top of page
  • Writer's pictureGethin Thomas

River Avon Moor to Sea 7

Avonwick, two very different churches linked across time and a tennis court or two in between.

I am taking up my river series almost exactly where I left off, just over the road from the Avon Inn in Avonwick which is where I ended Part 6.

Part 7 is the story of Avonwick, the only place on the river Avon with Avon in the name. I am not including Aveton Gifford which will come in a later post as it is further downstream, because over time it's name has changed from Avon to Aveton.

I am telling the story of Avonwick through two churches and a tennis club. Avonwick is a very small village but has a very long history and latterly a prominent connection with one local family in particular.

The family is the Cornish family, later Cornish-Bowden who lived in the nearby Black Hall and who built this first unusual church.

Saint James' Church

The first thing to say about St. James' is that it is a Proprietary Chapel.

A proprietary chapel is a chapel that originally belonged to a private person, but with the intention that it would be open to the public. In 19th-century Britain they were common, often being built to cope with urbanisation. They are anomalies in English ecclesiastical law, having no parish area, but being able to have an Anglican clergyman licensed there.

In short it is a private chapel served by an Anglican priest through arrangement by the owner and the bishop with the agreement of the local parish priest. St James' Avonwick is believed to be one of only five of these "anomalies" left in England. The village of Avonwick was a late developer as, historically, the nearby church in North Huish, which we will see later on, was the parish church. Over hundreds of years, the population of North Huish declined and that of Avonwick, as it became, flourished. The village found itself straddling the borders of four different parishes with services in those parishes a long walk on a Sunday.

The nearest large house is Black Hall on the outskirts of the village. Black Hall was the seat of the Fowells of Fowellscombe Hall which had become a ruin. In 1815 Black Hall was sold to Hubert Cornish (1770-1832), a lawyer and accomplished painter, who built the present house and landscaped the grounds. It was built around 1820, possibly by the London architect R. Brown. It is believed that the current building is on the site of an older construction called Blakehall. In 1881 the house was extended by Fredrick James Cornish-Bowden.

The Cornish family, as the local landowners, were responsible for the flourishing of the village and of its expansion as part of their estate. The expansion of the village led to a need for a church that was more easily accessible to the residents of the new village. In fact it was only in 1870 that the village received its new name of Avonwick.

It was James Cornish who first saw the need for a church in the village as every Sunday he witnessed all the villagers head off on foot in four different directions in all weathers to their respective churches, some miles away. As the plaque above attests, he never saw his church completed due to an untimely death after a fall from his horse. However after his death, his daughter Esther Priscilla Cornish married Frederic James Bowden and the two of them changed their surname by deed poll to Cornish-Bowden, after which, residing at Black Hall, they made arrangements for church services to be held in the village Tennis Club Pavilion, which we will also see later on. The services were very popular and for two years attracted congregations averaging a hundred people. This underlined the need for a church in the village.

As Mr and Mrs Cornish-Bowden owned all the land in the village and much of that surrounding it, finding a site was no problem. Mr and Mrs Cornish-Bowden built the church at their sole expense and it was dedicated on the 6th August 1878.

The church is Grade 2 listed by English Heritage.

It seems that no expense was spared. The building was erected by Messrs Mills and Son of Newton Abbot. The Reredos, screen, pulpit and choir stalls were made by Mr Harry Hems of Exeter and the architect for the entire work was Rev Medley Fulford ARIBA of Exeter. I have so many pictures of the church that I have made a separate post showing it in more detail, here. My gratitude goes to the present owner, a descendant of the founders who allowed me access to the church to take the photos.

An interesting feature of the church today are these three family memorials in white marble, newly moved from North Huish church to reside here, I will explain why later on when we see North Huish church itself.

In the church is a splendid carved oak memorial to Colin Cecil Langford, who, I am reliably informed was the only resident of the village to be killed in the World Wars

He was buried at the GEZAINCOURT COMMUNAL CEMETERY . He was 29 when he died and was from Charford Manor on the outskirts of the village.

In 1995 the west window was restored and new stained glass added. My host at the church explained that this was a memorial to her mother Nancy Marigold Cornish-Bowden 1913 - 1991. It's a beautiful contemporary landscape featuring the river Avon and the old bridge.

The walls of the church are of local stone with bands of red stone from nearby Diptford.

Along the front wall of the church are some memorial plaques and I am always on the lookout for an interesting story. The name Van Der Kiste caught my eye as being quite unusual for the area and also the title Wing Commander, so of course I had to get Google going to find out more.

Wing Commander Van de Kiste, DSO., was born at Limerick, Ireland, in 1912 and educated at Cheltenham College, and commissioned in 1936.

