Architectural History of Lympstone Church in Devon,
L Y M P S T O N
C H U R C H
I shall look first of the architecture of the tower, having established this as the oldest part of the present church: then at the rest of the interior, where there are some remains of interest: and then briefly turn to the known history of the church as it existing written works, for comparison.
The stonework on the ground floor of the tower (the bellringer's is porch) is of new red sandstone as before, with randomly alternating stones of pink, sand colour and deep red, much worn. They have obviously been repaired at various times, and as outside, the size of the stones becomes smaller as the tower reaches further up. The sandstone blocks surrounding the West door are very large and look older, less dressed than the rest. Here and everywhere in the tower, the marks of the chisel are to be seen on the dressed stones, mostly in vertical cuts. The whole effect is of rude, but strong, country work. (Red sandstone was of course, fairly difficult to work.) The interior of the perpendicular West window, with its four lights and standard ogee reticulation, shows much restoration in both stones and pointing. Again, this is in beer stone.
The door to the Belfry staircase is a much interest. It is small, about five foot
six inches high, and very narrow. It is surmounted by a rounded arch. This seems a very important fact indeed and would point to the existence of a much earlier church than the one rebuilt in 1409; it is probably early Norman, and Romanesque in style. Here we have the first unusual an unexpected feature.
The circular stairs are very steep, with rough rubble stones in places in the ceiling. The first floor is reached by three steep sandstone steps, perhaps the originals, the others on the staircase having been replaced. There are rough tool marks on the stones again, rougher than below. To the left of the door (south side), there is what could be a mason's marks. On the south side and the north, there are putlog holes where the scaffolding would have been. The window embrasure is about four foot thick. Upon the second floor, the marks of adzes or chisels are very visible on the stone faces. The stones are dressed, but rough hewn. The beams were renewed obviously recently. There are two stones forming the lintel over the doorway arch, which is a very small shallow arch, almost totally rounded. On the third floor, which is the Belfry, there is now a cast-iron frame for the bells, whereas the original bell frame was made of oak. The stones here are very weathered and wind and rain come in through the unglazed louvres. There have been some brick repairs to the top of the walls in living memory, and the oak beams were taken out and lead on the roof renewed. The stone surround to the window is made almost entirely of a polychromy of alternating pink and grey stones which shows much care. The window itself has trefoil shapes, and now has a tympanum of white stone, not beer stone.
Now for a short look at the interior of the church, which at first sight seems unpromising, or in Pevsner's words, "conscientious but dull..". It is a reconstruction of 1864, by Mr E. Ashworth, a local architect, because of the advanced dilapidation of the old church. However this interior contains one or two very interesting features, which shows that like the dedication, this church is a little unusual. (The dedication to the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary is thought to be the only one of the kind in England).
First of all, the medieval north aisle arches have been retained. They are of beer stone, (which has lasted so much better from 1409 than the bath stone used in 1864) and have foliation on the capitals. The one to be noted is the last by the chancel arch (itself also medieval). Of this, if you look carefully, you can see a little green man. The foliage here also is of a different type from all but one of the capitals, and looks older, not only because of the quality of the stone, but because of the foliage. Could this be preserved from the 12th or 13th century? (The rest must be from the 14th century).
The second feature to notice are the stone angels on the corbels above the altar. These are alleged to be medieval and retained at the reconstruction. Without a ladder, it is difficult to see the stone, but they appear very white, quite unlike the beer stone used throughout the medieval church, and could possibly be of alabaster or Portland stone. However my theory is that they too are Victorian, and that the medieval angels referred to are now out behind the north aisle wall.
Lastly, a very interesting feature is the old broken bucket font. An amateur of churches in 1840, a Mr Davidson, writes in longhand: "the font is very ancient, a large rude circular stone basin ornamented with a rude cable moulding round it resting on a pillar of nearly the same size". There is now no pillar, and the font is much damaged since it was used as a flower bed in the churchyard after 1864. The cable moulding remains, however, and has been carved with an axe, and would appear to be Norman. The stone is difficult to identify. Prof Hoskins says: "in many cases the font provides the best clue to the date of the earliest church on the side. The right to baptise was a cherished one..."
Thus far, we can assess from the architectural evidence that there were several churches on the side of the present day one, using features from earlier churches. Medieval times when nothing if not complex.
But what of the charge that medieval ecclesiastical building was down to ambitious prelates? To answer this in Lympstone, we have to turn to known historical data.