St Paul de Leon, Staverton

Today I visited the beautiful parish church of St Paul de Leon at Staverton. It’s a church that has been on my visit list for some time as I had seen photos of its superb Rood Screen – I knew I had to see it for real and I was not disappointed.

Parish Church of St Paul de Leon, Staverton

It being the 29th of December and during the Octave of Christmas it was a joy to discover the church be-decked in festive decorations – a superb and huge Christmas tree alongside a beautiful nativity crib scene and evergreen garlands over the central nave aisle. Actually it was rather reminiscent of the best C19 Christmas scenes one sometimes notices in archive photographs of church interiors from Christmas past… The ability therefore to step back in time, in solitude, within God’s House was most welcome today!

Regarding its history, the 1890 Devon Directory doesn’t provide much information about St Paul de Leon at Staverton, however it does offer us a pre-restoration glimpse at the Rood Screen –

The PARISH CHURCH (St Paul) contains a Perpendicular screen, stretching across the whole width of the church. It is unique in some of its features, but, although patched up from time to time has been and still is in an imperfect state, but through the liberality of a friend of the vicar, it is about to be entirely restored at the cost of £700. It has a curious ‘Prie Dieu‘ monument to members of the family of Worthe, or Worthy, the ancient owners of the manor of Metherell, and the donors of this property to the Chapter of Exeter. Many of the windows are filled with stained glass. There is a good peal of six bells. The registers date from 1614. The living is a vicarage, valued in K.B. at £32. 14s. 9 1/2 d., and in 1831 at £394. The Rev. J. B. Hughes*, M.A., is the incumbent, and has a good residence and 3A. 31P of glebe.

[This is the Rev. John Bickley Hughes, M.A., vicar and rural dean]

The best account of the church from the early C20 is of course to be found in John Stabb’s “Some Old Devon Churches”, Volume 1, published in 1908. Stabb’s view of the church in 1908 nicely bridges the gap and documents developments since the 1890 Directory had been published.

Stabb says –

STAVERTON. St Paul’s. (Three miles from Totnes).

The present Church consists of chancel, nave, north and south aisles, south porch with parvise approached by a broad staircase, and west tower, seventy five feet five inches high, containing six bells.

West tower of St Paul de Leon, Staverton

It is probable that there was formerly a Norman Church on the site, as there is part of a Norman arch on the western side of the churchyard, composed of red sandstone, and stones of the same composition have been built into various parts of the Church. The first mention of Staverton Church is on March 25th, 1148, when it was given to the Chapter by Robert, Bishop of Exeter.

In 1881 the dilapidated waggon roof was replaced by one of pitch pine. The stone work of the east and north chancel windows, and also that of the east window of the north aisle, was renewed in 1869, and at the same time the piscina was moved twelve feet to the west, and in its place a recess formed, now used as a credence. There were formerly chapels at the east end of the north and south aisles, the latter dedicated to the Blessed Virgin; the piscina still remains in the south wall; the north chapel is now used as an organ chamber. For many years it was known as the “Worth Chapel,” and on the north wall is a prie dieu monument, dated 1629 belonging to the Worth family, who are known to have been residing in Devonshire in the time of Henry II; the entrance to the roof loft is from this chapel.

The rood screen extends across nave and aisles and is fifty-six feet seven inches in length. The beautiful 15th century carving of the old screen, in fact the whole of the screen, being in a very dilapidated condition, it was decided to restore it in 1891, and to add a gallery front, the old one having been destroyed in the reign of Queen Elizabeth by order of Archbishop Parker. During the demolition of the screen sufficient remains of the old gallery front were found to determine the height, but not enough to enable the original design to be reproduced, so the screen in the north aisle at Atherington was taken as a pattern. On June 7th, 1891, the restored screen was solemnly dedicated. The parclose screens of 15th century date are in very good condition.

Staverton, 1908.jpg
St Paul de Leon, Staverton [from J. Stabb’s “Some Old Devon Churches”, 1908

There is a fine peal of bells, the 1st, 3rd and 4th of which were cast in 1761 by Thomas Bilbie, the 2nd and 6th were recast in 1856, the 5th dates from 1798.

The first vicar recorded is Walter de Teignmue, September 12th, 1269. The registers date from 1614.

Today’s visit 108 years after John Stabb’s finds the modern church changed but not substantially altered. Here are my thoughts:

The visitor to Staverton is presented with a wonderful view of the church from the neighbouring roadway. At first the building appears shrouded with large evergreen trees but one can soon appreciate the church in all its glory.

