Inspired by Devon
A collection of short pieces contributed by our members on topics related to Devon that have inspired them. You can contribute too. Just email your piece to email@example.com together with an optional photo. We reserve the right to edit pieces and will consider copyright and privacy issues (e.g. if the photos include identifiable people).
This page was itself inspired by Sue Andrew’s series of 25 pieces entitled “From the Chair”, which ran from April to October 2020; her future contributions will now be included as part of this work, starting with No. 1 “Repair” below. You can see Sue’s earlier pieces here.
16. Learning about Devon’s flora
Elements of the popular press seem to delight in referring to all birdwatchers as ‘Twitchers’. I suspect it’s a way of sneering at a pastime that journalists don’t understand. The proper classification of those who watch birds as a hobby is worthy of its own Wikipedia page, but in short a true twitcher is someone who engages in a determined – sometimes even obsessive – pursuit of birds to ‘list’, aiming to build up the maximum possible total for a year or lifetime. It’s not a term that’s applied to birdwatchers alone, you can ‘twitch’ plants too.
In my bird watching days twitching was an activity I steered away from, even looked down upon it myself to some extent. Far better, for me, to take a more relaxed approach to encountering birds, finding pleasure in any comparative rarities I came across by my own efforts. Unfortunately, that disdain for twitching rather put me off joining the Wild Flower Society (WFS) as a way of learning plant identification.
The WFS encourages its members to keep an annual record of the species they find as a way of better getting to know our flora. The aim is to build up their total from year to year, but members are not competing with each other in any way, it’s purely a personal challenge, a way of measuring a growing knowledge of field botany.
When I finally did join myself, I found that naming and listing, however nerdy an activity it might appear, is a wonderful tool for appreciating the astonishing variety of living organisms that surround us in the natural world. For instance, I discovered to my surprise that I had in my garden not just one species of Speedwell – that plant with small blue flowers often considered a ‘weed’ – but five. (I recorded around 90 species of wild plant in total in my garden last year, a number doubtless boosted by my failings as a gardener).
So in the early 2000s I spent many a happy hour wandering the Devon countryside building up the list of plants I could recognise. We’re in an enviable position here. Our mild climate and varied countryside, easily accessible even for someone living in the middle of the county’s biggest city, is a rich hunting group for the amateur botanist. I have many fond memories of trips to Dartmoor and the South Hams, visiting such special places as Emsworthy, Slapton Ley, Andrews Wood, and Wembury.
In the end my annual total exceeded 600 species, and although I now no longer keep annual records I’ve retained my WFS membership. There’s no obligation as a member to record, you can join the Society just to boost your enjoyment of wildflowers and to attend their excellent field meetings.
If you want to learn more, you can visit the Wild Flower Society’s website at https://thewildflowersociety.com/. Each region of the country has a Branch Secretary who is there to provide assistance during the year and review the members’ diaries once the botany season is over. (I should declare an interest at this point as I’m now filling that role myself for a large part of the South West).
Images from Wikimedia Commons – click on them for details
15. Festive yarn bombing* in Budleigh Salterton
This December four postboxes in Budleigh Salterton have been given a seasonal makeover to raise money for two regional charities. Having spotted the Magi outside the Medical Centre I assumed that the theme would be the Nativity Story but, as can be seen from the photographs, this was not the case and a mixture of secular and religious themes are giving pleasure to many. The swimming teddy in Mackerel Square is particularly cute!
The initiative is part of a fundraising campaign for the charities Devon Mind and Hospiscare. The impact of Covid-19 on the finances of both has been devastating in a year when all charities have faced extra challenges. It is the brainchild of Clare Suttie who lives in Colaton Raleigh. Clare said, “After everything that 2020 has thrown at us the Atlas Translation Team thought that Budleigh Salterton needed a bit of extra festive cheer. And what could make you smile more than some clever crochet and knitting?” People are asked to smile, take a photo to share on social media and to donate at https://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/Team/BudleighSaltertonPostboxes
The figures should remain in place until 30 December, but even if you do not get to see them I hope you will agree that they are an inspiration at the end of this difficult year.
