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  • Writer's pictureGethin Thomas

Modbury Part 3

Originally published on Photoblog by Gethin Thomas SEPTEMBER. 01, 2021

This part of the photo walk brings us to the church which is unusual in several ways, not the least being that it is at the top of the hill outside the town and not right in the middle. The main reason that the church is on the edge of town is that it is so old that the occupation of the site predates most of the town and not long after it was constructed it was part of a wider complex including a priory.

St. George’s church building is a Grade 1 listed Anglican Church. Whilst there is reference to the building as far back as 1084, the church in its present state dates predominately from the 13th century;

Its size, some might even say majesty, owes its origins to the then wealthy medieval market town and the local Benedictine Priory. Whilst the Priory is long gone, St. George’s, with its typical Devon three-gabled roof and tall broach spire, is still considered to be one of the South Hams most distinctive medieval parish churches. Parts of the building pre-date the Doomsday Book and its early architectural development was considerably affected by the Priory which was built adjacent to the church in the early part of the twelfth century. In 1442 Henry VI dissolved the priory and claimed 485 acres of land, using the revenues to help build Eton college.

The church also benefits from having a very beautiful churchyard around it with many weathered and aged gravestones in various states of decay and at various precarious angles.

Steeped in history and having witnessed medieval strife and suppression, the church survived the Civil War when two battles were fought in Modbury and Parliamentarian forces and horses were billeted in the building. This period is something I covered in previous posts.

With its elevated location, its imposing architecture, the building is a dominant feature of the town and a prominent landmark which can be seen on every approach to the town.

You enter the church by the main doors on the south side, through what was an early English porch. Complete with turret and stairs, the winding staircase within the octagonal turret led to an upper chamber which was also the priest's room; and further on up to the turret. In the 1990's the chamber was taken over to accommodate the boiler for the church's heating. The window of the upper chamber can be seen when standing in front of the porch.

The huge tower arch of this church, unlike so many others, isn't blocked by a screen or other barrier. This enables the visitor to walk into the ringing chamber. Today the tower houses six bells; noted as the second best peal of six bells in Devon.

The most stunning aspect of the chancel is the great east window – of 5 lights and very much in the taste of C19 Gothic revivalism. This window is, according to Pevsner, the work of Lavers & Barraud, (see also Marazion church Cornwall). The window is a memorial to the Rev. Nutcombe Oxenham who was Vicar of Modbury from 1834-1859. The window depicts – St Augustine; Moses separating the Israelite and the Egyptian; the Last Supper; Our Lord preaching and St George the Patron Saint.

The window below was a puzzle to me as it looked like it must feature the Devil as to my knowledge only the Devil had horns, so imagine my surprise when I read that in fact it depicted Moses separating the Egyptians and the Israelites.

Having now researched this it seems there is much history, theory, theology and controversy surrounding this idea of Moses sporting horns. The idea goes back a long way and it seems, so far back that sporting horns was considered more a sign of great power than anything evil or satanic. Even Michelangelo's depiction of Moses in a sculpture in St. Peters in Rome, bears horns. It stems from the description of Moses after he descended the mountain bearing the ten commandments where the theory goes that either he sported a pair of horns or rays of light.

It is not certain if the idea comes about by a mistranslation of the Bible or a literal translation, as the cultural beliefs about horned creatures are very different today than they were two thousand years ago. It is even suggested that because there is actually no description of Satan in the Bible at all that the common idea that Satan sported horns is a much later idea adopted by converted pagans in parts of Europe, who did in fact have gods who were considered evil and who sported horns.

On display, below, are the remains of the old tower clock by Ambrose Hawkins installed in 1705. Ambrose Hawkins is a famous name to clock enthusiasts and his clocks are rare for the simple reason that he only had a career of about seventeen years.

On Mayday 1696, Hawkins was granted permission by the Bishop of Exeter to set up shop in the Cathedral churchyard 'I doe hereby grant and give liberty and priviledge to Ambrose Hawkens to open and keepe shopp in ye churchyard of our cathedral church of St. Peters Exon, wherein to worke and to make clocks, watches and jacks' (clockwork mechanisms for turning meat over a fire). In 1705, the year of his death, Hawkins made a turret clock for the church in Dartmouth and it is believed that, having a contract for the Dartmouth clock, made a second clock at the same time as a speculation and subsequently sold it to Modbury. Records show that the sum of £18 was paid for the clock in that year.

The value of £18 in 1705 was £1975 today, or, back then, 200 days of labour by a skilled craftsman, or three horses or four cows. It's interesting that cows were more valuable than horses.

As an apprentice a young fourteen-year-old trainee clockmaker could have a hard life. A record exists of an apprentice, Thomas Mitchell of London, who in 1786 raised a complaint against his master 'for not giving him sufficient food, sleeping in the coal hole, not having had clean sheets since last February, repeatedly beating him in a cruel manner and keeping the lad to work from five o'clock in the morning till two or three o'clock next morning'.

