“There came a Sunday when the green slopes about Belstone village were musical with the cry of young life, when the lambs played and bleated, when the cuckoo called from many a misty glade and the church bells crowned the melody of the morning with wind-bourne cadences. They throbbed and lulled, broke out harmoniously together, set the sweet air stirring, then sank as the organ woke beneath them. A murmur of prayer and song hung around the church and filtered beyond the gravestones. Now music rolled again, now a single old voice threaded the silence with lesson and sermon. Anon the folk returned to their homes,”
Eden Phillpotts, The Secret Woman, p.266.
Now if the above words do not impart a sense of idyllic rustic charm then I do not know what could. Phillpotts was describing the small Dartmoor village of Belstone and the equally small church of St. Mary’s. No matter what tome one consults it seems that most of the early writers have been none too impressed with this ancient place of worship. As a typical example, Sophie Dixon writes: “The church is very poor and uninteresting, with a low thick tower seeming at least half as broad as it is high. In the churchyard are several tomb-stones of moor stone, one of which bears the date 1305.”, p. 23. However, maybe they were influenced with such descriptions prior to their visits? OK, it may be fair to say the church is not the most spectacular to be found on Dartmoor but it certainly has a rugged charm and sense of deep rooted piety. One could also say that the building is aptly suited to the harsh vagaries of Dartmoor weather that it has had to withstand over the centuries. Yes it has a “low thick tower” but considering that it sits on the flank of Belstone Cleave at a height of 307m it would need such proportions to withstand the wind’s mighty blast. Incidentally out of the thirty two major churches/chapels on Dartmoor St. Mary’s is located as the fourth highest coming just behind Brentor (3rd 325m), Postbridge (2nd 353m) and Princetown (1st 423m).
Firstly, how and when did the settlement derive its name of Belstone? The ‘how’ question could easily take one down the lines of Pagan worship, or maybe along geological lines then even. To arrive at an early Pagan explanation Sabine Baring Gould, p.144, points to ‘pseudo – antiquarianism’ whose proponents suggested that somewhere in the vicinity of the early settlement was a stone dedicated to the Pagan god – Baal. Hence ‘Baal’s Stone’ which then over time became mutated to Belstone. Apparently the word ‘Baal’ comes from the Hebrew language and roughly translates as ‘lord’ or ‘master’ although which particular Baal the stone was dedicated to is anyone’s guess. A geological explanation is given by the English Place-Name Society who propose another explanation given by Baring Gould. This time the particular rock near to the early settlement was a logan stone named ‘The Bellstone’ which when touched would log frantically, Gover et. al, p.131. Again over time ‘Bellstone’ lost one of its ‘Ls’ and became Belstone. Finally there is the explanation that good old, sensible William Crossing gives, p.49, namely that the settlement appears in the Domesday Book (1086AD) as Bellestam. This simply means the ‘pasture (ham) belonging to someone called Belle or some such name thus giving Bellestam. It is known from the book that in 1066 Osfrith of Okehampton owned the manor and he was replaced by Richard in 1086. At this time there were seventeen households in Belstone comprising of eight villagers, five smallholders and four slaves. In 1086 this size of population in comparison with other settlements would be classed as medium sized. The whole manor was taxed at a rate of half a geld which when compared with other manors would be regarded as very small.
By 1238 the settlement was recorded in the Assize Rolls as Ballestan which would indicate a larger homestead/settlement by the tan element which had muted from ‘tun’ to’ tan‘, this time giving the ‘homestead (tun) of Belles’ etc as opposed to the ‘pasture’.
With regards to the actual church it is suggested that the earliest confirmed date for a place of worship is 1260. This date is arrived at as according to the Diocesan Register at Exeter it was when the first Rector – William de Speccot was appointed. However according to the register of Bishop Branscombe’s Speccot was appointed to Belstone church ‘void by official sentence’. This may well suggest that there was already a church in existence, James, p.25.
