Church Architecture: Axmouth, Devon
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Architectural Development of
St. Michael's Church at Axmouth in Devon

by Roger Johnson

A X M O U T H
A Tour of Architectural Features

Axmouth Church Interior

Given the known antiquity and continuity of habitation in the area surrounding Axmouth, the present parish church may well have been constructed upon the ruins of an earlier edifice. There are pre-Domesday references to a Saxon church at Axmouth but, probably built of wood and thatch, there are no remains extant. The only clue to a pre conquest structure is that the chancel is at an angle nearer to 120 degrees than a right angle with the transept on the south side. This may have been dictated by the presence of an ancient set of foundations. The church comprises an encouragingly steep slate roof, a west tower, a nave, a south aisle, a chancel, and a transept. Its construction is of a mixture of trap stone -or a close balsitic approximation - and flint, externally. The flint is generally too small to warrant the appellation 'chert', in my opinion. The only exception is a 19th century chimney constructed of compacted calcium carbonate -possibly Beer stone - appended to the vestry on the north wall. The internal construction, including the windows and the Norman door appear to be made of Limestone, very probably from the Beer quarries, as Axmouth was the main port of dispatch for consignments of stone from that source. Its close proximity to the harbour suggests a possible source of building stone: that of ballast from ships returning empty, or a stock pile of stones needed by those which were to set sail unladen. The former would explain the use of trap stone, commonly mined further west in the Exeter/Totnes area, Loaded as ballast at Topsham, it could be a cargo of building stone by the time it reached Axmouth. Conversely, the local shingle bank, that was ultimately to prove the undoing of Axmouth, could double as a source of ballast and a readily available source of large flints. The ratio of flint to trap stone is not uniform. The north and east walls have only an occasional flint in them, whereas the south and west walls contain a much higher proportion. Indeed, the south wall of the tower is predominantly flint and would not look out of place in a coastal Sussex church. It may be that this merely reflects what was lying around when they built the place, but, a possible explanation seemed to me to be that those walls, exposed to the rain bearing prevailing winds from the Southwest, may have been built of flint to present a more robust surface to the elements. The minuscule holes in a basaltic rock might absorb water more easily than the featureless flint and so be more vulnerable to erosion by ice.

The west tower has four twin lancet belfry windows with simple indented tracery- one on each wall. The main west window, of similar design and dating from the late 15th century, is glazed with geometric tinted glass. Baffles have been added to the former in recent years to direct the sound of the peal of three bells which are now chimed rather than rung to reduce the strain on the building. The guide places the tower in the perpendicular period c. 1500, but the simplicity of the decoration might point to an earlier date, c. 1150 for the belfry windows, and to their possible removal from a Norman tower on the south side of the eastern end of the church to their present site. The extant evidence for the earlier existence of an eastern tower is the presence of Norman corbels on the outside of the front, right wall of the chancel. The tower is adorned at its four corners by four grotesques. These are very badly weathered and may well be of limestone construction. It's access is via a spiral staircase running up the north east side and protruding from the cuboidal shape as a substantial segment of a cylinder. Inside the musicians gallery has been removed and the area has been screened off for use as a vestry for the choir since 1973. The nave, built to a Norman plan upon Norman foundations, has a wagon ceiling. The two windows on its north side were originally perpendicular, but were rebuilt in Victorian times. The stained glass in them is 19th century and memorial in subject. On this side can be found the banal Victorian font, the original having been lost.

