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  • Writer's pictureGethin Thomas

Car Tour 4 Higher Ashton

A visit to Higher Ashton church on car tour number 4. If you are new to my blog then this is part of a series of car tours of South Devon. My car tours went a bit awry last June as the blog was taken hostage somewhat by my river Avon series which is now complete.

The car tours are based on a book as I explain in Car Tour One. Although they are based on driving a car they are really flying visits giving the taste of an area, so are not a comprehensive guide. This episode takes in the church at Higher Ashton, not to be confused with Lower Ashton a mile away. The "Ashtons" are what is left of a grand country estate once owned by the Chudleighs so you still get a feudal feel to the look of the area. The church is an ancient historic jewel box of paintings. In fact there is so much inside this small church that I have included more photos than I normally do in a single piece and still, I have not covered all that is within.

First, let's take up where we left off on the route as we left at Car Tour 4 Chudleigh. There's that name again. Chudleigh is both a family and a town.

This is the hamlet of Coombe, and it is barely a hamlet at that. I don't know how many Coombes there are in Britain, but it is a lot.

"Coombe, Devon may refer to various places in Devon", you see what I mean? A Coombe, Combe, or cwm in Wales can refer either to a steep, narrow valley, or to a small valley or large hollow on the side of a hill. And this is it.

Keeping straight on the road brings us to the ancient Spara Bridge but we'll see that in more detail later in the series. For now we are driving through Lower Ashton to try to find the historic church at Higher Ashton a mile or more further on.

We had trouble finding it and here you can see why. The church is on top of a hill as you might expect in somewhere called Higher Ashton but it is also well hidden amongst the trees.

On top of the hill though, all becomes clear, and it is an idyllic summer churchyard scene. This is the main path to the church and looking the other way is a beautiful thatched cottage called Pitmans, where there was once a famous herb garden which occasionally opened to the public.

Torbay Express and South Devon Echo - Saturday 14 August 1993

Higher Ashton has enough thatch to glaze the eyes of romantics and next to the church is Pitman’s Cottage Herb Garden Here Mrs Dianna Neel opens her celebrated garden for six days of the year but visitors are accepted by appointment And it’s really worth a visit.

The house is late 16th century or earlier, and Grade 2 listed. It was extended in the 17th century. Being thatched it is no surprise that there was a major restoration in 1975 on the upper floor after a fire. Certain elements of the interior including a long passage and sizeable main room suggest that it was originally a property of some importance. Its location bordering the churchyard would also tie in with that theory.

The church itself, the 15th century St John the Baptist was Grade 1 listed back in June 1961. It is early 15th century, restored twice in the late 1880's to 90's.

It is described as being of coursed stone, partly rendered, with a granite rubble tower with freestone and granite dressings and a slate roof. It is perpendicular in style with some heraldic stained glass dating from the 1420's to 50's with a possibility that the entire church dates from this period.

This is the presently unused ancient Priest's Door from the 17th century with the original windows framing it on either side.

The south porch is gabled with a rounded chamfered doorway with a plank and stud door of 17th century origin. There are medieval side benches of stone.

This the west door carved from a volcanic stone not the usual granite. The door is positively new from the 19th century, complete with electric bell and entry system which is there presumably to keep out the birds and the sheep.

The interior is a symphony of wood carving, some ancient and some dating from the 19th century restoration.

On the right is the box like pulpit, Jacobean in date, meaning from the reign of James I. The word "Jacobean" is derived from Neo-Latin Jacobaeus from Jacobus, the Ecclesiastical Latin form of the English name James. It's commonly understood that this era goes from 1603 to 1625. It was the era following the Elizabethan Era, that of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I

It is unusual to see a pulpit with a canopy like this. It was designed to help the sound of the sermon reach all the sinners in the congregation. In previous times the pulpit would have stood behind the screen where all the mysteries of the sacraments remained hidden or screened from the ordinary people.

Just visible through the pulpit is an arched entrance in the wall behind which opens to stairs that originally led to the rood loft above.

The rood screen is 15th century and a rare survivor topped with a crucifixion from 1915 by Herbert Read. Can you imagine getting planning consent to do that today? It does beg the question, now that heritage listing controls all future changes, are these buildings now pickled in their current state forever? These churches were modified, extended, improved, modernised and embellished throughout their long history, is that now over?

Herbert Edward Read, F.S.A., died on 3rd November, 1950. His craftsmanship in the restoration of ancient church screens, pulpits and pews, and in the execution of modern carvings, was well known throughout the West Country, and indeed all over England. Obituary

The vaulting is mostly part of the renovation but still represents what would have been the support structure for the mezzanine floor above the chancel or the "rood loft" long ago removed as most have been.

This small rural church obviously had wealthy benefactors in the past and that money was Chudleigh money. You can just about make out the figures of saints on the lower panels or wainscotting.

This is a view into the jewel box of Ashton church, the north chapel. Its interior boasts an unparalleled collection of paintings which I am saving for later on.

Originally devoid of seating, these churches boasted standing room only. The pews, benches and carved bench ends came later and were built around and in between the decorative carved pillars of Beer stone.

Most of the bench ends have 2 tiers of blind tracery, some of the benches have good carved bench backs.