*Yarn bombing: the action or activity of covering objects or structures in public places with decorative knitted or crocheted material as a form of street art, usually in an effort to spread positivity.
14. A Winter’s Journey
Every year, in February, I visit the little chapel at Huccaby in Dartmoor to see its carpet of snowdrops – it’s a sure sign that the darker days of winter are nearly gone and that spring is just around the corner. The chapel itself is, architecturally, fairly unremarkable. Built in 1868/69, under the direction of Reverend Morris Fuller, it was intended both as a chapel of ease and as a schoolroom, used on Sundays for worship and on weekdays for learning – the desks are still there.
The chapel is believed to be unique in being the only one in England dedicated to the archangel Raphael. In the traditions of most Abrahamic religions, Raphael is the archangel responsible for healing, and a journey over the moor to Huccaby earlier this week proved a balm for the soul, for the chapel is beautifully decorated in a simple, yet deeply affecting, manner, capturing the essence both of its place and the Christmas story.
Above a granite fireplace, a crib with crafted felt figures nestles amid winter foliage – fir, holly, and ivy. The chapel’s Christmas tree is a branch naturally decorated with a few remaining bronzed leaves and hanging lichen, to which has been added a trail of white lights and icicles. Behind the altar, holly berries add a warm note to seasonal greenery, and, before it, a branch flutters with prayers on coloured labels attached by visitors.
Healing of sickness and division is much on all our minds just now, and whether religious or not, the little chapel at Huccaby is a haven of peace in which to reflect on life and the changing seasons. In a few weeks, the snowdrops will come, as they always do, and brighter days will follow.
13. The hidden world of Devon’s bryophytes
One of the many benefits of an interest in the natural world is that the passing of summer and arrival of autumn, with winter following on, is rarely a source of regret. Quite the opposite in fact. In my bird watching days it was the late summer that was a quiet period, while the autumn brought the excitement of migrants, making their way south to warmer climes. Winter was a time for enjoying the birds that choose our own part of the world to seek refuge from their now colder summer territories.
When I moved into botany, autumn and winter brought an end to the flowering season, most plants having died back or slipped into dormancy, and so I returned to some seasonal birdwatching. But I was always aware of another group of plants for which the cooler, wetter weather was of real benefit – the mosses and liverworts, collectively known as bryophytes.
They remained a bit of an enigma to me until, in 2010, the British Bryological Society published their “Mosses and Liverworts of Britain and Ireland: A Field Guide”. With simple identification keys, clear descriptions of species, and needing nothing more than a hand lens (already a standard part of a botanist’s kit) to more closely examine key features, it opened up a whole new world.
We have around 1,100 species of bryophyte in the UK. That may seem low in comparison to the 3,000 or so vascular plants (that’s the flowering plants, plus ferns, conifers and so on), a total which doesn’t even include the many microspecies of groups like brambles and dandelions. Yet as a proportion of global diversity we have a notably rich bryophyte flora, with around four to five percent of the known species as compared with between one or two percent for the vascular plants. So how come we are so fortunate? Well it won’t come as a surprise that our mild and damp British weather particularly favours them.
Devon is home to just over 600 species, a good proportion of the national total. Like much of the west of the UK, our local climate is especially suitable for them and supports this rich variety. We also have our wonderful range of habitats – the moors, with tor and bog; humid, often wooded, river valleys; woods; farmland, with its own special group of species favouring arable fields; the coast; and even urban areas.
We have no uniquely special species, but a good number of rarities: the wonderfully named Rabbit Moss (Cheilothela chloropus), known only from Devon and Somerset; Multi-fruited Cryphaea (Dendrocryphaea lamyana), which we share with just Cornwall and the south west of Wales; Petalwort (Petalophyllum ralfsii), a sand dunes specialist found at Braunton Burrows and Dawlish Warren; and a couple of coastal species of Screw-moss (Tortula sp.), which are otherwise found only in Cornwall. All told, our range of bryophytes is well worth celebrating and protecting – and making more widely known.