Opening the churchyard gate I made my way to the magnificent south porch – alluded to by Stabb – but in passing note only. I found it to be something of a remarkable porch – much larger than you’ll find at most other Devonshire parish churches. It being the Christmas Season the porch was beautifully decorated – and then your eyes behold the stunning and ancient South Door – the grand wooden door (which takes a bit of a push to open)!

Inside the south porch – notice the seasonal decoration and the magnificent ancient door

Once inside the church my eyes were drawn initially to the scale of the nave – it’s a large building and perhaps not exactly what I’d expected. At first my eyes were not fixed on the rood screen or any other item of furniture – no, it was upon the subtle beauty of the festive decorations within the building. The evergreen garland hanging over the middle aisle and decorations around the nave windows were most beautiful.

The Nave at St Paul de Leon, Staverton

The church doesn’t contain much stained glass in the nave – two windows only carry stained glass – one of them, a modern one in the north aisle is particularly effective. This window depicts Christ in Glory and is a memorial to the Rev. Edward Drake-Brockman who was vicar from 1922-1957. The stained glass window in the south aisle (nearest to the south porch) is clearly C19 and remarkable for its deep and effective colouring.

All windows, except one carry replaced window tracery – i.e. this was replaced during the restoration of the church of 1873-82 by Ewan Christian. Although the new window tracery is of a uniform but interesting design it is a shame that more of the old doesnt remain here.

The church has a “modern” nave altar – possessing a lovely frontal – and although I’m not a huge fan of nave altars (!) this works very well – the rood screen acting almost as the most breath-taking reredos!

The chancel is filled with stained glass – the east window as well as the north and south chancel windows. The High Altar dates from 1949 and represents the work of the locally-famous and renowned wood carver, Violet Pinwill. The former High Altar being considered too small and unsuitable was relocated to the Lady Chapel in the south aisle.

The chancel showing High Altar and lovely East Window (by Hardman?)

The former chapel at the east end of the north aisle is still used as the organ chamber, referenced to by Stabb. This chapel was known as the Worth or Preston Chapel. The unusual feature of the organ here is that there no case on the sides or rear – this enables one to see inside the organ and notice all the inner workings – remarkable and very interesting. It was last restored (and improved) by Hele of Saltash in 1996. It is not only the organ however which drew my attentions here. This former chapel also holds the 1629 Prie Dieu memorial mentioned by Stabb – now a little neglected and slightly obscured – but of remarkable preservation and definitely worth the attention. It’s called a Prie Dieu memorial of course as the family elders are depicted as kneeling at a Prie Dieu.

Worth Family memorial, 1629

The other item of interest in this former chapel is the rood loft staircase. In many churches the rood screen was lost after the Reformation, and of those which gladly survive, some have been moved or much mutilated since. Although the rood screen at Staverton isn’t all “original” – being in great parts restoration work, it was of the utmost joy for me to enter into the pre-Reformation world and ascend via the staircase to the top of the rood loft. I didn’t stop here for long – but for a moment I could see how, in practice, ancient rood lofts could be used to house an altar, singers, musicians, etc., etc. A unique experience, perhaps not appreciated by many others than myself, but one of the best highlights of my church visits this year!

Superb C19 restoration work on Staverton’s rood screen

The restored rood screen itself is a magnificent piece of work – clearly the work of the mightily talented, Harry Hems (1889-1891). Ancient fragments of the original screen remain alongside the restoration work. As was, and is usual, a rood stands at the centre of the rood loft. The rood with its attendant figures was given in memory of Mrs Drake-Brockman in the mid C20. Staverton’s rood screen provides a rare opportunity to fully appreciate how a rood screen physically looked before the mid C16 and although it’s not gaudily painted, as was typical of those years long ago, it really is a superb piece of church furniture and worthy of a visit to this church alone.

The rood screen and rood loft over the Lady Chapel

Oh, and what of St Paul de Leon – an unusual, (or unique?) church dedication in Devon – the following (and more) is taken from the ever-useful Wikipedia! –

Paul Aurelian (known in Breton as Paol Aorelian or Saint Pol de Léon and in Latin as Paulinus Aurelianus) was a 6th-century Welshman who became first bishop of the See of Léon and one of the seven founder saints of Brittany. He allegedly died in 575 at the age of 140 after having been assisted in his labours by three successive coadjutors. This suggests that several Paul’s have been mixed up. Gilbert Hunter Doble thought that he might have been Saint Paulinus of Wales.

Late afternoon sunshine at Staverton

© Graham Naylor