There is no documented trace as to when and who the church was originally dedicated until the year 1738 when it appears in ‘Ecton’s Thesaurus’ as St. Mary the Virgin’, James, p.26. W. G. Hoskins came up with an interesting idea insomuch as he considered that Belstone parish along with those of Honeychurch and Exbourne had been ‘carved’ out of a large estate centred around Sampford Courtenay. He also realised that all of the three churches in those parishes were dedicated to St. Mary thus suggesting that they were daughter-churches to the mother-church of the Samford estate as part of an Episcopal plan., p.246. Since 1740 the Parish Feast Day was always on Whit Monday.
I have not included all the architectural features and elements of the church as certainly without a good knowledge it can be a dangerous road to go down. However, should you want to know these details then simply click on the link opposite for the British Listed Buildings website.
In 1850 White’s Devonshire Directory described the church thus; “The interior was newly seated with deal a few years ago, but still retains some of the ancient oak seats, with carved ends, and a finely carved oak screen. The chancel has two windows, a sedilla, (clergy seats) and a few panes of painted glass.“
Up until the late 1700s all was well with the church and God was smiling down from his heavens. However from then onwards something appeared to go drastically wrong. A church visitation of 1871 reported that poultry had gotten into the porch and made it filthy and that if the fabric of the church was not restored it was in danger of collapse. Another damning report stated that some panes of glass were broken in the East Window, the floor was damp, the bell frames in a dangerous state of repair, the south aisle roof was rotting and the ceiling falling in and all in all the church was damp. To add further insult to injury the church wardens had complained that no sermon had been delivered on the Sunday morning. By 1873 another inspection reported that the books were torn and the bible imperfect. Apparently by this time the bell ropes had rotted away and the only way any of the bells could be rung was by someone climbing into the tower and physically whacking the bells with some heavy object. That for bell ringers must be the ultimate in dedication although I bet the poor soul was none to happy not to mention deaf? It seems fairly obvious that there had been a drastic fall in the congregation for the church to fall into such repair and most of the blame fell at the feet of the incumbent rector Thomas Roberts. There is a local story that around the same time the ‘Belstone Flock’ had diminished to just the rector and one old lady. She was asked as to the format of the Sunday services. Her reply was; “Parson, he says the glory be’s, and I do say the as it was‘.” It has also been said that should the Sunday service coincide with a spell of wet weather the rector would conduct the service from inside the altar rails, this being the only shelter from the rain in the entire building, Walpole, p.35. However another possible reason for the church congregation to diminish could be the arrival of the Wesleyan Methodist and other such non-conformist faiths who would have absorbed the converts.
Either way salvation was on the horizon and work commenced to renovate the sadly dilapidated building. The oak screen was removed along with all the pews, the rood screen and the gallery, the bells were re-hung and the whole floor re-laid. By 1881 the work had been completed and in the October of that year the Bishop of Exeter re-opened the church. It has been estimated that the cost of all the work came to around eight hundred pounds, this sum being raised by subscriptions.
Several writers have commented that although much needed the renovation was drastic to say the least with many of the original features and furniture being lost. For example, when the floor was re-laid some of the internal graves in the central aisle were covered over. Hoskins commented; “The granite church (St. Mary’s) was deprived of nearly all its interest by a drastic restoration in 1881, when it was practically rebuilt except for the low 15th-cent. tower. It had been allowed to fall into a deplorable state, but the subsequent ‘restoration’ swept everything away indiscriminately.”, pp 331 – 332.
However, today is a different story and the church along with its furniture and ambience is once of peaceful welcoming tranquillity. The first object of note is the beautifully constructed rood screen which carries the figure of Christ on the cross with the Virgin Mary to the left and St. John to the right. This was erected in 1823 as a memorial to the First World War.