Main photo: Mosses on a tombstone. Mainly Bryum capillare (with sporophytes) and a small cushion of Grimmia pulvinata. By Andrew Fogg on Flickr. Licence: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/
12. How ‘Local History’ became ‘Devon since the Big Bang.’
My interest in social history began in Kings Worthy, near Winchester. Our meal times were spent looking across fields bordering the main line railway. It appeared that we overlooked the obsolete ‘Winchester Junction,’ once linking our village to the iconic ‘Watercress Line.’ Curious to find out more, I joined a local history group in Winchester U3A.
It was Devon, however, which provided the inspiration to take my new interest much further. Shortly after moving here 10 years ago, we joined the Devonshire Association and I became an enthusiastic amateur historian, the numerous Devon canals and mills sparking my investigations into the use of land and water. The facilities offered by the Heritage Centre, the internet, and local libraries have been key to much of my personal research, as have events arranged by DA Branches and, in particular, the Industrial Archaeology, Geology and History Sections. I traced the county’s geology, evolving from the ‘Big Bang’ to support a network of farming and fishing communities; and made enjoyable trips all over Devon (usually involving perilously narrow rural lanes) to look at how people lived for thousands of years. The picture here shows Clyston Mill; the first mention of a mill on or near this beautiful site at Broadclyst was in the Domesday Book, 1086 AD.
During ‘lock-down,’ not wanting to travel too far, I looked at my home area: Topsham, once one of the most important ports in the country. This led me to a more in-depth use of 19th-century tithe maps, provided on-line by Devon County Council. In Anglo-Saxon times, a system of ‘Hundreds’ was adopted, for administration and governance. Between 613 and 1017 AD a ‘Hundred’ was deemed to have sufficient land to sustain 100 households. Due to the small population, these areas were quite large – there are only about 30 in Devon, which became established as a county during that time. Before even the Norman Conquest, ‘Hundreds’ divided into parishes, usually associated with manors, large country houses with land attached. Supporting their local church by collecting tithes (taxes), landowners had a structured way of providing for marriages, burials, and worship among their workers.
Tithe maps in Devon are dated in the 1840s marking the change, under The Commutation Act 1836, to monetary collection after centuries of payments in kind, and they identify the different parishes, largely unchanged today. Comparing a parish on a tithe map with what exists now, 180 years later, I am always pleasantly surprised to find that the majority of old buildings, estates and farms remain, often carrying an original name sourced from the local river, estuary, hill, or ford.
The river Clyst borders one side of Topsham, and I decided to look at all the parishes through which it flowed. The village of Clyst St Mary turned out to be intriguing, containing parts of three parishes and being the site of one of the bloodiest battles of the 1549 ‘Prayerbook Rebellion.’
My personal link with Clyst St Mary, which now cannot be proven, goes back to my childhood, when my parents would bring me down to relatives in Devon, to a place with St Mary’s in the name. I believe it was in fact Clyst St Mary. Where we lived in Surrey, there was a plaque on the wall depicting Exeter Cathedral. That souvenir is still with me. Perhaps I am now unwittingly living near antecedents from those rebellious times….
Derek W Smithers
11. A Pony on the Doormat
In 1985 we were keeping a few sheep on 25 acres of pasture in a rural part of North Devon but nearby towns always had a lot going on. North Devon Farmers, an Agricultural merchant, had a store in Bideford and the livestock market sited at Riverbank in Bideford, from memory, closed in 1988 or 1989, although the buildings weren’t demolished until 2018.
Holsworthy was a lively place on market day with tractors and trailers negotiating the narrow streets and low bridge. As vehicles got bigger Waterloo Road was widened at the junction with the A3072 so those travelling from the east, Bideford and Torrington, and from Bude, could make a small detour to avoid those pinch points and rejoin the A388. It was a short walk into town where you could pop into The Bazaar, a double fronted shop in the square and emerge with a cash book, a mouse trap, a box of Lego and all things in between. The Livestock Market has been relocated out of town since 2014 on the east side and The Bazaar has long since gone. It’s the turn of farmers travelling from the Ashwater side to use the detour.
