This weekend England celebrates the annual Heritage Open Days festival which sees buildings and places of historic interest opened to the public. Although my visit to St Peter’s Church at Ugborough is ordinarily open to the public of course, I took the chance in the spirit of the HODs to visit this lovely church.
St Peter’s Church stands high above the village of Ugborough and is a very impressive edifice. Indeed, one can easily see how this, like many of our medieval parish churches benefitted from increased prosperity during the 14/15 centuries.
The Church guidebook records that St Peter’s has been in existence since at least 1121 and originally came under the control of Plympton Priory. Little of this early building remains however it is suggested that parts of the nave remain from this early church – as well as the much mutilated Norman font.
Pevsner says that Ugborough Church and Churchyard stands within a small prehistoric earthwork. This of course takes the occupation of this site back much further than 1121!
Externally, the tower is probably the most striking architectural feature, standing as it does 94 feet high. It truly towers over the village and can be seen standing proud on the approach to Ugborough. It is built of granite ashar and is a solid construction. This tower is likely to have replaced, or have developed upon an earlier tower, and we know it was certainly in existence in some form by the time of an Inventory taken during King Edward VI’s reign in 1553. At this time the church possessed four bells.
My church historian hero, John Stabb in his Some Old Devon Churches, volume 1, (1908) says much of interest relating to Ugborough:
The Church consists of nave, chancel, north and south aisles, transepts, north and south porches and embattled west tower with clock and eight bells.
The nave and aisles were erected in 1323, and the Church was reconstructed in that year. The chancel was erected in 1420, and the tower in 1520.
The rood screen dates from the 15th century, but the chancel portion has been cut down to the sill level; the aisle portions having had all the groining removed and pieces of the cornice fastened on the spandrels between the bays. There is a fine series of thirty-two painted panels representing the Annunciation, the Adoration of the Magi, the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, the martyrdom of St Sebastian, the beheading of St John the Baptist, and a series of female figures which have been described by Mr Baring-Gould and Mr Bligh Bond as Sibyls; this is, I believe, incorrect, a careful inspection will show that each of these figures carries some emblem of the Passion. The martyrdom of St Sebastian is curious, it was most probably repainted in the time of Elizabeth, as the archers are depicted in trunk-hose, an article of wearing apparel not likely to be in use when the panels were first painted.
The font is Norman and is remarkable for being carved on one side only; this is accounted for by the fact that the font at one time stood against a pillar, and when in former times the carving was ruthlessly destroyed, the despoilers were unable to get at the part thus protected. The font has been moved from its original position and placed at the west end of the nave, and the present vicar has cleaned out the plaster from the carved portion and the carving is as fresh as if just done.
The south parclose screen is a fine piece of carving of later date than the rood screen, there is also a north parclose of inferior workmanship.
In his work Devon Church Antiquities of 1909, John Stabb elaborates a little further about Ugborough’s font and rood screen:
The Norman font in this church has rather a peculiar feature, the carving is only on one portion of the bowl, the remainder being plain. This is accounted for by the fact that the font, which now stands at the west end of the nave, at one time stood against a pillar, so that the carved part was protected from the hands of the despoilers who ruthlessly destroyed all they could reach : when the font was removed the plaster was cleared out of the carved portion remaining, and it is now as fresh as if it had just left the workman’s hands. When one sees so much destruction of beautiful objects in our churches, one is at a loss to find a reason for it. One could understand, while not approving, the destruction of a crucifix or an image of the Blessed Virgin, from the point of view of those who committed the destruction, but in a case like this, where there are no figures or religious symbols of any kind in the carving, there is no excuse to be found for such wanton damage.
There is a good series of paintings on the thirty-two panels of the screen. Mr Keyser gives the following list: –
North:- S. Apollonia, S. Margaret, the Annunciation, the Adoration of the Magi, the Blessed Virgin, two angels, S. John the Baptist, S. Sebastian, and a doubtful subject.
South: – Twelve female figures bearing the emblems of the Passion (? Sybils), S. Agnes, S. Agatha, an executioner and the daughter of Herodias, part of the martydom of S. John the Baptist. The martyrdom of S. Sebastian is curious; the archers are arrayed in trunk hose, and the painting was probably done about the time of Elizabeth.
Of further interest at St Peter’s Church are items not referenced by Stabb. These items include a Brass of a Lady from the early C16. This was found in the North Transept of the Church in 1862.
In the Chancel there is a stone coffin lid set into the floor. This is of an ancient date, probably C13-C14 and probably marked the burial place of a former Priest of the Church. It was found in the Churchyard and placed in its current position at some stage in the early-mid C20.
The stone Pulpit stands rather oddly in the nave. It’s likely to be of medieval date but is painted white which somehow doesn’t do it any justice.
The much mutilated font, discussed by Stabb, today carries an unusual and beautifully painted font cover which appears to date from the mid-C20. It’s a really pretty piece of work and it carries the line from scripture: “Suffer little children…” [Matthew 19:14].
The Church guidebook says little of the stained glass within the Church today. Most of it dates to the early 1860s and probably dates from one of those infamous C19 ‘restorations’! That said, the glass is pretty, being filled in the main with lots of geometric patterns and limited imagery. Oddly enough I’m not a fan of so much patterned glass… and I found the clear window in the South Transept the most beautiful as it allowed the late afternoon sunshine to pervade the building most beautifully!
The Church guidebook records that there was a great deal of reordering in the Church during 2009. This work created a community space with kitchen and a disabled toilet. The work saw the removal of several pews from the west end which were later reused to create a lovely screen across the South Transept. It is in this cleared space that one can fully appreciate the lofty scale of the nave.
In all, this is a magnificent Devon Church. The Rood Screen and its paintings are outstanding and reveal something of the interior of a Pre-Reformation Church. The surrounding Churchyard is peaceful and large and filled with many finely carved C19 tombstones – the family historians dream.
My favourite feature of the building however is something not recorded in any of the guidebooks, or by Pevsner: namely the four angels which survey the parish from each corner of the church tower, about 3/4 of the way up. Of early C16 date these angels have witnessed much change in during the last 500 years. They are perhaps little noticed by passers-by. Next time you’re there take a look!
© Graham Naylor