From The Chair – No. 22: Skeleton Staff
An ongoing series of short reports by written our Chair, Dr Sue Andrew, musing on discoveries made as she travels around Devon.
This follows on from Sue’s earlier series of reports made during walks from her Tavistock home during the coronavirus lockdown. The fourteen earlier pieces can be read here.
22. Skeleton Staff
Over the past months, Exeter Cathedral has been keeping in touch through a weekly newsletter, Cathedral Life, delivered by email. It is always eagerly anticipated for it contains information, news and interesting features concerning our great Devon church. A recent comment by Canon Treasurer Mike Williams struck a chord with me, though I’m sure not quite as intended. Canon Williams noted that ‘We are running the Cathedral on a skeleton staff’. Sometimes it doesn’t pay to think literally, for I was reminded of watching Ray Harryhausen’s brilliant skeleton army which features in the film Jason and the Argonauts, made nearly sixty years ago in 1963. It was a favourite cinematic moment for my three sons as they were growing up.
Skeletons and churches have always shared space. Beneath the cathedral green at Exeter lie thousands upon thousands of skeletons, with burials of the ‘great and the good’ inside the building. Yet bones have been disturbed over the years during periods of unrest, with those of Bishop Grandisson, whose contribution to the Cathedral was so significant, being scattered and thrown ‘no man knoweth where’ in the later sixteenth century.
Skeletons, sculpted or painted, have been used in the church as Memento Mori – to remind us of the inevitability of death. The story of the Three Living and the Three Dead was known to medieval Christians in manuscripts and was often to be found in wall paintings. In Bovey Tracey church, an old watercolour records the painting that once graced the north side of the nave there. The painting was discovered in 1858 but has long since disappeared. The watercolour copy shows three kings in their fine robes, together with three skeletons. The first king says ‘I am afraid’; the second ‘Behold and see’; and the third ‘Methinks these be devils three’. The Three Dead reply ‘I was well fair; ‘Such shall you be’ and ‘For god’s love, beware by me’. The wall painting thus urged its viewers to consider the transience of life and to change their ways before it was too late. Confronting death is not something we all feel comfortable with, yet it can make us reassess how we want to live and help us make the most of our days.
The skeletons on the wall at Bovey Tracey may have gone to ground, and those that lie beneath the cathedral green in Exeter are largely forgotten, but Ray Harryhausen’s skeletons, historic in terms of cinematic special effects, still rise up to fascinate young and old. For more on Harryhausen’s work, see https://www.nationalgalleries.org/exhibition/ray-harryhausen-titan-cinema.
14 Sep 2020
Recent reports of a close encounter between a sow and a sunbather in Berlin brightened an otherwise gloomy news cycle (see https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-53692475). My own encounter with porcine patrollers at Challacombe in Dartmoor a few weeks ago resulted, fortunately, in much less exposure. I watched with delight as three young pigs, with ears flapping and the warm sun on their backs, ran through flower-rich meadows.
Pigs were once much more familiar in our lives than they are now – in town and country. In Tavistock, each of the Duke of Bedford cottages, built in the middle of the nineteenth century, had its own sty and pig’s court. In Widecombe, the recently restored pig’s house recalls an age when pigs were still at the centre of things.
If you know where to look it is possible to spot some beautiful images of pigs from earlier centuries in Devon’s churches. At Gittisham in east Devon, a late sixteenth- or seventeenth-century stained glass fragment of Flemish origin is painted with six pigs feeding at a trough. At Abbots Bickington church, accessed through a farmyard in north Devon, a pig in fifteenth-century glass accompanies St Anthony Abbot, to whom the people of the parish would pray for protection of their livestock.
In four churches – Braunton, Newton St Cyres, Sampford Courtenay and Ugborough – may be found oak roof bosses carved with a sow and her piglets in an arrangement also sculpted in stone in Exeter Cathedral. Perhaps the finest of these is that in the north aisle at Ugborough, where the detail in the fifteenth-century carving is quite remarkable.
The pigs at Challacombe have chance to range and root as these intelligent creatures should, and as their foreboars did long before the advent of intensive farming. It was indeed heartening to witness their curiosity and contentment in a beautifully managed landscape where nature is allowed to flourish, and farm animals allowed their freedoms.
In March, the Devon Heritage Centre, along with other institutions, closed its doors. For those of us who enjoy trawling through its treasures to discover a little more of Devon’s history, it has been a frustrating few months. The Centre re-opened last week, operating a new booking system designed to minimize risk, and quarantining material after use.
Having signed up for a morning session to look at churchwardens’ accounts for the parish church of Silverton, I donned a mask and set to, with a table to myself as is now the way in an age of social distancing. Although searching for specifics, I have always found it remarkably easy to be distracted by interesting snippets and two particular entries caught my eye.
The first, which chimed with our present situation, was made in November 1831 when a sum was paid for ‘Forms of Prayer against the spreading of the Cholera’. In February the following year, an amount was entered for ‘two other Forms of Prayer against the same disease’ and for ‘200 copies of this Prayer to distribute about the Church’.