We went to check out the lamb prices at South Molton market, which is still held every Thursday. I had just bought an unbroken Shetland pony for the children so was in search of some tack. A mobile sales van opened its doors to reveal overalls, jackets and dealer boots. Bridles hung there tantalisingly and I found a suitably wide pony saddle, all made from English leather. To ascertain the width, a metal coathanger was untwisted and folded over the pony’s withers. I duly carried a tracing around with me so I could offer it up inside the pommel of a saddle to check it would fit. Farmer’s Friend have a retail shop at St Thomas in Exeter and still maintain their travelling van to shows and markets.
The pony resembled a typical Thelwell drawing and stood at 10 hands 2 inches high so hardly a miniature Shetland. He could squeeze through the tiniest of gaps and liked nothing more than leaning over the electric fence and hoovering up the forbidden sweet grass in Spring. He worked out how to open gates and once appeared at the front door. To keep him exercised I decided to break him to harness and get him to tow a tractor tyre. Hatherleigh Market was the destination back then. The tack sales were auctions held once a month on a Wednesday. After the bidding, I was the proud owner of a set of cheap Indian made harness and any amount of saddle soap would never render it supple. However it did the job and we were soon driving around the field in a pony and trap. Hatherleigh Livestock Market was demolished in October 2019. A sad loss for shoppers and farmers as the Tuesday general market was an excellent day out with several stalls selling end of line stock at bargain prices. 2020 has been a challenge for retail but Hatherleigh is aiming to keep a small local market in the town.
The next size pony was an Exmoor who was big and strong enough to carry me out for short hacks. He had the ability to negotiate any kind of fencing between paddocks without leaving a trace. He sought out the nettles and hogweed no matter what stood in his way!
10. Fascinating fungi
In a former life I was a pixie and danced around a toadstool with other little people singing at the top of my voice. Lest anyone should think I am having an Alice in Wonderland moment, I should confess that this was fifty-five years ago, and I was a fully-paid-up member of the Brownies. At the end of our revelry, we each placed our dues (a threepenny-bit) under the toadstool – a large wooden affair, painted to resemble a red and white Fly Agaric.
I’ve had a fascination with fungi, and their depiction, ever since, though my pixie days (sadly) are long gone. Neither plant nor animal, fungi occupy a kingdom of their own, with the art of these extraordinary organisms celebrated recently in an exhibition at Somerset House in London: Mushrooms, The Art, Design and Future of Fungi. Although I didn’t manage to get to the exhibition, its catalogue reminded me of the interest of Beatrix Potter whose studies of fungi were made manifest in over 300 watercolours between 1888 and 1897.
While these works are exquisite in their accuracy and detail, part of the appeal of fungi for me is their aroma, and that of the damp woodlands that they inhabit. And how can even the most skilful of artists replicate the shafts of light which slice through shattered branches illuminating wonderfully diverse forms emerging from mossy banks and piles of rotting timber?
Recent forays above Burrator and near Bradstone reminded me of John Ruskin’s statement that ‘You will never love art well until you love what she mirrors better’. With museums and art galleries closed once again, what could be better than an autumn walk in the woods with its wealth of weird and wonderful beauties on display? Last month I found several Fly Agaric, and fungi whose colours seemed to shift with the changing skies. But beware, edible and poisonous can be very similar in appearance, and mistakes can be fatal. I prefer to look but not touch.
The complexity of fungi, their place in the social network of trees, their vulnerability to climate change, and their role in limiting it, are the subjects of serious scientific study. Yet even if one’s understanding of fungi is somewhat limited, as mine undoubtedly is, these fruiting bodies of the mycelium are both fascinating and fabulous. While they may no longer make me dance and sing, my interest in fungi remains undiminished.
Thanks to Nicola Bacciu (Recorder, fungi and lichens for South Devon) for the identifications.
9. A jewel in an exquisite setting
In the summer of 2010 I found myself on the western edge of Exmoor looking at work done by the Exmoor National Park Authority designed to “rewet” areas of moorland where previous drainage operations had damaged the wild vegetation. On the high ground between Bray Common and Squallacombe I took a photograph of a little patch of bog in which the very rare Cranberry, Vaccinium Oxycoccus, was growing. This image is a constant reminder of the splendour of our moorland and, as John Clare reminds us in his poem “The Heath”, “Where beauty and harmony be.”