Half way up the church lies the magnificently preserved Norman doorway - c.1150. Until 1887, the old porch was scaled off and used as a vestry. When the north side of the transept suffered a similar fate, doubling as an organ loft, the porch was reopened and the north door exposed in its nearly pristine beauty. It is flanked by two colonettes, one with elementary upright volutes, the other scalloped. It is ornamented with zigzagged crenellations, and a much later inscription in the tympanum - 1698. The porch ceiling is of a ribbed wooden construction with a number of foliate bosses. At the eastern extremity of the nave, on the north side, is a Victorian wooden pulpit and a small, blocked up door that used to lead to the rood. The nave terminates in a large, Romanesque, chancel arch. Attached to the south side of this arch is a flamboyant commemorative plaque. Carved in marble, flanked by angels bearing golden post horns, and dated 1746 and 1749 respectively, James Hallett and his good lady wife lie interred with a minimum of fuss and in the best possible taste. Other memorials to the Halletts can be found throughout the church, particularly in the form of black stone slabs in the floor of the south aisle. This family, resident at the neighbouring Stedcombe House, held the presentation at the church from 1709 to 1874. On the south side of the nave runs the south aisle. This was built either with the Norman church or soon afterwards. By 1300, the late Norman round pillars began to lean outwards. They were restored at that date by the introduction of pointed arches for the arcades and semi-circular arches across the aisle, supported by strengthened walls and external buttresses. The windows on the south aisle are of rural scenes rendered in stained glass in the 19th century. Each of the charming subjects is augmented by a biblical text. The windows on the south wall are of double lancet form, with indented tracery. They are made of limestone which appears exceptionally well preserved for early English or perpendicular windows. This is because they are Tudor windows in the earlier style.

Beyond the chancel arch lie the chancel and the Bindon Chapel or chantry. This last is an area projecting to the east of the main chancel comprising about one quarter of its total area A triangular squint in the south side of the arch gives much of the nave a clear view of the perpendicular east window of the Bindon Chapel which, almost certainly, was the site of an important subsidiary altar when the church was built. This could have been removed for iconoclastic reasons at the dissolution of the monasteries, or for Xenophobic ones when Henry V included the priory at Loders in his expulsion of foreign orders. In the southwest corner, embedded in the wall, is a memorial tablet to two of the Erles - Dame Anne (d.1653) and her son Thomas (d.1630). This family preceded the Halletts: and succeeded the Order of Our Lady Of Syon as being the holders of the presentation. To the east of the south facing seventeenth century window stands an early English piscina, thus reinforcing the likelihood of an altar upon which the host was offered. The main altar is modern (1973) as is the largely plain glass in the windows with only the shields of St Peter and St Michael in the east window and a small copy of the figures on the piers in the south window. On the Norman wall behind the altar some non representational mediaeval paint work in black has been exposed. At the extreme north eastern corner of the chancel there is an effigy lying west to east, and set into a cusped niche in the wall. It is reputed to be of Roger Hariel, a vicar and an abbot of Loders. He took up office in 1320/21 and resigned some four years later. This would coincide nicely with the reconstruction of the south aisle and the pillars supporting it. The effigy's arch sports two heads, a male at the western end and a female at the eastern. Its feet rest upon the crouching figure of a lion. This may well be a symbol of the hope of resurrection. A lion is supposed to lick newly born cubs, and, by so doing, raise them from a state of apparent lifelessness.

Behind the choir stalls on the north side lies the vestry. Until 1889 it was merely part of the chancel. In the restoration of that date the new vestry was constructed from the early English walls and door to the north of the cancel and a Victorian extension. The old vestry was reopened and resumed its original function as the main porch. A solid fuel stove was installed together with the organ from Stedcombe house. The pews throughout the church are of recent manufacture. The last box pews were removed in 1953.

The church lies in a churchyard of about one acre. It has seven yews and a number of old monuments, the earliest decipherable one being 1721. Its north wall runs along the main Seaton road.

No link can be made between the Iron Age fort at Hawksdown and Axmouth Church's dedication to St Michael, as there is no evidence of a sentinel role whereby a pagan shrine on, or adjacent to the site, was supplanted and guarded by the present Christian edifice. There is no unusual proliferation of anti demonic devices. Indeed the seven yews and four gargoyles, which are the only supposedly talismanic features on view, represent a below average prophylactic presence.

Hoskins, in his "Devon," praised the church as being a virtually complete example of every style from the Norman to the present day; but neither he, nor Pevsner, did justice to the many points of interest to be found in this fascinating old Devon Church.

Axmouth Church Medieval Wall Paintings
Axmouth Church History

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Bio: Roger Johnson is a retired School Master who lives in Lympstone in Devon. He has studied several areas of Devon's fascinating past, and is particularly captivated by the more contraversial areas of British History.

The Lympstone Society




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