“Smallest of villages is Gidleigh, As we turn the corner we see within an area of a few square yards the whole church-town. There is a ruined castle adjoining the dilapidated manor-house, close hugged by the little church, with a tower unusually slim when compared with its brethren. And beyond the pool made by the bubbling brook beneath the churchyard wall are two thatched cottages, one the post-office, the other the residence of the worthy and not unintelligent parish clerk, where homely fare may be obtained, for inn there is none. The whole settlement – that is, the, the inhabited part of it – could be put into the waiting-room of a London railway station.” Page, 1895, p.94.
On the Dartmoor Richter Scale of architectural magnificence Gidleigh church would hardly register a reading. However, in the spiritual sense the place quakes with tranquillity and reverence like no other moorland church. The small churchyard is neatly bisected by a small tumbling stream spanned by an equally tiny clapper bridge. This is reportedly one of a few churchyards in this country that can boast a small watercourse running through it. Here one can sit quietly listening to the gentle babble of water which is accompanied by the singing, cooing and warbling of numerous species of birds. Apart from the occasional passing tractor virtually no man-made sound can be heard, just natures symphony.
There is plenty of evidence to suggest that mankind has lived and worshipped in the vicinity of Gidleigh for some 5,000 years. Their hut circles and stone circles etc. are located less than a mile away from the church on Gidleigh Common and Scorhill Down. The first recorded evidence of a settlement at Gidleigh can be found in the Domesday Book of 1086 where it appears as Ghiderleia. At this time it was held by Godwin the Priest from the Count of Mortain who in all likelihood was the pre-conquest owner. The place-name Ghiderleia comprises of two elements; the second element translates as a ‘clearing’ and the first element refers to a personal name thus giving ‘the clearing of Gydda’, Glover et al., pp. 438/9. It has been suggested that Gydda/Gytha was the sister-in-law of King Canute and who in 1019 married Earl Godwine of Essex. The very fact that the Domesday book names ‘Godwin the Priest’ indicates there was a church in existence at that time although it is very possible a church was present in Saxon times.
There are a few things of interest in the churchyard; an old granite cross, what is thought to be the tomb of a crusader and seven old memorial stones. The Greenaway Cross can be found at the far end of the churchyard mounted on the Grave of William Sampson. About half a mile away from the church is Greenaway Farm and it was here that in the early 1900s the cross had been discovered serving as a gate post. Fortunately it had been placed in the ground upside down which meant unlike many of Dartmoor’s other crosses the head was not knocked off. Having been discovered the Dartmoor Preservation Society restored the cross to its upright position along with a new socket stone. Then for some inexplicable reason the cross was uprooted in 1940 and placed on the grave of William Sampson who at that time owned Greenaway Farm. The vital measurements of the cross are that it is 1.38 metres in height with an arm span of 54 centimetres and a circumference of 85.5 centimetres, Sandles, p.38. Although today the cross could be classed as a churchyard cross it is very possible that at one time it was a wayside cross located somewhere near the edge of the open moor, Harrison, p.261.
Just outside the church porch lies a rather moss covered coffin shaped tombstone which from the incised Cross of Lorraine has lead to the speculation that it marked the grave of a Crusader Knight? The other theory is that the stone originally lay inside the church and belonged to a member of the Vogwell family. What can be assumed is that whoever it belonged to they were a person of some significance.
Behind the tombstone and mounted into the church wall are five memorial stones, a further three are similarly located on the other side of the porch. These originally were placed inside the church but sometime in the mid 1800s they were removed and relocated outside. The majority of the stones commemorate the Vogwell family who in the seventeenth century were wealthy local landowners. In 1982 the inscriptions were re-cut during which traces of red paint were found and so to keep authenticity they were also repainted in red. Croxford, p.4.
The wall that now stands around the church was built sometime in the 1800s and was built from the recycled stone from Poor House which once stood on the far side of the stream. It was erected at the behest of the Rural Dean who was appalled that some of the villagers hung their washing on the tombstones to dry, possibly using the stream as well, Grumley-Grennan & Hardy, p.27.
As noted above, the church probably stands on the site of an Saxon chapel with the present building dating back to the 1400s. At that time the building would have sported a thatched roof and according to records this was re-thatched in 1753. The church underwent some reconstruction in the 1600s and the roof slated in the late 1700s and apart from that very little has been changed, Grumley-Grennan & Hardy, p.23. For a more formal architectural description of the building Pevsner writes; “All granite, all ashlar. Small with two-stage west tower now missing its pinnacles. Three bay north aisle arcade with octagonal piers and double-chamfered arches. C15, except for the earlier chancel wall.”, p.455. For a much more detailed description of the church click – HERE. In fact two of the pinnacles are not missing, one can be found serving as a field gatepost at nearby Aggett’s Farm. The other, also serving as a gatepost sits at the road junction above the church which leads to Chapple (OS grid rfe. SX 6706 8851), Grumley-Grennan & Hardy, p.25.
I think a very appropriate description of the church interior would be; “It does what it says on the tin,” it is simple, functional and has all the necessary features of a place of worship. In very recent years there has been an ongoing programme of refurbishment which has been carried out by a firm called Character Builders. As you walk through the door the first thing to catch the eye is the ornate rood screen which dates back to the 1400s. Over the centuries the screen has undergone various changes, it is thought that for some reason it was taken down and rebuilt sometime in the 1500s. During this process a large cross was removed from it in accordance with the demands of the Reformation. In 1853 the main section of the screen was repainted at which time the colour scheme was changed from gold, white, red and green to simply red, gold and blue. Additionally the lower panels were embellished with transfers depicting various saints.
