Pulpits—Bench-ends—Norman fonts—Village crosses—How the Perpendicular style maintained itself in the West—Old mansions—Trees in Devon—Flora—The village revel.
A DEVONSHIRE village does not contrast favourably with those in Essex, Kent, Sussex, and other parts of England, where brick or timber and plaster are the materials used, and where the roofs are tiled.But of cottages in the county there are two kinds. The first, always charming, is of cob, clay, thatched. Such cottages are found throughout North Devon, and wherever the red sandstone prevails. They are low, with an upper storey, the windows to which are small, and the brown thatch is lifted above these peepers like a heavy, sleepy brow in a very picturesque manner. But near Dartmoor stone is employed, and an old, imperishable granite house is delightful when thatched. But thatch has given way everywhere to slate, and when the roof is slated a
great charm is gone. There is slate and slate. The soft, silvery grey slate that is used in South Devon is pleasing, and when a house is slated down its face against the driving rains, and the slates are worked into patterns and are small, they are vastly pretty. But architects are paid a percentage on the outlay, and it is to their profit to use material from a distance; they insist on Welsh or Delabole slate, and nothing can be uglier than the pink of the former and the chill grey of the other—like the tint of an overcast sky in a March wind.
I once invited an architect to design a residence on a somewhat large scale. He did so, and laid down that Delabole slate should be employed with bands of Welsh slate of the colour of beetroot. "But," said I, "we have slate on the estate. It costs me nothing but the raising and carting."
"I dislike the colour," said he. "If you employ an architect, you must take the architect's opinion."
I was silenced. The same day, in the afternoon, this architect and I were walking in a lane. I exclaimed suddenly, "Oh, what an effect of colour! Do look at those crimson dock-leaves!"
"Let me see if I can find them," said the architect. "I am colour-blind, and do not know red from green."
It was an incautious admission. He had forgotten about the slates, and so gave himself away. The real objection, of course, was that my own slates would cost me nothing. But also of course he did not give me that reason. Where the slate rocks are found, grauwacke and schist, there the cottages are very ugly—could not well be uglier—and new cottages and houses that are erected are, as a rule, eyesores.
However, we have in Devon some very pretty villages and clusters of cottages, and the little group of roofs of thatch and glistening whitewashed walls about the old church, the whole backed by limes and beech and elm, and set in a green combe, is all that can be desired for quiet beauty; although, individually, each cottage may not be a subject for the pencil, nor the church itself pre-eminently picturesque.
The churches of Devonshire belong mainly to the Perpendicular style; that is to say, they were nearly all rebuilt between the end of the fourteenth and the sixteenth centuries.
Of this style, this is what Mr. Parker says: "The name is derived from the arrangement of the tracery, which consists of perpendicular lines, and forms one of its most striking features. At its first appearance the general effect was usually bold and good; the mouldings, though not equal to the best of the Decorated style, were well defined; the enrichments effective and ample without exuberance, and the details delicate without extravagant minuteness. Subsequently it underwent a gradual debasement: the arches became depressed; the mouldings impoverished; the ornaments crowded, and often coarsely executed; and the subordinate features confused from the smallness and complexity of their parts. A leading characteristic of the style, and one which prevails throughout its continuance, is the square arrangement of the mouldings over the heads of doorways, creating a spandrel on each side above the arch, which is usually ornamented with tracery, foliage, or a shield. The jambs of doorways are generally moulded, frequently with one or more small shafts."
The style is one that did not allow of much variety in window tracery. The object of the adoption of upright panels of glass was to allow of stained figures in glass of angels filling the lights, as there had been a difficulty found in suitably filling the tracery of the heads of the windows with subjects when these heads were occupied by geometrical figures composed of circles and arcs intersecting.
In the west window of Exeter Cathedral may be seen a capital example of "Decorated" tracery, and in the east window one in the "Perpendicular" style.
Skill in glass staining and painting had become advanced, and the windows were made much larger than before, so as to admit of the introduction of more stained glass.
Pointed arches struck from two centres had succeeded round arches struck from a single centre, and now the arches were made four-centred.
Foliage in carving had, under Early English treatment, been represented as just bursting, the leaves uncurling with the breath of spring. In the Decorated style the foliage is in full summer expansion, generally wreathed round a capital. Superb examples of Decorated foliage may be seen in the corbels in the choir at Exeter. In Perpendicular architecture the leaves are crisped and wrinkled with frost.
In Devonshire the earlier towers had spires. When the great wave of church building came over the land, after the conclusion of the Wars of the Roses, then no more spires were erected, but towers with buttresses, and battlemented and pinnacled square heads. In the country there are no towers that come up to the splendid examples in Somersetshire; but that of Chittlehampton is the nearest approach to one of these.
In the Somerset towers the buttresses are frequently surmounted by open-work pinnacles or small lanterns of elaborate tabernacle work, and the parapets or battlements are of open tracery; but in Devon these latter are plain with bold coping, and the pinnacles are well developed and solid, and not overloaded with ornament. Bishop's Nympton, South Molton, and Chittlehampton towers are locally described as "Length," "Strength," and "Beauty."