Info from

Today, fourteen year olds think they are deprived when the internet goes down for twenty minutes.

Also on display in the church is the old weather cock. It is made of copper and brass and has five names pricked out on it's tail, where they would never have been visible at the top of the tower. The names are, R.Paice, S. Wroth, C. Ward, G. Paddon and N. Preston. Paice and Wroth were churchwardens and the Paddons were clockmakers in Modbury. It is dated 1790 and was replaced in 1884. It hasn't fared too badly for being exposed to the worst of the elements for nearly one hundred years.

Before we had weather vanes on buildings, mainly churches, it was customary to fly strings of cloth or banners so that people could tell "which way the wind was blowing". This led to a common expression.

Knowing which way the wind blows - The weather or windward side is the side from which the wind blows. For sailors, huntsmen and farmers knowing where the windward was at any time was obviously important, and it isn't difficult to see why 'knowing which way the wind blows' came to be synonymous with skill and understanding.

The figurative sense of 'the way the wind blows', that is, meaning the tide of opinion, was in use by the early 19th century. In November 1819, The Times published an advert for a forthcoming book - The Political House that Jack Built, which was said to be "A straw - thrown up to show which way the wind blows".

When banners became a popular ornament, we got the “vane” in weathervane; an Old English word that meant “banner” or “flag.”

One of the earliest examples of an actual weathervane — not simply a piece of cloth or a banner — was atop the Tower of the Winds, a First Century B.C. octagonal tower in Athens, Greece that was topped by a bronze wind vane in the shape of Triton, the sea god. This vane was designed so that Triton, who was holding a rod in his hand, would turn so that the rod pointed in the direction of the blowing wind.

This does not explain why it was nearly always a cockerel that was used on weather vanes. This goes back to the prediction made by Jesus that Peter would deny him three times before the cock crowed. The cockerel was forever associated with St. Peter.

In the 9th century, Pope Nicholas made the cockerel official. His decree was that all churches must display the cockerel on their steeples or domes as a symbol of Peter’s betrayal of Jesus. In accordance with the decree, churches started using weathervanes with the cockerel.

As centuries went by, the rule about placing cockerels atop churches went by the wayside, but they stayed on weathervanes. European settlers took weathervanes wherever they travelled, including to the New World. Nowadays, you’ll find weathervanes — mostly with cockerels, but sometimes with other symbols — topping buildings throughout the United States, Europe and elsewhere.

Another delight, below, is this matchless example of a scale model version of the same church. Of course it isn't matchless at all while also being a true match for any competing model, should it appear. I certainly couldn't match it as I don't have the patience. It takes a spark of genius and a burning flame of passion to devote your time and skill to a model like this. It is enough to fire anyone's imagination and strikes me as unmatched in it's ability to light up the interior of this church.

OK OK enough already.

An unusual feature in the barrel shaped roof is the two rooflights which I have never seen anywhere else. This is one of the contributing factors to comments that have been made about the quality of light in the church which is rare for a building this old.

A bit of judicious tip toeing around between the pews enabled me to get this shot of the clock outside on the tower through one of the rooflights, certainly not a shot you see very often.

The sun was coming in at the perfect angle to create a narrow strip of light on the antique tiles which reflected a glow onto the silks of the altar cloth.

This curious dip through the churchyard suggests a well used path once led through the grounds at this point.

The church has undergone various repairs, replacements and modifications over the centuries, some necessary and some by individuals just wanting to leave their mark. Various works have been made in Victorian times and also major repairs in the twentieth century. This window has a look of the late 19th century to me.

This shot below, gives a sense of place to the church, showing the town nestled into the Poundwell dip below, with houses also rising up the hill on the other side.

Life revolved around the church and the pub (there was no television)and there is evidence of at least eighteen public houses having been in business over the past centuries, not to mention The Half Moon which featured in the eighteenth-century Andrews’ Diaries as an establishment to which to ‘retire’ following a busy day.

Twelve inns were listed in 1850 (In a village with about three streets, that's four in each street on average). In addition, during the nine days duration of the Great Fair, instituted by the Bishop of Exeter in 1310 to celebrate St George’s day, anyone was permitted in past times to sell liquor, a holly bush hung outside the premises exempting the householder from paying excise duty.

The opening of the Modbury Fair was announced by the Portreeve’s proclamation of the Edward III Charter and the hoisting of a flower decorated glove by the Town Bell above the former Bell Inn in Broad Street. The ceremony originally symbolised the right of the parishioners of the borough to free trade.

The ceremony of the glove still takes place every year. And so we leave the church behind now to cross over the road and complete a circuit via the school and back down the hill using Back Lane, which is seriously narrow.

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