A footnote : A New Flora of Devon” describes the plant as “Very rare. Native. Very wet heaths, usually amongst sphagnum. Lost from some of the old sites but discovered in some new ones in recent years on both Dartmoor and Exmoor.
8. Volcanoes and Viruses
One impact of the coronavirus pandemic has been a massive reduction in the number of trans-Atlantic flights, and for some time in the middle of 2020 we became used to clear blue skies devoid of white vapour trails (contrails) produced by jets flying at high altitude. It reminded me of another incident with a widespread, though not global, impact ten years ago. On April 13th 2010 few people in the UK had heard of Eyjafjallajökull – a small glacier-covered volcano on Iceland. The following day it erupted and sent a plume of volcanic ash several kilometres into the atmosphere, closing much of European airspace and disrupting air travel for six days. We knew its name then – though few mastered its pronunciation.
During the day there were no obvious signs of ash in the sky over the UK and little ash was deposited at ground level over the following days and weeks, but there were some spectacular sunsets viewable from all over Devon. For a few days the skies were clear of contrails…then normal service was resumed.
The halo around the sun, the orange-red colour of the sky and stratified clouds were typical of the ash-affected sunsets. Photograph taken at Haldon Gate near Doddiscombsleigh on 18th April 2010 at 20.01h.
7. Tuckers Hall
Earlier this year, on the 3rd August 2020, 400 years after the granting of the Royal Charter by King James I allowing the Weavers, Fullers and Shearmen of the City of Exeter to become an Incorporation, five members of the Guild gathered in their ceremonial robes outside Tuckers Hall with the original charter, on loan for the day from the South West Heritage Trust where it is currently housed.
Over the years my husband and I have enjoyed the privilege of dining at Tuckers Hall on a number of occasions. Standing at the lower end of Fore Street, the hall is passed on a daily basis by a constant stream of residents and visitors and yet is one of the least well known buildings of the city and rarely even given a cursory glance.
After the Normal Conquest in 1066, one of Britain’s main economies was in the export of wool. As the Fleece Dor, the Golden Fleece, one of the prominent features on the coat of arms of Tavistock and that of my former school, recalls the importance of that trade to the town, so Tuckers Hall built in 1471 is the prominent survivor of the years when the members of this historic guild met to regulate the woollen cloth trade which made Exeter at times the third richest city in the country and Tuckers Hall one of its most important and significant buildings.
The Guild still functions today and is one of the few Worshipful Companies existing outside the City of London. The comparatively modest exterior of the building belies the splendour and opulence of its glittering upper chamber where for centuries the members have regularly held their meetings. Outstanding features include its magnificent dark Jacobean panelling and grand oak table, an original barrel vaulted ceiling with carved ribs and decorative painted bosses, and a number of stunning stained glass windows.
A hidden gem, an inspiration to all who treasure the riches of our county and a building reflecting its rich and diverse culture.
Photos courtesy of Antony T. Buller.
6. Apostles and Lions…in Devon?
Around thirteen years ago I attended a talk at Mamhead Village Hall delivered by Exeter School Archivist Kevin White. It was one of the topics in his talk “Aspects of Exeter” that caught my imagination. He mentioned the Exeter Assay Office (which closed in 1883) and at the end of his talk, over tea and biscuits, he exhibited, amongst other things, a collection of forks, spoons, sugar nips and other items all punched with Exeter assay marks for everyone to admire. That was it. I was hooked on silver flatware.
It’s not just the beauty of what are considered by most, let’s face it, as mundane domestic functional objects, it’s the evolution of their shape and form – from Hanoverian dognoses and trefids with beaded rat-tails and double drop bowls – to English bright cut and other, elaborately engraved, designs. Assay marks often reveal the object’s maker (or retailer) and the year of its manufacture, but who commissioned it, or purchased and owned the piece? Occasionally, monograms, inscriptions or heraldic designs suggest their ownership, but it is anonymous initials pricked into the stem, bowl or terminal of some spoons – perhaps commemorating a wedding, a christening or other significant event, that I find particularly appealing.