The second entry, I have to confess, made me smile. In July 1957, a sum was given in response to an urgent appeal from the Deans Rural. A printed notice, pasted into the churchwardens’ accounts read:
We are all indebted to the Bishop of Crediton for his self-sacrificing work and hold him in great affection and esteem. We are all also horrified by the dilapidated car in which he has to travel long distances…It is evident that it is dangerous for him to have to use a vehicle which is liable to fall to pieces at any moment, and it is disgraceful that he should be obliged to use it.
Having learned from the Bishop of the Diocese that it is impossible…to provide the Suffragans new cars…we have agreed to appeal…We are confident that this appeal will meet with a ready response from both clergy and laity. A minimum subscription of £3 from each parish will enable us to purchase a Ford Anglia, but we hope to be able to do considerably better than this.
When these entries were made in the accounts, the churchwardens, although aware of deadly disease, could not have envisaged a future where a global pandemic would force the closure of churches for many weeks. Nor could they have imagined a future where women would one day be Bishops of Crediton!
In Devon’s archives may be found tales of triumph and tragedy, of matters of great import that have shaped all our lives and whose effects have been profound. But there are other tales too – brief glimpses which have a charm of their own and which add a certain something to our Devon story – such is the tale of the bishop’s new car.
8 Aug 2020
Photo of Ford Anglia by Charles01 (public domain).
When my three sons were growing up, we kept all manner of stick insects, including some rather wonderful spiny specimens from New Guinea – Eurycantha calcarata. We also spent hours hunting through Devon hedges and fields to spot their tiny inhabitants, as my grandsons, aged seven and four, do now. It is a real pleasure watching the boys’ faces as they examine the contents of the sweep nets their father made for them.
A frequent find in the hedgerows is Timarcha tenebricosa – the bloody-nosed beetle – so called as it exudes a red liquid when threatened. They are easy to spot, being one of our largest leaf beetles, yet if handled gently, are not disturbed by close scrutiny.
I have always rather liked beetles. In January, the DA’s Entomology Section asked its members to bring along to its AGM an insect-inspired cultural artefact, and so, rather belatedly, I would like to offer two of my own – a modern silk painting and an antique Tibetan cloth, also silk.
The silk painting I did for my son’s tenth birthday, nearly twenty-three years ago. I am not convinced that there is anything quite like it in the natural world – it was simply intended as a card for a budding entomologist who later changed course.
The Tibetan cloth is something of a mystery and I have not seen another like it. When we bought it in Edinburgh around forty-five years ago, I understood it to be a prayer cloth, and it does bear the eight spokes of the Buddhist prayer wheel. The spokes are decorated with gold thread and the iridescent wing-cases of an Asian wood-boring jewel beetle Sternocera aequisignata. In the nineteenth century, these wing-cases became so popular in fashion in England, that, in 1867, a consignment of 25,000 was sold in London (see https://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O1387342/dress/).
In the Autumn 2019 issue of DA News, Robin Wootton, DA President Elect for 2021-2022, wrote a powerful article ‘Insects: when will people realise they are fascinating?’. I’m with him on this – Devon has an abundance of extraordinarily beautiful and behaviourally interesting little creatures who are crucial to our very existence. I am determined to turn over a new leaf so I may understand them more.
28 July 2020
A visit to the dentist in an age of social distancing is quite unlike it was before. At my dental practice in West Street, Tavistock, last Tuesday, I was met at the door, had my temperature taken, rinsed my mouth and used a nasal spray containing iodine solution, sanitized my hands, put on a mask and cleansed hands again with soap and water, before venturing into an empty waiting room. Within two minutes, a masked and visored hygienist called me in for my appointment. It was her first day back at work since the middle of March, and though she was not able to use any mechanical device which would spread tiny droplets, she was as thorough and gentle as ever. Examination by the dentist thereafter proved similarly reassuring.
Dentists frequently use disclosing tablets to indicate plaque, but on this visit, it was another plaque that caught my eye. Fixed to the outside wall of the dental practice is a plaque which discloses the building’s history – it was converted from a dwelling into Tavistock’s first cottage hospital, which opened in 1887. Further research in The Tavistock Gazette, published on 29th July that year, reveals that the hospital was set up as a permanent memorial of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. It was noted that no infectious cases would be admitted. The Matron, Miss Daw, was described as the parochial lady nurse ‘who has won the respect and confidence of all who know her’. The hospital proved its worth, particularly in the treatment of injuries caused by accidents, but the building was relatively small, housing only eight or nine inpatients, and more space was soon needed. A new hospital was purpose built in nearby Spring Hill in 1896.
The building at 33 West Street may have changed since its inauguration as Tavistock’s first cottage hospital one hundred and thirty-three years ago, yet the discipline that Miss Daw brought to the hospital in those early days is still evident in the necessarily cautious approach adopted by the dental practice during the COVID-19 pandemic. In 1887 it was recorded that ‘A bright and cheerful aspect pervades the building throughout’. It does still and maintains an air of calming care of which Miss Daw would be proud.
