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History File

Notes on Denbury

Part 3

The tower now contains five bells, one more than in the inventory of seventh Edward VI 1553. "Denbery iiij belles in the tower their" (Ellacombe, "Church Bells of Devon," Appendix B). One of these bells is mediaeval; it is the tenor, or heaviest bell, now used only for tolling at funerals. The legend on the Denbury mediaeval bell is among the six mentioned by Ellacombe, which occur most frequently on ancient Devonshire bells—

"Voce mea viva depello cuncta nociva."

It has reference, in particular to the ancient belief, and which still survives in some countries, that there is a virtue in the sound of church bells to drive away storms. The legend on the bell is preceded by an initial cross of beautiful design (Ibid, cut 7). As many as 22 of these legends remain in Devon. They are generally known by the name of "Leonine," ascribed by Dueagne to Leo, a 12th century poet, but by others as much earlier, and even traced to the third century, A.D. In 1829 Denbury church came into possession of a new bell, cast by William Hambling, of Blackawton, described by Ellacombe as "an ingenious blacksmith," from whose foundry issued twelve bells for different churches in the vicinity of Blackawton from 1823 to 1845. We are told that he was much patronised by Archdeacon Froude, and was the last of our Devonshire bell founders. The inscription on this bell is:

"I to the church the living call and to the grave do summon all; 1829; Revd. R.H. Froude, Rector; Mr. Simmons and Goodley, Wardens; Prosperity to this parish; Hambling fecit Blackawton. Peace to the ringers of Denbury."

Clock Face On the north side of the tower is the face of the old church clock, with only one hand, which was set going, after a stoppage of sixty years, in 1898; but after a while it stopped again, and, finally, the machinery was found to be too worn out to be any longer in working order. The only old cross on the church, and presumably of 14th century date, is that on the gable of the north transept.


In his "Remarks on some towers of churches in the South of Devon" (Trans, Exeter Diocesan Architectural Society, vol 1, p.127), the Rev. William Grey observes that in the Newton Abbot district the church towers are of a different type from those of other Devonshire churches, constituting a class by themselves, Denbury among other examples:- "Towers have no buttresses, walls diminish in thickness as they get higher; belfry windows of two lights, heads most semi-circular, sometimes pointed, no tracery, look like double Norman windows, for which they are often mistaken; windows have a segmental inner arch, mullions always of one piece of stone, for most part of granite." The church porch, which, like other parts of the fabric, has been "restored" is entered under a pointed granite arch, has an open timbered roof, and is stone benched. The
porch doorway, with a pointed arch, is of freestone. No Holy Water stoup is to be seen, nor inside the church. The church interior is architecturally of befitting simplicity, and yet marked by dignity and a quiet charm, whilst religious pictures on the walls of the nave further tend to produce an atmosphere of devotion.

The pleasing proportions would be set off to a better advantage were it not for the west gallery and organ, which, though serving a good purpose in the delightful congregational character of the services at this church, almost entirely block the fine pointed Decorated tower arch. The whole interior of the church is covered by a low "waggon" vault with plain ribs of oak, in the natural colour. Both Worthy's "Notes" and Miss Cresswell's record Perpendicular bosses in the chancel roof, or ceiling, but there are none now. The only boss in the church is the one in the south transept. Even in Kelly's "Directory of Devon" of date so recent as 1930 it is erroneously stated that the old chancel bosses have been preserved; while the "Directory" also errs in the statement that the church is partly Early English. What gives chief distinction to Denbury Church is the chancel which is an unusually fine one for so small an edifice. It is raised one step above the nave floor, with roof slightly lower than that of the nave, is spacious both in length and breadth, 31 feet by 16 feet, and happily is not blocked up with "choir" stalls or benches.

The fenestration is particularly effective, as also the windows themselves, six Decorated ones. Besides the three-light east window, hereafter described, there are two two-light windows on the north side and three of the same number of lights on the south side; all with deep splays under inner segmental arches, and filled with stained glass of good colour and tasteful ornamental designs. A particularly notable feature of the church is the original piscina, described in "Rough Notes" collected by the Exeter Diocesan Architectural Society, Sheet No. 11(Anno1847), as "a perfect piscina." It is simple-niched under an ogee arch, with a projecting ledge, fairly cavernous within with a deep drain. There is no sedilia, and Denbury must in this respect yield distinction to the much smaller and remoter neighbouring church of West Ogwell, where there is a sedilia of very striking character and, indeed, unique for such a church. Strangely enough, there is no aumbry anywhere in the church. There is the usual priests' door. What is very curious is the tiny modern priest's vestry at the angle of the chancel and north transept, ingeniously incorporated in the turret of the old rood loft staircase.


There remains in the chancel wall the deep sunken quatre-foil aperture, which now opens into the vestry, a picturesque feature, having been for an unknown while entirely concealed by plaster. High up in the wall is the door to the former rood loft. Most unfortunately Denbury church has lost its 15th or 16th century chancel screen, and scandalous indeed the treatment it received - for it was burnt by a former Rector (not Archdeacon Froude). It was reported in 1846 that there was "a handsome chancel screen of painted oak" in the church, and "Rough Notes," 1847, mentions a screen there. As there is no chancel arch, though there must have been one originally, as in all churches of the Decorated period, the naked open space here cries out all the more piteously for a screen and with the mystic and devotional rood thereon, or else for a beam carrying the rood, with attendant figures of our Blessed Lady Mary and St. John.