Distinguished Service Order

"In April, 1941, this officer was the captain of an aircraft which carried out a reconnaissance of the Norwegian coast from Hammerfest to Harstad, entailing a flight of many hours. The greater part of the reconnaissance had to be carried out at a height of less than 2,000 feet owing to low cloud, but Flight Lieutenant Van Der Kiste made such skilful use of the low cloud and the topographical features of the country, that very little opposition from the ground was encountered. At Harstad, where there was no cloud, he approached the town flying just above the water level and, despite heavy and light anti aircraft fire, flew right in and completed his reconnaissance. By skilful low flying among the fiords he was able to avoid any damage to his aircraft. On a previous occasion, Flight Lieutenant Van Der Kiste carried out a reconnaissance at a low altitude under extremely trying conditions. Although his aircraft was damaged by enemy fire he completed his mission and skilfully flew back to base. He has displayed high qualities of leadership and has contributed materially to the efficiency and high standard of morale obtaining in his Squadron."

Photo; Imperial War Museum 1945

At the entrance to the church, the lamp standard and gates and gate piers are also Grade 2 listed by English Heritage. Commemorative lamp standard in churchyard. Dated 1887, erected to commemorate Queen Victoria's Jubilee. Granite octagonal wreathed base and pedestal with cast iron standard above; the standard is moulded and ribboned and supports a lantern with a finial. Described in lead on the pedestal a Maltese Cross and V.R. 1887 + LAUS DEO (Praise to God)

Looking back at the church there are two prominent rows of gravestones with stylised stone crosses that appear to be Celtic in design, this may allude to the name Cornish, as these are the final resting places of the Cornish and Cornish-Bowden family. Esther Priscilla Cornish-Bowden lies third from the right, next to the church that she founded for her father.

This inconspicuous sign half covered in ivy points down a lane which leads to the Tennis Club, Black Hall and then North Huish.

This is the Avon Vale Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club also founded by the Cornish-Bowden family. This was where the Sunday worship meetings were held for two years before the founding of St James' church. I think there may have been a new roof since then.

Originally founded as an archery club in 1859, the club moved to its present site in 1870 and the first tennis tournament was held in 1879. This club is older than Wimbledon and it is believed that it is the third oldest tennis club in the world still playing on its original courts (after the Edgbaston Archery and Lawn Tennis Society and the Bowdon Bowling and Lawn Tennis Club). Today the club has a membership of around 100 adult and 50 junior members, and has a thriving program of tennis, social events and coaching. New tennis, croquet or social members are always welcome.

Further along the lane is the Gate House for Black Hall, Higher Lodge. The Hall is well set back from the road and not visible. Higher Lodge is Grade 2 listed. Pair of attached gate lodges converted into one house, on the Black Hall estate. Circa 1830-40 (depicted on the Black Hall estate map of 1840), converted into one house probably in early C20.

The house itself is Grade 2 * listed by English Heritage.

Country house. Circa 1820s possibly by R Brown of London for Hubert Cornish on the site of an earlier house. Extended in 1881 for Frederick James Cornish Bowden.

Travelling further along the road is this private footbridge connecting both sides of the Black Hall Estate.

Finally, arriving in the small hamlet of North Huish I arrive at the original parish church for the Black Hall Estate, St Marys'. This beautiful fifteenth-century, stone-spired church is a landmark in a fold in the hills just below Dartmoor and it has wonderful views to the south. St Mary's is mainly of the fifteenth century and the tower and stone spire remain largely unaltered. Inside, the furnishings are mostly Victorian, as are the memorials that line the church walls including one to the widow 'Admonition Strode'.

The church is now in the care of The Churches Conservation Trust. The Trust is a charity

that cares for more than 340 churches in England.

The south doorway is C14 but is reused and was probably moved from the nave when the south aisle was added in the C15. The south porch, may be coeval with the aisle or possibly a later C15 addition.

The porch is at the west end of the south side of the aisle, and at a lower level than the aisle; they may be contemporary or the porch could be later C15; it has a large moulded 3- centred arch granite doorway with carved spandrels and a label with carved stops; on the bases of the doorway jambs there is a quatrefoil panel to the right and a pair of round-headed lancet-like recesses to the left; in the gable above the doorway an elaborately shaped slate sundial dated 1686. The porch has its original ceiled wagon roof with roll moulded ribs, carved wall plate and later bosses.

The English Heritage Listing official description is, Parish church, the dedication to St Mary may not be authentic. Largely early C14, probably with earlier fabric, C15 south aisle and south porch, circa 1840 vestry, restored in 1871 and 1884-5.

A large concrete support arch has been inserted into the south aisle as an emergency measure.

St Mary's Church in North Huish, Devon, England was built in the 14th century. It is recorded in the National Heritage List for England as a designated Grade I listed building, and is now a redundant church in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust. It was declared redundant on 1 March 1993, and was vested in the Trust on 10 August 1998.

There are C16 ceiled wagon roofs over the nave, transept and the south aisle. The interior includes early screens and the moulded octagonal granite font is dated 1662, but the rest of the furnishings, polygonal wooden pulpit and wall tablets are Victorian.