25 July 2020
A small stone statue of St Christopher, bought many years ago by my mother, guards the front porch. I walk past it several times a day, but seldom really notice as it blends softly with the slate windowsill and a rough wall beyond. One evening the last rays of the sun caught it, highlighting the saint’s features and those of the small child whom he carries to safety. It reminded me of other images of St Christopher – medieval images which survive in our Devon churches and which were believed to protect their viewers from sudden death.
Every church had these images, mostly in the form of wall paintings on the north wall opposite the south door so that the saint would be seen immediately on entering the church. Although none of these survive in Devon, depictions of the saint in stained glass and wood are still to be found, if rarely. A fragment at Abbots Bickington church, from the fifteenth century, is exquisitely painted, and a roof boss in Burrington church may still have original medieval colour under a later brown varnish.
Recently, for me, the light has shone on another Christopher, my elder brother, who works as an Operating Department Practitioner for the NHS. With visor, mask and scrubs as his armour, together with his colleagues he strides through troubled waters to protect the vulnerable, at no mean risk to himself. He may not be a saint, but his cheerfulness and professionalism make him a source of great comfort to his patients, many of whom are fearful of what lies ahead.
Often we do not see as clearly as we might things or people with whom we are deeply familiar, and it is only when the light changes that their true qualities come into view. Perhaps that is one good outcome of this pandemic – that we now appreciate more fully all those who are there for us in times of trouble.
15 July 2020
16. Mayflower 400
It is ironic that the Mayflower 400 commemorations, due to be held in 2020, should be put on hold by the emergence of a virus that has had such a devastating impact across the world. Four centuries ago, in the years 1616-1619, so just prior to the arrival of the Pilgrims in the ‘New World’, disease brought by previous European colonisers inflicted what has become known as ‘The Great Dying’ on the native peoples of the north-east coast. Sickness would also destroy the lives of many of the incoming settlers.
As I write, the Mayflower Museum on the Barbican remains closed, and The Box, Plymouth’s new cultural hub, will probably not open until September. But the glossy Official Mayflower 400 Commemorative Publication, edited by Robert McCall – 1620–2020, Mayflower 400, Steering our future, inspired by the past – gives hints of the shape of things to come, promising a much more nuanced account of events than has been presented in the past. For the first time, it says, the story will be told from the perspectives of both the newly arrived Pilgrims and the indigenous Wampanoag tribe, and it will, indeed, be fascinating to see how these histories will unfold in events and exhibitions.
On the ground floor of the Mayflower Museum, in the Tourist Information Centre, alongside the Official Publication, may be found a small and significantly less glossy booklet: Danny Reilly’s and Steve Cushion’s Telling the Mayflower Story. Thanksgiving or Land Grabbing, Massacres & Slavery? (2018, Socialist History Society). As would be expected from its title, this work challenges many of the past retellings of the Mayflower story, and hopes it will ‘help to increase understanding and support in the UK, during the 400-year anniversary commemorations and beyond, for the ongoing struggles of the Indigenous Nations of North America, of African-Americans and of African-Caribbean peoples today’ (p.4).
At the present time, when disease and dis-ease are rife in communities both sides of the Atlantic, care, consideration, understanding and support for others is surely the way forward to a healthier future for us all.
8 July 2020
Visiting Widecombe in the Moor on a sunny afternoon in the middle of June is not something I would usually do, but this year is different. No coaches, the church, National Trust shop, pubs and cafés still closed, only a few people on the green, and chance to wander around without cars at every turn. Chance, too, to investigate a little building recently conserved under the watchful eyes of the Widecombe History Group – the old pig-house – and an adjacent memorial garden. Pig-houses were once common but fell into disuse and many of these humble buildings have been lost. This one has been given a new lease of life, with old artefacts used inside to tell the Dartmoor story.
The small cobbled garden, planted with ferns, wildflowers, and old-fashioned garden plants, is a delight, with the church tower glimpsed beyond a profusion of greenery. Oak and granite benches, one dedicated to the memory of broadcaster, local historian and much-admired former President of the DA, Anthony Beard, provide the perfect place for quiet contemplation. On the day I visited, the peace was disturbed, but in the best possible way, as a flock of rooks soared and swooped over the treetops. I’ve always admired the sociability of rooks, and their craaking conversation, and on homecoming found the following in Sabine Baring-Gould’s Book of Dartmoor:
A visitor to Dartmoor in June or July will be surprised to find flights of rooks over it. As soon as their maternal cares are over, they desert the rookeries on the lowland and go for change of air and diet to the moor, where they feed on the whortleberry, possibly, but most certainly on the daddy longlegs [crane flies] and its first cousin, who is the hateful wireworm in his fully developed form. A friend one day saw a bit of the moor dense with rooks, and surprised at their movements and excitement, observed them closely, and discovered that they were having a glut of daddy longlegs (p. 255).
Although the pubs and cafés may still be closed (though not for much longer it seems) and the human visitors few, others are taking advantage of all Widecombe has to offer, and it makes for a spectacular sight.
24 June 2020
All text and photos by Sue Andrew unless otherwise stated. Click on the photos to see larger versions.
For “From the Chair” numbers 1 to 14, see here.