The centrepiece on the High Altar is a reproduction of Madonna and Child which several books (including the church guide) state was painted by Marie Basaili which now hangs in the National Gallery. However, I would suggest that in fact the original was painted by Giovanni Bellini and is called the ‘Madonna of the Meadow’, and also hangs in the National Gallery. Either way the altarpiece was copied by a Miss Allen and given to the church in 1912. Behind the altar is the largest of several stained -glass windows to be seen in the church. This depicts the nativity with all the associated shepherds, angels etc. and dates to 1939.
The Lady Chapel contains the original altar whose centrepiece is another portrait of a Madonna and Child painted by Andrea di Aloigi sometime in the 1490s and is called simply ‘Virgin and Child’. This particular copy was given to the church in 1990 and painted by Christopher Pote which replaced an earlier work by a Miss Flood-Jones.
Embedded in the floor of the south aisle are three ledger stones dating back to the 1600s, all covering the graves of eminent families of the parish.
Probably the most famous feature associated with St. Mary’s today is the granite ‘stone’ which has now been located inside the church. In 1861 workmen were taking down the steps which led to the vestry when they discovered the stone, Crossing, 1987, p.124. Alternatively, as stated on the information board in the church, the stone was discovered when the almshouses were demolished. It was found in some steps which led to the church room above the houses. Just to add another possible port of call for the stone, Harrison relates that it also spent some time built into the wall of a stable which was demolished in 1896?, p.288. What all sources agree on is that after the stone had been found it was moved to the rectory garden wall The rectory was sold in 1930 and the stone returned to the church where it was simply leant against the outside wall. Once the importance of the stone had been realised it was placed inside the church on its plinth in 2005.
Much speculation is made of the actual purpose of the stone, some consider that it was an ancient stone cross, alternatively others say it was the lid to a tomb of an early Christian burial or it may have served as a marker delineating the boundary of the church lands. Harrison, p.288, relates one story that sometime prior to 1911 the sextant was preparing a grave when he discovered the remains of a skeleton that was aligned in a north – south direction. As this was a pre-Christian burial custom and the fact that the stone was also discovered nearby. In his opinion this may well be where some of the ideas as to the origin and purpose of the stemmed from? If you would like to go down the more fanciful route the John Chudleigh is the man for you. In 1892 he proposed that the incised symbols may represent the sun and a serpent, p.111. This ties in very much so with the ‘pseudo – antiquarianism’ theory of the origins of Belstone’s place-name as noted above. What is interesting in his book is a sketch of the stone in-situ in the rectory garden wall and from this it’s easy to see how the shape of today was arrived at.
Although now very weather-worn the incised markings are said to depict a ‘Chi Rho’ ? What is certain is that this is the earliest evidence of early Christians in Belstone and dates of between the seventh and ninth centuries have been suggested.
At the far back of the south aisle hangs a large board which sports the arms of King George III. which dates back to the mid 1700s. Such items were a display of patriotism and hung in many churches and in this case is reinforced with the inscription on the church bell – “God Save the King’.
It is thought that in the 1400s the church possessed a peal of three bells. In 1761 these were recast and the opportunity to add two more bells was taken. The work was carried out by the famous Westcountry bell foundering family of the Penningtons. In 1955 a further bell was added in memory of Francis Gotch Robinson. A wooden plaque hangs in the belfry as a testament to these changes to the bells along with several certificates etc.
Writing in 1864, Ellacombe lists the inscriptions on the five bells then hanging in the tower as follows; bell 1- “GOD BLESS THE CHURCH – PENNINGTON FECIT 1761, bell 2 – “PROSPERITY TO THIS PARISH – PENNINGTON FECIT 1761“, bell 3 – “GOD SAVE THE KING – PENNINGTON FECIT 1761“, bell 4 – “ROBERT REDAWAY AND THOMAS COOMB C WARDEN – PENNINGTON FECIT” and lastly bell 5 – “I CALL THE QUICK TO CHURCH AND DEAD TO GRAVE – F. PENNINGTON FECIT 1761.”, p 95. The inscription on the sixth bell reads – “GOD BLESS THE PARISH.”