The altar, of carved oak, is presumably a replica of the altar that was the notable work of Richard Hurrell Froude at his native parish of Dartington, and now in the new parish church, having been removed there when, alas! the fair 14th century church was demolished in 1878. The Denbury altar was, probably, put in at the time of the repair of the church in the mid-forties of the last century, through the pious munificence of Miss Margaret Froude, of Denbury House, Hurrell Froude's aunt. The Gothic design of the carved work was taken from the high altar of Cologne Cathedral, consisting in the front panels of quatre-foils with a star in the centre. The present Rector (the Rev. J.A. Nash), instituted 1926, has lengthened the altar on the top in conformity with the old English and mediaeval tradition of a long altar, and fitted it with riddel posts and curtains, the posts bearing candles. The altar is properly vested, and has also the traditional "ornaments" of cross and two candlesticks, material of brass. The reredos is of modern stonework.

The transepts, which are of good depth, have segmental arches resting on piers or abutments, with plain semi-circular octagonal imposts. A blocked arch in the north transept, where hangs a crucifix of metal, indicates the former access to the rood loft. The large blocked arch in the same east wall is that of the former open three-light Perpendicular window in the north wall. The south transept is separated from the nave by a screen, the history of which is rather obscure. Kelly's "Directory of Devon" says it was brought from the old church of Dartington when it was pulled down for the building of the new church. That deplorable event occurred in 1878, but "Rough Notes" (1847) mentions a south transept screen, and was probably the same as the one there now. If the screen came from Dartington, more likely it was brought to Denbury at the time of Miss Froude's repair of the church than at the later assigned date.

In "Rood Screens and Rood Lofts," by Bligh Bond and Dom. Bede Camm (Vol. II p. 311), there is the following description of the present Denbury screen: " A screen of five bays of Perpendicular character is fitted in behind the jambs of the chancel arch (sic). It is of rather common-place type, and much spoiled by the miserable modern cornice and flat spandrels, coarsely traceried, which surmount the arcades. The original work is, probably, of sixteenth century date." The late Harry Hems, of Exeter, ecclesiastical sculptor, called it "a fair screen." This transept retains both its original Perpendicular windows.

The nave, 47ft. 6in. by 16ft., has on both sides two three-light windows, with depressed arches: they are very poor, as Miss Cresswell well observed, "having been tampered with in the 19th century." All the windows of the church, except those in the chancel, have diamond-shaped panes of clear glass, which is certainly preferable to inferior stained glass. The old north door, at the angle of the nave and tower, has been so completely closed inside the church as to be invisible, but is to be seen outside.


Across the west end of the nave and over the tower screen, of stone and pierced with three acute pointed arched doorways, is the old-fashioned
musicians' gallery, lighted by a dormer in the south roof of the church. It now hold the modern organ and seats the modern choir of village boys and girls and young women. Back in the tower, and hidden by the organ are still to be seen the derelict benches - rather a pathetic sight - of the instrumentalists and vocalists who composed Denbury choir in bygone days. In a contribution to Devon and Cornwall "Notes and Queries" (Vol. XIX.), on "Church Bands," by Mr. R. Pearse Chope (reference to Gordon Anderson's two articles in "Musical News," July 19th, 1913), we are told that the numbers of instruments were commonly three - violin, clarionet and bass viol; sometimes a flute or a bassoon in place of violin. These bands survived (in some places) to within living memory, and there was one at Denbury: "Here the church retains the old west gallery in which the 'singers and minstrels' used to sit. The music was in the hands of a family named Rowe. 'Old Rowe' played the bass viol, while his three sons performed on a flute and two fiddles." The old man, he said, was still living at East Ogwell, and Mr. Anderson believed that he had still got his bass viol. But he has long since been out of this world, and two of his sons have also died, while the surviving one now lives in Newton Abbot, an old man. Before the old bandmaster died he did a strange thing - he burnt his bass viol and all his orchestral music.

What is a very precious relic in Denbury church is the font of the pre-existing church of the 12th century. It is described both in "Remarks" and "Rough Notes," above, as Early English, but, in fact, it is a Late Norman font. Miss Kate Clarke (deceased) in her very valuable work on "The Baptismal Fonts of Devon" (Part IV. on "Pedestal Fonts," p.52), gives an interesting description of the Denbury font:- "The rim has a round moulding only and no cable. Between this a band of honeysuckle six inches deep; the rest of the bowl is plain. Here, in a very pronounced way, we notice how the Romanesque font is leading up to the more severe Early English type. The honeysuckle has worked its way to the top of the bowl, and is nothing but a band covering less than a third of the depth. There is a plain moulding between bowl and shaft, and a similar one at the foot of the shaft; the lower portion has the corners champered off a square, higher up it becomes circular, flattened at the cardinal points. Above is a base ring, also flattened, but not so much." This font is one of twelve pedestal fonts in Devon adorned with the Romanesque type of honeysuckle or palmetto, all made of red sandstone.

End of Part 3   (More about the Church in Part 2 & 4)

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