Currently, I’m interested in early spoons made by West Country silversmiths, with seal tops, or with evocative terminals – Apostles, acorn knops, and splendid Lion sejants (pictured). The latter finial adorns an Elizabethan spoon, originally gilded, dating to c.1590 marked C ESTON (Christopher Easton). Easton was an Exeter maker – living in and around St Mary Arches – who trained as an apprentice under John Jones – regarded as one of Exeter’s most important and successful goldsmiths. Holding this spoon – made a decade or more before Guy Fawkes made a name for himself – transports me to sixteenth-century Exeter and I marvel at its creation by a skilled craftsman in a poorly illuminated workshop and wonder how it has survived many hands over four centuries.
If I hadn’t attended that talk in a chilly rural Devon building it’s unlikely that I would have been introduced to spoons as objects of art and historical intrigue and I wouldn’t have been inspired to learn more about them and their makers.
5. Bovey’s Potter Wasps
Professor Charles Tyler, of Exeter University’s Biosciences Department, has just sent me this lovely photograph of a Potter Wasp, Eumenes coarctatus, taken by him recently at Bovey Heathfield. These gorgeous small wasps make exquisite little pots out of mud and stock them with up to 38 small caterpillars for their larvae to feed on. John Walters, a member of the Entomology Section, has been studying them at Bovey for several years and has posted a superb series of time-lapse video clips on the Bees, Wasps and Ants Recording Society web site (bwars.com), of the wasps building and stocking the pots. Lots more information there. Strongly recommended.
4. The Golden-ringed Dragonfly
Dragonflies are fascinating insects – large, glamorous, amazingly skilful aerial predators, with complex, racy behaviour, full of sex and violence and belonging well after the 9 pm watershed. One of Devon’s most spectacular is Cordulegaster boltonii, the Golden-ringed Dragonfly. Its larvae live in acid streams and upland rivers, so one can find it on Dartmoor, typically between June and August. It is very handsome but slightly intimidating – long and slender, striped in yellow and black like a wasp, and the female has a long ovipositor that looks like a sting. A dialect word for dragonflies is ‘horse-stingers’ – a quite unjustified slur.
Dragonfly females lay their eggs in various ways, but Cordulegaster is unusual and fun to watch. The female hovers low over the stream for minutes on end, with its body vertical, bobbing up and down like a pogo-stick, dipping its ovipositor repeatedly into the water. I recorded this video-clip on a joint Entomology Section/British Dragonfly Society field trip to Prewley Moor, near Sourton, on August 4 2019. Enjoy.
3. A diminutive magician on Dartmoor
Over there beyond those rocks, yes about seventy yards away, I swear that I saw a flash of brown. Damn, whatever it was has disappeared. No, there it is again ! And flying fast, very fast, almost level with the gorse and heather, wings beating interspersed with occasional glides. Streamlined shape with dark brown upperparts and pointed wings the little magician heads eastwards almost in a straight line until I lose sight of it over the brow of the hill.
That was a minute of sheer excitement for I have just seen one of Devon’s rarest birds, a female Merlin.
2. Urban Flora
For many, the ‘lockdown’ of the first half of this year has led to an increased appreciation of our urban wildlife, including the flowers of roadsides and the less closely tended parts of our towns and cities. The reduction in herbicide spraying by local councils undoubtedly helped, allowing many plants to grow to maturity that would otherwise have succumbed to our desire for tidiness. By happy coincidence, we are at the same time seeing the rise of a spontaneous movement that aims to encourage the public to recognise the wild plants on their doorsteps. Starting originally in Toulouse in France, all across the world botanists (amateur and professional alike) are now setting out, equipped with chalk, to mark on paths and pavements the names of the species they find growing there so that passers-by can learn a little of the floral diversity that surrounds them. Plymouth has its own group of ‘Rebel Botanists’, who you can find on Facebook and Twitter as well as in the streets and parks of the city (their chalking activities are supported by the city council in case you were concerned!)