Having visited the caves at Beer where this stone originated I can attest to the fact that it was quite an industry and the stone was not only quarried there for centuries, but often as not it was carved there too. The properties of the stone were such that when freshly cut it was soft and easy to work, so caves were set aside where sculptors carved church pieces in kit form which were then delivered to the building site usually travelling by water where possible. The stone, freshly carved, then exposed to the elements, would cure into the hard building stone we see today at which point it would be far more difficult to shape.

A more recent, replaced bench end.

These Chudleigh family tomb stones are quite crudely written and yet the shield diagram looks far more competent. Is it possible that the stonemason was illiterate and just copying writing that he had been given. In any case, what interests me is that I have only seen this style of carving in one other place and that was in North Bovey church, not that far away. Were they carved by the same man?

The name Cadbury is interesting as the founder of Cadbury chocolate came from Exeter only 9 miles from this spot. Richard Tapper Cadbury moved to Birmingham only a 100 years after these tombs were made, founding a tea and coffee business which his son John Cadbury later transformed into the world famous chocolate maker.

The font dates from around 1476 and celebrates the marriage at that time of Sir James Chudleigh, or at least it celebrates his first marriage, there were to be three more.

Perpendicular Beer stone font with an octagonal bowl with foliage carving at the junction with the stem. Heraldry carved on the bowl is said to record the marriage in 1476 of Sir James Chudleigh of Place Barton and Margaret Stourton.

This is the interior view of the priest's door.

The bell ropes at the base of the tower.

The chancel has a trefoil headed piscina.

Painted Royal Arms over the nave door. George II is the last British monarch to be born outside Great Britain. He became King in 1727 as a consequence of the 1701 Act of Settlement and the 1707 Acts of Union, which saw his father George, Elector of Hanover ascending the British throne as George I after the death of Queen Anne.

As Elector of Hanover, like his father, as well as King of Great Britain, he spent part of his time in Hanover where he enjoyed more political power than he did in Britain, where Parliament ruled. As such he participated in the Battle of Dettingen in 1743 during the War of the Austrian Succession, making him the last British monarch to lead an army in battle, albeit it wasn't the British army.

George II's son Frederick died before his father leading to the accession of his own son, also George. George III being the grandson of George II.

Open waggon roofs with moulded ribs, carved foliage bosses.

The roodscreen paintings are probably the best in the county: conventional dado paintings on the west side and exceptionally fine large demi-figures on the east side and parclose which has 6 square-headed traceried bays.

Another rarity which is probably only still here because it was once covered, is this wall painting of The Wounded Christ. It is worth remembering that certain marital problems of a certain Henry VIII is what led ultimately to British churches looking so different to those seen in mainland Europe. Anyone having visited old churches in Europe will be familiar with that assault on the senses you get when you enter, with almost every surface being decorated in some lavish manner. If a British church is old enough then that is how its life started out too as they were all originally just as Catholic.

It is likely that other wall-paintings survive behind later plaster and paint.

Remarkable C17 timber wall monument in north wall to Sir George Chudleigh, died 1657. A timber board, flanked by columns and crowned with armorial bearings with obelisk finials to left and right, records the descent and matrimonial alliances of the Chudleighs with shields painted with coats of arms; inscription panel below board. Historic England

In the chancel. The illustrations. Marvellously, they seem to come from the tradition of ‘block-books’, books with each page printed from a wood block, text and all, which tend to be very illustration heavy and with minimal text in scrolls. Devon Churchland

Below, right is "The Visitation, when the Virgin Mary (on the right) visited Elizabeth, the future mother of John the Baptist."

While in the Chudleigh chapel or the North Chapel is the full splendour of characters.

The figures are dressed in the fashions of the 15th or early 16th centuries, floppy, trailing caps and capacious tunics, belted and rippled with folds. Such extravagant use of fine cloth was a deliberately ostentatious indicator of wealth and status. The hands are set in varied and highly expressive gestures. The Ashton Ascension

This was an area of the church set aside for the Chudleigh family and this could be why most of the decoration is gathered here.

In the centre, below, is "The Annunciation with the Angel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary." Some figures have had their eyes scratched out during the Reformation.

The inside view of the 17th century south porch door.

Torbay Express and South Devon Echo - Tuesday 09 June 1998

Part Two: Higher Ashton The Green Quest had always been at the back of my mind ...... So off I went under the yellow hazel tassels enjoying the valley and the rolling hill country of the Dartmoor borderland. Passing Ashton Manor I came over a small bridge spanning a small brook to The Pound House and Place Barton on the edge of Higher Ashton........ The site was great, with the church tower above the nearby trees and cottages and walking on to Higher Ashton Cross I thought about the foxes, badgers, roe deer, and other wild creatures that use the roads and lanes at night. There was more of Higher Ashton up the road beyond the cross but I was content to take the rough track to the Church of St John the Baptist. Ducks were quacking nearby and in the graveyard wild flowers stood between the headstones. I wasn’t in a church mood though and came out the back gate to browse around another group of thatched cottages Pitman’s Herb Garden was behind the one on the left with the handsome Old Bakehouse opposite. A bit further along the lane I found another straggle of homes including Ridge Cottage, Homefield bungalow and the last house Oakfield, where the farmland and its smells took over The dog in Oakfield’s small front garden was barking like mad as I set off for Lower Ashton.

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