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Exmoor Churches

A Region of Contrasts

Churches form a large part of the architectural heritage of Exmoor. Ten out of the twenty Grade 1 Listed buildings on Exmoor are churches. Theses are the parish churches at Culbone, Dunster, Luccombe, Monksilver, Nettlecombe, Porlock, Selworthy, Timberscombe, Winsford and Wootton Courtenay and St Petrock’s church at Parracombe. Four of these: Porlock, Dunster, Winsford and Selworthy were mentioned in Hobhouse Report of 1947. This was the report that contained the justification for Exmoor to become a National Park and these churches were cited as part of that justification. Just outside of the National Park boundary there are also superb churches at Combe Martin, North Molton, Molland, Carhampton and Minehead (St Michael's).

With the exception of Culbone and perhaps St Petrock’s at Parracombe, these Grade 1 Listed churches tend to be the grandest and most elaborate in the area. Although they originate from earlier times, they are mostly of the Perpendicular style of architecture from the period 1375-1530. This was a prosperous period in Exmoor history when much wealth was derived from the woollen industry and the churches were endowed by wealthy merchants and landowners. The Church was a major landowner at this time and gained its own wealth from rents and tithes. Much land on Exmoor was owned by abbeys: mostly abbeys at some distance from Exmoor but with local grange farms and connections with local churches. Dunster church was both a parish church and priory. The wealth and power of the Church was reduced by Henry VIII through the Reformation.

The size and style of Exmoor churches reflects the wealth of the parishes. Whilst Exmoor has notable examples of Perpendicular churches, they contrast greatly with the small, simple moorland churches, which are often more locally distinctive. Such churches tend to be in the moorland farming areas whilst the grander churches are in the surrounding manufacturing and market areas exploiting such farming. Culbone, Trentishoe, Withiel Florey and Rodhuish are good examples of simple moorland churches in the local style.

White Churches

Good building stone is rare and cannot be found in the Exmoor area. The carved pillars and arches and delicate tracery of medieval architecture required stone that could be cut and chiselled without crumbling. Much of the carved and cut stone for Exmoor churches came from the Mendips, south Devon or Dorset. This would be brought to the coast by small sailing ships and carried over the moor on sledges pulled by oxen or horses. This made such stone extremely expensive and, wherever they could, medieval masons made the main parts of walls with local stone rubble cemented with lime. Both stone and cement were porous and churches exposed to the wet weather were often damp. To keep out the damp there was a tradition of rendering and limewashing the rubble parts of the walls. Lime became more freely available with the building of limekilns from the 16th century onwards and much of the rendering came as a result of restoration. The tower of Challacombe church was recently lime rendered for this reason. The best known 'white church' is probably that at Selworthy as it stands out on a hillside and can be seen across the Vale of Porlock from the Dunkery area. Other good examples are the churches at Withiel Florey, Luxborough, Withycombe and Rodhuish.

'Tin Tabernacles'

The rapidly growing population of Exmoor in the mid 19th century and the influx of many mine workers with Nonconformist religions led to pressures to produce cheap, rapidly erectable buildings that could be sited far from sources of traditional materials. By that time, iron sheeting, which had been in use in construction since the late 18th century, had been developed into galvanized corrugated sheeting, which was strong for its weight, durable, easily transportable and easy to use in construction. Corrugated iron buildings started to be manufactured by engineers and builders and became available for sale through catalogues. Prefabricated iron churches were relatively cheap to buy, costing anything from £150 for a 150 sittings chapel to £500 for a 350 sittings chapel. By 1875 hundreds of corrugated iron churches were being erected.They were usually made on a brick foundation with a timber frame.The interior is usually finely finished in pine tongue and groove panelling.

Members of the established church originally mocked the catalogue Nonconformist chapels as 'tin tabernacles'. Methodism soon shattered such presumption by demonstrating how humble temporary buildings could serve the spiritual needs of ever changing mining communities in the South West better than the ancient parish churches stranded in the wrong place. In the noise and dirt of the mining areas the 'tin tent' of the chapel must indeed have seemed like a sanctuary. Other religious denominations, however, soon followed. There was a Church of England corrugated iron church at the mining settlement on Brendon Hill, not far from the more substantial Methodist Beulah Chapel. The former doubled as a schoolroom. The Chapel of St Nicholas is another Church of England corrugated iron chapel, at Porlock Weir.

Nationally the numbers of corrugated iron churches have dwindled rapidly. Very few have achieved the status of being listed. English Heritage will only list of a building is 'complete' i.e. with original furnishings. Methodist corrugated iron chapels still remaining in the Exmoor area can be found at Molland, Monksilver and Rodhuish.

Dedications and Festivals

Many Exmoor churches were originally dedicated to Celtic saints. These dedications changed as the old saints fell out of fashion and associations with more popular saints brought more money to the churches. The dedication of Challacombe church to the Holy Trinity happened with the Reformation. Each parish would celebrate its saint's day and such festivals being fixed to a particular date needed to fit in with the farming calendar. Not surprisingly, the commonest dedication is to Our Lady (six dedications), with the Feast of the Annunciation on 25th March. Folowing her in popularity with four dedications is the dedication to All Saints, with a feast day of 1st November, after the harvest was over. St Peter (in cathedra on 2nd February and ad vincula on 1st August) has three churches named after him. Other biblical saints commemorated are John the Baptist, John the Divine, James and Michael. Amongst the non biblical saints are St Martin of Tours, St George and St Giles the Hermit.

The saint's days would be commemorated with a special church service. There was often a parade to the church and after the service festivities would begin with the serving of cakes and ale to the congregation. Villages would often have their own special recipes for the cakes. Festivities would continue with revels, which would often include sporting events. There was a local form of wrestling that involved participants kicking each other with hob-nailed boots. The injuries from this could be serious and even fatal. Many of the revels were ended in Victorian times because of the drunkenness and violence. Those at Hawkridge and Parracombe have survived in a more genteel form, like fetes.