The nave benches and choir stalls with poppyheads are all late C19 and complete, but the aisle benches have been removed. The late C19 polygonal wooden pulpit is probably contemporary; it has pierced gothic panels. The wrought iron altar rail and wrought iron and brass lectern are late C19.

The best monument is on the north wall of the nave to Richard Strode of Newnham Park died 1790; marble with a large draped urn at the top and fluted pilasters flanking the inscription which invites the reader to look at Butterford . "The stately mansion that adorns the brow of yonder summit".

On the west wall on either side of the tower arch are various monuments to members of the Cornish family of Black Hall.

These are the officially mentioned monuments that have now been removed since 1998 when the church was declared redundant. As the future use of the church is still to be decided the Cornish-Bowden family made the decision to transfer the family monuments to St James' as can now be seen above, earlier in this post.

The nave and north transept roofs have moulded ribs, carved bosses at the intersections and carved wall plates. The transept has an unmoulded 2-centred arch and the tall tower arch is also 2- centred but with imposts.

On the north side of the chancel a blocked chamfered 2-centred arch doorway with diagonal stops or mitres for the cill. The pointed arch doorway to its left to the vestry is later.

The interior includes early screens and the moulded octagonal granite font is dated 1662, but the rest of the furnishings, polygonal wooden pulpit and wall tablets are Victorian.

The east arch of the 5-bay south arcade is lower to fit under the stone wall plate of the lower chancel.

The C15 rood screen has been removed for repair and is now in storage in the transept; it has 3-light panels and thick canopy-work in the spandrels but no coving or cresting; the cornice has strips of decoration and the wainscoting is pierced (Pevsner). The similar south parclose screen is in situ (seen below) in the east bay of the arcade; both are painted and may have early colour underneath.

The granite arcade has 4-centred, almost round, moulded arches; the moulded granite monolithic piers of standard A-type (Pevsner) have 4 shafts which rise into the capitals which have horizontal bands and similar bases without the bands.

In the C20 the south side of the lower stages of the tower and the west end of the south aisle were rendered. Between the buttresses are 4 large late C19 (1884-5?) 4-light Perpendicular style windows with almost round arches; their tracery is interesting especially the tracery of the easternmost window on the south side and the east end window which have panel tracery with transoms suggesting a circa 1900 date.

Stained glass: Late C19 patterned coloured glass in all the windows; the central light of the east window has a stained glass crucifixion.

Although some parts of the church are 14th century, the south aisle is 15th century. A rector was recorded in 1308 and the reconstruction of the church was dedicated in 1336 by Bishop John Grandisson.The building also underwent extensive renovation in the 19th century.

On the south wall of the chancel a tall blocked lancet with deep splays, later used as a doorway and now a sedilia; to its east a plain 2-centred arch piscina with a crude drain, its slat shelf removed.

The church, perched on a hill, must have one of the most beautiful outlooks of any church in England, guarding the rolling hills of the South Hams.

North Huish is a village, civil parish, former ecclesiastical parish and former manor in the South Hams district of Devon, England. The village is situated about 8 miles (13 kilometres) south-west of the town of Totnes. Avonwick is the largest village in the parish.

During the reign of King Richard I (1189-1199) the manor was held by John Damarell, whose male descendants held it for many generations. It then passed to the Trenchard family and thence to Tremain of Collacombe. Within the parish are situated various historic estates including Norreys, a seat of the le Norreys family until the reign of King Edward III (1327-1377), when the heiress married Sir John Fortescue of Shepham, Captain of the captured Castle of Meaux, 25 miles (40 kilometres) north-east of Paris, following the Siege of Meaux during the Hundred Years' War.

Part 8 follows the River Avon on the eastern bank in the neighbouring parish of Diptford.

Related Posts

See All


Unknown member
Jan 16, 2023

Another one of your great finds. I find the church on the Cornish grounds a much more eye appealing and well kept church than the latter and I also was amazed at how green and lush the surrounding area is. You would never guess it was winter there 😉

Gethin Thomas
Gethin Thomas
Jan 16, 2023
Replying to

Yes the old church incredibly old but has really been neglected since the 90's so it shows. The green and lush is explained by the fact it was October. 🙂 I have been on this project since July so have to occasionally go and fill in gaps, so each post has a mix of seasons, which I quite like.


John Durham
John Durham
Jan 15, 2023

Wonderful, unusual village/church arrangement. Love these quirky finds of yours. The photo of St. James with the dark clouds in the background is magnificent. So glad you got access to the interior, and the contrast to St. Mary's is really stark - shows what a difference a couple of hundred years can make.

Gethin Thomas
Gethin Thomas
Jan 16, 2023
Replying to

Thanks John, yes I'm glad I made the effort and waited to get interior shots. There will be another post just on this church as I have more shots that there was no space for in this one.🙂

bottom of page