A fine effect is produced when the turret by which the top of the tower is reached is planted in the midst of one side, usually the north; and it is carried up above the tower roof. There are many examples. I need name but Totnes and Ashburton.
A curious effect is produced among the Cornish towers, and those near the Tamar on the Devon side, of the pinnacles being cut so as to curve outwards and not to be upright. The effect is not pleasant, and the purpose is not easily discoverable; but it was possibly done as being thought by this means to offer less resistance to the wind.
The roofs are usually "waggon-headed." The open timber roof, so elaborated in Norfolk, is not common. A magnificent example is, however, to be seen in Wear Gifford Hall. But cradle roofs do exist, and in a good many cases the waggon roofs are but ceiled cradle roofs. A good plain example of a cradle roof is in the chancel of Ipplepen, and a very rich one at Beaford.
The mouldings of the timbers are often much enriched. A fine example is Pancras Week. The portion of the roof over the rood-screen is frequently very much more elaborately ornamented than the rest. An example is King's Nympton, where, however, before the restoration, it was even more gorgeous than at present. The waggon roof presents immense advantages over the open timber roof; it is warmer; it is better for sound; it is not, like the other, a make-shift. It carries the eye up without the harsh and unpleasant break from the walling to the barn-like timber structure overhead.
Wherever white Beer stone or rosy Hatherleigh stone could be had, that was easily cut, there delicate moulding and tracery work was possible; but in some parts of the county a suitable stone was lacking. In the neighbourhood of Tavistock the doorways and windows were cut out of Roborough stone, a volcanic tufa, full of pores, and so coarse that nothing refined could be attempted with it. Near Launceston, however, were the Polyphant quarries, the stone also volcanic, but close-grained and of a delicate, beautiful grey tone. This was employed for pillars and window tracery. The fine Decorated columns of Bratton Clovelly Church, of a soft grey colour, are of this stone. The run of the stone was, however, limited, and was thought to be exhausted. It was not till the Perpendicular style came in that an attempt was made to employ granite. The experiment led to curious results. The tendency of the style is to flimsiness, especially in the mouldings; but the obduracy of the material would not allow of delicate treatment, and the Perpendicular mouldings, especially noticeable in doorways, are often singularly bold and effective. A tour de force was effected at Launceston Church, which is elaborately carved throughout in granite, and in Probus tower, in Cornwall. For beauty in granite work Widecombe-in-the-Moor tower cannot be surpassed; there the tower is noble and the church to which it belongs is mean. In using Ham Hill stone or Beer stone, that was extracted in blocks, the pillars, the jambs of doors and windows were made of several pieces laid in courses and cut to fit one another. But when the architects of Perpendicular times had to deal with granite there was no need for this; they made their pillars and jambs in single solid blocks. A modern architect, bred to Caen stone or Bath oolite, sends down a design for a church or house to be erected near Dartmoor, or in Cornwall, and treats the granite as though it came out of the quarry in small blocks; and the result is absurd. An instance of this blundering in treatment is the new east window of Lanreath Church, Cornwall, designed by such a "master in Israel" as Mr. Bodley. The porch doorway is in six stones, one for each base, one for each jamb, and two form the arch. The old windows are treated in a similar fashion—each jamb is a single stone. But Mr. Bodley has built up his new window of little pieces of granite one foot deep. The effect is bad. Unhappily, local architects are as blind to local characteristics as London architects are ignorant of them. So also, when these gentry attempt to design hood mouldings, or indeed any mouldings, for execution in granite, they cannot do it—the result is grotesque, mean, and paltry: they think in Caen stone and Bath, and to design in granite a man's mind must be made up in granite.
In Cornwall there are some good building materials capable of ornamental treatment, more delicate than can be employed in granite. Such are the Pentewan and Catacleuse stones. The latter is gloomy in colour, but was used for the finest work, as the noble tomb of Prior Vivian, in Bodmin Church.
As stone was an intractable material, the Devonshire men who desired to decorate their churches directed their energies to oak carving, and filled them with very finely sculptured bench-ends and screens of the most elaborate and gorgeous description. So rich and elaborate are these latter, that when a church has to be restored the incumbent trembles at the prospect of the renovation of his screen, and this has led to many of them being turned out and destroyed. South Brent screen was thus wantonly ejected and allowed to rot. Bridestowe was even worse treated: the tracery was cut in half and turned upside down, and plastered against deal boarding—to form a dwarf screen.
"What will my screen cost if it be restored?" asked a rector of Mr. Harry Hems.
"About four hundred pounds."
"Four hundred pounds! Bless me! I think I had best have it removed."
"Very well, sir, be prepared for the consequences. Your name will go down to posterity dyed in infamy and yourself steeped in obloquy."
"You don't mean to say so?"
"Fact, sir, I assure you."
That preserved the screen.