The chancel has recently undergone a scheme of renovation which included the laying of a new floor which made local headlines. During this work a small stone came loose revealing a late medieval crypt inside which were two coffins. After lowering a camera through the gap it was realised that one of the coffins was made of what appeared to be lead and of adult size. The other coffin belonged to a child and was made from oak wood. The photographs also revealed that under the chancel screen was an arched doorway and a set of blocked steps which would have led up into the central aisle. At this point it was decided to take the investigation no further and the loose stone was mortared back in-situ. However at a later stage as work carried on another and much larger hole appeared due to the weight of the workmen and their wheelbarrows. This time the hole was big enough for a person to get through thus allowing access to the crypt. A man was lowered through the hole and discovered that the supposed coffin was in fact made from galvanised metal not lead. Inside this was another coffin made from oak on which was a brass plate which named the occupant as Aurthur (sic) Whipham who lived from 1810 to 1882. In 1844 Whipham had inherited the manor of Gidleigh and also served of a one time rector of the church. It is thought that the child’s coffin belongs to one of Whipham’s daughters, possibly Carla Whipham who died at the age of five months in 1851, Chapman, pp 24 – 25.
Behind the altar sits a reredos which was made in 1868 and originally was re-cycled from the nearby St. Michaels church at Chagford. Apart from this there is very little other trappings apart from a very simple wooden altar on which sits a small, basic wooden cross and two candles. The cross was fashioned from yew wood taken from a one time tree which stood in the churchyard and was carved by Michael Gillard-Bundy. To the left of the chancel stands a granite lectern and to the right is the pulpit. Both features were made in 1853 by a local stone mason called John Aggett, Grumley-Grennan & Hardy, p.24. On the wall beside the altar is what at first appears to be a reproduction painting of da Vinci’s Last Supper but which turns out to be a tapestry.
As part of the recent refurbishment it was decided to move the font to its present location which apparently caused some disquiet amongst the parishioners who did not like change. I have a personal gripe about many churches and that is the placement of the font. Very often fonts are exquisite pieces of workmanship and time after time there is always some grotesque piece of church furniture stood behind them, usually an ugly radiator detracting from their appearance. Here in this church, as can be seen from the photograph below, the relocation of the font gives it an unobstructed view with nothing to detract from its beauty. OK, gripe over and back to the font, it dates to around the 1400s with a wooden cover made in 1843 by the then parish clerk – Charles Finch.
At the back of the church sits what appears to be a splendid and aging organ except the various electric wires suggest otherwise. Next to this is the bell tower in which hang five bells, in 1864 there were only four for which the Rev. H. T. Ellacombe lists their inscriptions, p. 117.
Bell 1 – “lebs ois plaudit ut me tam sepius audit,” (The people rejoice the more they hear me).
Bell 2 – “Alexander Vagwell Church Warden T & P Exon 1674
Bell 3 – “Ste toma ora pro nobis,” (St. Thomas pray for us).
Bell 4 – “Est michi collatum ihc istud nomen amatum,” (To me is given Jesus that beloved name).
In the 1920s the fifth bell was added as a thanksgiving for the end of World War One and is simply inscribed by the words; “Peace Bell.” Sadly by the 1970s the bell frame had become seriously unsafe and to avoid a collapse bell ringing stopped and the bells went silent for the next twenty years or so. Thanks to a concerted local fund raising effort which was boosted by a grant from the Millennium Commission the bell frame and its bells were restored in 1998. At the same time the tower was cleaned and the early plaster and bitumen lining removed the result of which is now a fine view of the tower’s inside. Like many other churches there was some concern as to the strength of the tower and to ensure its stability an iron band was placed around it in the 1800s. This was carried out by a local blacksmith from Throwleigh, one Tom Hill and to this day is still visible near the top of the tower, Grumley-Grennan & Hardy, p.25.
So there you have it, Holy Trinity Church, Gidleigh which is so worth a visit if nothing else to experience the charm and peacefulness of this quaint Dartmoor church. No longer will you see the Post Office nor be able to partake of, “homely fare” at the parish clerks house but you can still see many relics of the old village. Adjacent to the church sits Gidleigh Castle, just along is the old florally capped well head along with the ancient but plant chocked village pound.
Chapman, C. 2012. From a Newly Discovered Crypt… The Dartmoor Magazine – No. 107. Okehampton: Edgemoor Pub. Ltd.
Rev. H. T. Ellacombe 1872 The Church Bells of Devon. Exeter: H. T. Ellacombe.
Howis Croxford, C. A. 1988. A Walkabout Guide to Gidleigh. Chagford; Gidleigh Parochial Church Council.
Grumley-Grennan, T & Hardy, M. 2000. Gidleigh – A Dartmoor Village. Gidleigh: Globe Publishing.
Harrison, B. 2001. Dartmoor Stone Crosses. Tiverton: Halsgrove Publishing
Page, J. Ll. W. 1895. An Exploration of Dartmoor. London: Seeley & Co.
Pevsner, N. & Cherry, B. 2204. The Buildings of England – Devon. London: Yale University Press.
Sandles, T. 1997. A Pilgrimage to Dartmoor Crosses. Liverton: Forest Publishing.