Devonshire writer John Fisher tells the story of how John…
It’s always a delight when it’s possible to see centuries-old buildings, hardly changed from the day they were built. South Tawton village houses such a gem, a remarkable edifice of robust and granite construction.
South Tawton itself is a quiet, well-hidden village just half a mile outside of South Zeal, itself a fairly demure Devonshire village of historic note. The Church House is unavoidable as it fairly dominates the village, with the Church of St Andrew directly to the rear.
What you cannot fail to appreciate when you first glimpse the Church House is how beautiful a building it appears. It’s such a structurally robust edifice with a natural patina that seems as if the the whole structure has been dragged out of the ground below, complete with grass atop!
There’s no doubt that the quality of workmanship employed and the construction has enabled this building to stand the test of time. The blocks of stone used have all been accurately hewn into large rectangular blocks that were bonded in place with lime mortar, not that it appears to need this, because the construction is what amounts to building with blocks, all quite precisely shaped so that it’s naturally physically strong. As you look at the gable (top), you can see that large blocks have been used in the lower courses, and as height is gained, they reduce in size.
The external double-sided external staircase is a lovely feature, as are the mullioned windows. Inside it’s fairly stark, with not much interest apart from the smoke blackened thatch on the underside of the roof, indicating that originally, dedicated chimneys weren’t built into the structure, but added at a later stage.
This church house was built in 1490, not long before the notorious Henry VIII came to the throne. At the time, church houses were being built to detach the church from the drinking of ales within. Additionally, church ales were brewed to raise funds for the church as well as for the poor of the vicinity. Until 1547 special church ales were sold to raise money for candles as well as to fund the decoration of altars dedicated to St Andrew, St George, St Katherine and to the Virgin Mary and Jesus.
At Whitsun, much merriment occurred, with bear baiting, dancing, juggling and plays, such as the story of St George and the Dragon. Incidentally, are you aware of why St George is the patron saint of England, and indeed, quite a few other countries? It’s an interesting story that I’ve always been a bit baffled about, in particular how the dragon figures in the scheme. We cover this intriguing story in a future issue of Devonshire – don’t miss it!
Whilst you’re in South Tawton, viewing the Church House, it’s well worth also visiting the church of St Andrew which is directly to the right. Although major renovation took place in 1881, the church itself was probably built in the 15th century and various sections have a range of ages of construction. Don’t miss the fine carved roof bosses on the wagon roof and also the Burgoyne and Wyke monuments. Also notice the very crude, retired font, who knows how old it is? Also see the references to the Oxenham family who were a notable family of these parts.