I’ve long had a fascination with our urban flora, not just for the surprises it provides when I come across an unexpected botanical treasure as I walk the streets of Plymouth, but also for its very dynamic nature. I was excited to see the non-native grass Water Bent (Polypogon viridis) for the first time in the city in 2006, but now it often dominates our pavement flora and is widespread elsewhere in urban Devon. A more recent arrival is Four-leaved Allseed (Polycarpon tetraphyllum). I won’t lie, it’s not the most photogenic of species, but of course has its own beauty to those who love our wild plants. It’s actually a native, if rather rare, but has now started to increasingly appear in built up areas. It’s not clear if this is the native form or a continental variety that’s happier surviving in an urban setting, but either way, it’s definitely on the rise. I found it in Plymouth in 2019, not far from the city centre, the first local record since 1956, and have subsequently found it a second time close to where I live. I suspect it’s more widespread still, having been quietly setting up home in the city hidden from the eyes of curious botanists.
The future undoubtedly holds more changes for our urban flora. It’s difficult to be sure what species will appear next, but I have my suspicions. Argentine Vervain (Verbena bonariensis), a tall slender plant topped with a head of purple flowers, much loved by gardeners and insects alike, seeds prolifically and I often see young plants growing in gutters and at the bases of garden walls. It seems to be killed off by the cold of winter, but as the climate warms I wouldn’t be surprised to see it taking its place amongst the many other plant species that find a home in our towns and cities.
Coming home over the moor last week I stopped, by chance, to visit the church in Shaugh Prior. Many years ago I had come to photograph its font cover, but was disappointed with my images. Photographing woodwork in Devon’s churches is always a bit of a gamble. But this time low autumn sunlight streaming through the west window illuminated the carving beautifully – natural light is always best for woodwork as the depth of the carving is fully revealed. Although I only had a mobile phone with me, my pictures were what I hoped for.
The font cover at Shaugh Prior, a rare survivor from the pre-Reformation period, has an interesting tale to tell. A note in the church records that:
During the partial church restoration of 1867/68, Mr Edward Christian had the cover removed to the barn of a local farm. For several years the font cover lay neglected, indeed, several times the farmer’s wife suggested to her husband that the “rotten old thing should be burnt!”
Fortunately, through the auspices of the newly installed vicar, Reverend Strother, whose previous church had been St Mary Steps in Exeter, the cover came to the attention of ecclesiastical carver and sculptor Harry Hems, who paid a call to his friend in Shaugh Prior. The Exeter and Plymouth Gazette Daily Telegram, dated May 16th 1878, carries Hems’s account of the visit:
The most interesting part pertaining to the church is to be found in a neighbouring barn. It has been there for the last eleven years, just as I saw it yesterday, amidst oats, and chaff, and straw. It is a unique font-cover, made of oak, and quite eight feet high…It is Perpendicular Gothic [fifteenth century], and intended to stand as a fixture upon the font even during the rite of baptism. It opens very like a triptic (sic), and forms a baldachino as it were – a canopy right over the font, carved richly with ornament and figures, and terminating by a spire of pierced carved-work, having as its finial a sculptured figure of a bishop in full canonicals. This beautiful specimen of ecclesiastical art has been rotting for so many years that, without it is reverently cared for at once, it will be irretrievably lost to the church. I hope some good person will take the matter in hand, and should it be once again restored to its original place over the font, no church within a hundred-and-fifty miles will have so rare a piece of work of the sort within its walls as Shaugh Prior will possess.
Given Hems’s renowned powers of persuasion, and his friendship with the vicar, the work of restoration fell to him. Where possible the old fragments of carving were used and damaged figures repaired. Sadly the whitewashed surface of the woodwork was also cleaned. It is likely that the font cover was originally highly coloured and gilded, as in an exquisite example in Ufford, Suffolk, but removal of the whitewash took any traces of medieval polychromy with it. Nonetheless, recognition and repair of the font cover by Hems, a controversial figure whose character was not universally admired, undoubtedly saved this medieval marvel for future generations. Visit the church in the late afternoon of a bright autumn day and the craftsmanship of Hems in the nineteenth century, and anonymous carvers four hundred years earlier, simply shines.
22 October 2020
Unless otherwise stated, all the photos were taken by the respective authors.