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  • Writer's pictureGethin Thomas

South Pool Church

This is South Pool Church, dedicated in 1318, a Grade 1 listed building. It is in the ancient South Hams area of Devon, a small area rich in some of the oldest churches in England, which not only serve their local congregations as they have for over a thousand years, but which also serve as local free museums, full of remarkable artefacts such as stone carvings, wood carvings, stained glass and historic monuments telling tales of bravery and disaster.

South Pool is a tiny village on a creek of the Kingsbridge Ria, a many armed sunken river which meets the open sea at Salcombe. South Pool is here because of both it's easy access to the sea, for trade, but also for it's seclusion in not being readily accessed or viewed from the sea unless you know your way around these tidal creeks and mudflats.

The church is positioned at the highest point, well above the village which gathers around the water's edge. This is no accident and it was not placed high up here, like many other local churches are, for the view but because when these churches were built this part of England was a dangerous place, always prepared for attack or invasion from our neighbours the French, Dutch and Spanish. If you think it looks like a castle or a fortress you are not mistaken. Churches like these were the first refuge in times of danger and gave some measure of protection and defence. The doors are small and heavy and windows narrow and high up.

Most of the economy here revolved around the sea so although the church was first dedicated to St. Cyricus, later formed as Cyriac, in the early 1800's it appears that St, Nicholas was also added, being as he was the Patron Saint of sailors, so that today South Pool Church is more correctly called The Church of St. Nicholas and St. Cyriac.

Cyriac was universal in Medieval Europe, a child martyr and the infant son of St. Julitta who was tried for her faith but did not recant. Young Cyriac who was with her also refused to recant so both were put to death. This was the fourth century and their bones were brought to France so it is likely that the name came here via the Norman invasion.

The tower dominates the church and also the skyline of the village. Bear in mind that when this church was built the tallest building in the world was still likely to have been the Great Pyramid of Giza, so these churches were awesome in their scale for such remote and small places.

The porch and nave are the oldest existing parts of the church being 14th century. The impressive South Door is probably 17th century and the latch and huge iron key are original.

The blocked window in the porch is a mystery, once thought to be a Leper's Squint, a window where lepers could observe the sacrament at a safe distance, but this is now thought unlikely so it's origin remains unclear.

The view from the porch gives an impression of the setting in the landscape, high up, with the village nestled below.

The first thing noticed on entry is this relatively modern stained glass window, showing the village itself, quite an unusual find in an ancient church. One can see both the bridge and stepping stones which are a character of the village with the open sea in the distance. The image is surrounded with local wildflowers which fill the hedgerows and with crops which fill the fields.

I had intended photographing the village too but found that it was completely lined with white vans and scaffolding on my arrival, so I made a quick departure. This stained glass will have to suffice for now as an impression of the village.

The Norman sandstone tub font with it's simple carved decoration repeated nine times dates from the twelfth century and as is often the case the oldest artefact in the church. Just how many bawling babies have had their heads wetted over seven hundred years in this impressive vessel one can only imagine. In accordance with the requirements of a diocesan synod in the year 1287, the font had to be made of stone and provided with a lockable cover to prevent the theft of the Holy Water. Very few font covers survive.

In the Chancel is this unusual domed marble wall tablet. I had to admire it if for the calligraphy and carving alone. It commemorates the Rev Gawen Hayman. In 1690 he was appointed Rector by the Bishop of Exeter despite opposition locally. It is interesting that the makers of this memorial saw fit to mention that for posterity.

But the integrity of his life, the purity of his manners, his modesty, temperance and affability soon gained their goodwill

He was rector for 45 years living to 74 years of age, in fact outliving six of his seven children. Child mortality would have been high and life expectancy much lower than today.

He was " 'ye Best Master, ye Best Friend, ye Best Husband, ye Best Father and one of ye Best Christians that the age in which he lived, produced".

On the north wall of the Chancel is the Easter Sepulchre dating from the early sixteenth century.

In the centre of the monument is a rare, possibly unique, panel of the Resurrection showing Christ rising from the tomb with two sleeping soldiers at each end. The figures have been defaced, possibly in the Reformation or in the later Civil War when activists sought to erase idolatrous imagery. The effigy of a lying figure was placed here later and the feet have been removed to allow it to fit.

The East Window illustrates the Book of Revelations and dates from 1883. The centrepiece shows the sacrificial altar with representations of the four Evangelists. The other figures represent the twenty four Elders with the Three Kings below the altar in the centre window.

In the nave, the arcades that divide it from the aisles are simple in design, with four centred arches and column and cup capitals. The roof was replaced in the sixteenth century. In the aisles (south aisle seen on the left here) are the original medieval wagon roofs.