Then, again, some faddists have a prejudice against them. This has caused the destruction of those in Davidstow and West Alvington. Others, however, have known how to value what is the great treasure in their churches entrusted to their custody, and they have preserved and restored them. Such are Staverton, Dartmouth, Totnes, Harberton, Wolborough. That there must have been in the sixteenth century a school of quite first-class carvers cannot be doubted, in face of such incomparable work as is seen in the pulpit and screen of Kenton. But if there was good work by masters there was also some poor stuff, formal and without individual character—such as the screens at Kenn and Laneast.
The pulpits are also occasionally very rich and of the same date as the screens. There are noble examples of stone pulpits elaborately carved at South Molton, Bovey Tracey, Chittlehampton, and Harberton, and others even finer in wood, as Holne, Kenton, Ipplepen, Torbrian.Among churches which have fine bench-ends may
HOLNE Pulpit AND SCREEN
There was a churchyard cross at Manaton. The Rev. C. Carwithen, who was rector, found that the people carried a coffin thrice round it, the way of the sun, at a funeral; although he preached against the usage as superstitious, they persisted in doing so. One night he broke up the cross, and removed and concealed the fragments. It is a pity that the cross did not fall on and break his stupid head.
It is interesting to observe how late the Perpendicular style maintained itself in the West. At Plymouth is Charles Church, erected after the Restoration, of late Gothic character. So also are there aisles to churches, erected after the Reformation, of debased style, but nevertheless distinctly a degeneration of the Perpendicular.
In domestic architecture this is even more noticeable. Granite-mullioned windows and four-centred doorways under square hoods, with shields and flowers in the spandrels, continued in use till the beginning of the eighteenth century.
A very large number of old mansions, belonging to the squirearchy of Elizabethan days, remain. The Devonshire gentry were very numerous, and not extraordinarily wealthy. They built with cob, and with oak windows, or else in stone with granite mullions, but neither material allowed of great splendour. A house in granite cost about three times as much as one of a like size in brick.
The mansions are too numerous to be mentioned. One who is desirous of seeing old houses should provide himself with an inch to the mile Ordnance Survey map, and visit such houses as are inserted thereon in Old English characters. Unhappily, although this serves as a guide in Cornwall, the county of Devon has been treated in a slovenly manner, and in my own immediate neighbourhood, although such a fine example existed as Sydenham House, it remained unnoticed; and the only two mansions indicated in Old English were a couple of ruins, uninhabited, that have since disappeared. Where the one-inch fails recourse must be had to the six-inch map.
Devonshire villages and parks cannot show such magnificent trees as the Midlands and Eastern counties. The elm grows to a considerable size on the red land, but the elm is much exposed to be blown over in a gale, especially when it has attained a great size. Oak abounds, but never such oak as may be seen in Suffolk. The fact is that when the tap-root of an oak tree touches rock the tree makes no progress, and as the rock lies near the surface almost throughout the county, an oak tree does not have the chance there that it does in the Eastern counties, where it may burrow for a mile in depth without touching stone.
Moreover, situated as the county is between two seas, it is windblown, and the trees are disposed to bend away from the prevailing south-westerly and westerly gales. But if trees do not attain the size they do elsewhere, they are very numerous, and the county is well wooded. Its rocks and its lanes are the homes of the most beautiful ferns that grow with luxuriance, and in winter the moors are tinted rainbow colours with the mosses. The flora is varied with the soil. What thrives on the red land perishes on the cold clay; the harebell, which loves the limestone, will not live on the granite, and does not affect the schist.
The botanist may consult Miss Helen Saunders' "Botanical Notes" in the Transactions of the Devonshire Association; Miss Chaunters' Ferny Combes; and the appendix to Mr. Rowe's Dartmoor.
The village revel was till twenty years ago a great institution, and a happy though not harmless one. But it has died out, and it is now sometimes difficult to ascertain, and then only from old people, the days of the revel in the several villages. In some parishes, however, the clergy have endeavoured to give a better tone to the old revel, which was discredited by drunkenness and riot, and their efforts have not been unsuccessful. The clubs march to church on that day, and a service is given to them.
One of the most curious revels was that at Kingsteignton, where a ram was hunted, killed, roasted, and eaten. The parson there once asked a lad in Sunday School, "How many Commandments are there?" "Three, sir," was the prompt reply; "Easter, Whitsuntide, and the Revel."
Another, where a sheep was devoured after having been roasted whole, was at Holne. At Morchard, the standing dish at farmhouses on Revel day was a "pestle pie," which consisted of a raised paste, kept in oval shape by means of iron hoops during the process of baking, being too large to be made in a dish. It contained all kinds of meat: a ham, a tongue, whole poultry and whole game, which had been previously cooked and well seasoned.
The revel, held on the réveil or wake of the saint of the parish, was a relic of one of the earliest institutions of the Celts. It was anciently always held in the cemetery, and was attended by funeral rites in commemoration of the dead. This was followed by a fair, and by a deliberative assembly of the clan, or subdivision of a clan, of which the cemetery was the tribal centre. It was the dying request of an old Celtic queen that her husband would institute a fair above her grave.