In comparison with other Dartmoor Church Bells the inscriptions on these showed a great deal of patriotism, sense of local wellbeing and Christian sentiment.
Hoskins, p. 332. describes the bells as being; “Somewhat light in tone, but very sweet as they sound across the moor on Sunday evening.”.
There are a few unusual aspects to the church or its past parishioners that help colour its history one such being the practice of separating males and females during services. An anonymous contributor to the ‘Gentleman’s Magazine noted the following:
“The church is a diminutive structure, and without any external pretentions to beauty: it has but one entrance, namely, through a porch at the north-west end… Whatever its age may be, it is clear that the Belstone ladies of those days were not encumbered with hoops or other like superfluous array for the inner door of the porch is certainly not more than 2ft. wide. A custom which seems to have been regarded as a rule in the primitive church was reported to us as still surviving here in all its rigour. When the parishioners repair to their church for the celebration of divine service, the sexes immediately separate, the males going to the south and the females to the north side.”. Although not of local origin the author of the above adapted a Warwickshire poem where the same practice took place:
The churches and chapels, we usually find,
Are the places where men and women are join’d;
But at Belstone, it seems, they are more cruel-hearted,
For man and their wives are brought here to be parted.
The Gentleman’s Magazine, 1862, p.297
The church records contain one sad and unusual entry in 1848; “Buried Harriet Endacott aged 14 (?). Killed by lightening on her way home after 5 o’clock on 22nd of Sept., during a most severe storm, her sister was knocked down and injured in the face, and the deceased fell across her, two others in the family who were on the Ball, felt the shock and were thrown against each other...”, James, p.37. The girl’s tombstone reads:
“In memory of Harriet Endacott
whose mortal life was terminated
by means of a thunder storm
September 22nd 1848: aged 15 years.”
The suggestion that there is a Holy/Curative Well near to the church has in the past been muted by some writers. True, there is a small well located nearby but it is considered to be a granite spring head structure whose purpose was to protect the spring water from contamination and damage caused by livestock. Probably the spring supplied water for both domestic use and for watering livestock who grazed nearby. No exact date to its origin has been established but there are estimates of between the eighteenth or nineteen centuries? On the first edition Ordnance Survey map of 1885 there is a track shown which leads up to the spring which could suggest it was in use at this time?
Several writers have noted the fact that at one time there was a ‘Cucking Stool‘ at Belstone, amongst them was S. Lewis who commented in 1831: “The church, dedicated to St. Mary, contains the remains of a cucking stool,” p.139. This is no longer evident today but it’s presence along with the Belstone stocks does indicate that various forms of punishment were handed out in old Belstone.
There in a very small nutshell is Belstone Church, a small building with plenty of spirit and well worth a visit for today it can be truly described as having risen, phoenix-like from the ravages of the past. Finally if ever you do visit Belstone church put aside some extra time to wander around the village. Here you will see some splendid old dwellings built from granite and designed to withstand the vagaries of the harsh Dartmoor weather. There are some spectacular walks in and around Belstone Cleave and the high tors along with an excellent hostelry – The Tors Inn, to finish the day off
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Chudleigh, J. 1987. An Exploration of Dartmoor’s Antiquities – 1892. Pembury: John Pegg Publishing.
Crossing, W. 1987. Gems in a Granite Setting. Exeter: Devon Books
Crossing, W. 1987. The Ancient Stone Crosses of Dartmoor. Exeter: Devon Books.
Dixon, S. 1830. A Journal of Ten Days Excursion on the Western and Northern Borders of Dartmoor. Plymouth: J. Williams
Rev. H. T. Ellacombe 1872 The Church Bells of Devon. Exeter: H. T. Ellacombe.
Harrison, B. 2001. Dartmoor Stone Crosses. Tiverton: Halsgrove Publishing,
Hoskins, W. G. & Hey, D. 1984. Local History in England. London: Routledge
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Walpole, C. & M. 2002 The Book of Belstone, GTi Print, Okehampton