During the Battle of Heligoland Bight, HMS Liberty engaged with the German torpedo boats G194 and G196, and scored two hits on the cruiser Mainz. On 8 February 1917, the destroyer rammed and sank the German submarine UC-46. The vessel also played a minor role in the battles of Dogger Bank, Dover Strait and Jutland, as well as acting as a convoy escort and patrolling the Dover Barrage. (Wikipedia)

Rood Screens were universal in Devon by about 1300 and some 120 survive in Devon today. Their purpose was to seclude the clergy and ceremony in the Chancel from the congregation. These structures were originally placed in the centre of the Rood Loft, a gallery lit by candles on top of the screen, the focus of all prayer and ritual. The loft was accessed by the rood steps in the side wall of the Chancel.

The screen was probably built between 1480 and 1500, but the Rood Lofts above the screens offended Protestant sensibilities after Henry VIII's Reformation and at that time and going forward into the Elizabethan era they were all destroyed. Elizabeth's Royal Order of 1561 that "roods and all images that hereafter may be superstitiously abused be taken out of all places and utterly destroyed". For some reason screens were ordered to remain.

South Pool's screen is the most spectacular feature of the church and is considered to be an important and significant example. It retains it's original coloured paint and along with only two others in Devon represents the latest sixteenth century fashion in Renaissance painting. Restoration has discovered that there are two painting schemes one above the other, denoting a screen of some high status. The screen survived relatively unscathed at the hands of the Puritans, which may be the result of it's remote rural location.

The now closed steps to the Rood Loft.

Between the Chancel and the side chapels are the Parclose Screens, finely carved and originally fifteenth century, restored in 1952.

The vine trail motifs are standard throughout Devon.

The lower panelled section, rather than being decorated with saints and apostles has early Renaissance arabesques and antique work. This new style of painting first appears in 1510-1520, possibly deriving from continental prints arriving in nearby ports. They also feature in other neighbouring churches.

Here lies an effigy of an early to mid 14th century lady with a dog at her feet, believed to represent faithfulness. The face has been defaced. Once thought to be Lady Muriel de Courtnay but not definitive.

The rest of the stained glass is modern dating between 1978 to 1999. The saints, Nicholas, Cyriac, Cecilia and Francis are represented.

St. Nicholas, Patron Saint of sailors, often depicted holding a ship.

Here is the other side of the blocked porch window.

This is the Derre Chapel which contains the striking marble and alabaster Derre wall monument. It dominates the small Chapel.

Leonard Derre died in 1615 and his wife Joan died in 1608. An interesting feature of the tablet is that the stone mason was either given the wrong information or made an error. 3 sons and 2 daughters has been altered to show 2 sons and 3 daughters.

As if to prove the point the children are also depicted in the sculpture. The two sons are placed behind their father and the three daughters behind the mother. All the figures wear Tudor costume.

Leonard married very well as Joan was the daughter of The Lord Mayor of London no less. A notable event of the time is referred to on the tablet inscription as while her father was Lord Mayor in 1588 The Spanish Armada, the attempted invasion by Spain occurred and the battle would have taken place not far from this area in The English Channel. Another later member of her family lent his name to Bond Street in London.

St. Cecilia is frequently depicted playing the viola, a small organ, or other musical instruments, evidently to express what was often attributed to her, namely that while the musicians played at her nuptials, she sang in her heart to God, though the organ may be misattributed to her, as the result of a mistranslation. (Wikipedia)

HMS Cressy was a Cressy-class armoured cruiser built for the Royal Navy around 1900. Upon completion she was assigned to the China Station. In 1907 she was transferred to the North America and West Indies Station before being placed in reserve in 1909. Recommissioned at the start of World War I, she played a minor role in the Battle of Heligoland Bight a few weeks after the beginning of the war. Cressy and two of her sister ships were torpedoed and sunk by the German submarine U-9 on 22 September 1914 with the loss of 560 of her crew. (Wikipedia)

There are six bells in the tower, which were rung to announce services, to mark deaths and to ward off evil during storms at sea. During World War II it was illegal to ring church bells as they were only to be rung in the event of invasion.

A dragon at the feet of St. Cyriac.

Unless marked Wikipedia, all information is from "A Historical Guide to The Church of St Nicholas & St Cyriac, South Pool" by Geoffrey Tantum

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5 comentários

David Nurse
David Nurse
09 de jun. de 2022

Nice images and I really enjoyed the narrative. Very interesting.


John Durham
John Durham
28 de mai. de 2022

Incredible workmanship and detail in this edifice - I could spend days inside it. Thanks for the wonderful tour.

Gethin Thomas
Gethin Thomas
28 de mai. de 2022
Respondendo a

Thanks John, we are lucky to have an abundance of these very old churches around here.


Membro desconhecido
25 de mai. de 2022

Well done and a nicely reserached background info.

Gethin Thomas
Gethin Thomas
26 de mai. de 2022
Respondendo a

Thanks, playing catch up at the moment.😊

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