As you travel along the A386 from Okehampton to Tavistock the tiny village of Sourton suddenly appears as the road snakes under the shadow of the high moor. Most people immediately notice the rather flamboyant Highwayman Inn, some will remark on the ancient ‘OXO stone’ stood sentinel beside the road but few spot the tiny church of St. Thomas a Becket nestled under the lofty Sourton Tors.
One of the earliest documented mention of the settlement of Sourton can be found in the Cartularium Saxonicum of around 970 AD when its recorded as swurtan tune which roughly translates to ‘farm of or by the neck or col’ which probably refers to the hill which separates two deep cut valleys to the east of Sourton, (Gover et al, 1992, p.206). The Domesday book of 1086 records the settlement as Surintone/tona and at the time was home to Engelbald’s wife, 18 cattle, 100 sheep and 50 goats.
The general consensus of opinion seems to be that the church was built sometime in the 14th century if the chancel was anything to go by but by the number of Christian stones (OXO stone, Sourton Cross and the Honest Man) that can be found nearby this may be somewhat of an under-estimation. What can be certain is that there was a ‘Chapel of Sourton’ on the 14th of November 1374 as this was the day that Bishop Brantingham’s register lists its licensing for ‘Sacraments and Sacrementals’. A few years later in the early 1400s a ‘dependant chapel’ at Sourton was documented in the register of Edmund Lacy the Bishop of Exeter where the following appears:
‘parishioners of the mother church of Bridestowe, plaintiffs, and those of the dependant chapel of Sourton, defendants, made after a long suit and a judgement for the plaintiffs in the Exeter consistory court, an appeal to the Court of Canterbury and a remission to the Exeter court. The wardens and parishioners of Sourton are to contribute towards the re-building of the nave of Bridestowe church (now actually in process) 20 marks, and no more except out of charity‘.
As with many early remote places of worship that are attached to main churches there were sometimes problems with the parishioners actually getting to services when the weather was bad. Sourton being a case in examples as the Decree of the Court Articles of 1376 clearly demonstrates. It appears that there was a dispute between the Sourton locals and the then Rector of Bridestowe, John Lovewyk. During periods of inclement weather the Sourton inhabitants petitioned that they were unable to reach the Mother Church at Bridestowe because ‘inundations of the waters frequently happen‘. However, despite their pleas John Lovewyk refused to hold a daily mass at Sourton, hence the court hearing which decreed that a resident Chaplain should be installed at Sourton and Lovewyk was to stump up the money for his expenses, (Pratt, 2011. p3).
Nicholas Orme tells us that the church was dedicated to St. Thomas A Becket in 1742 and that the parish feast day occurred 1 week after St, Thomas Becket’s Day on the 14th of July. He also notes that in his opinion the early medieval dedication has not been discovered and should not be based on the feast day, (Orme, 1996, p.201). Another theory on the source of the dedication is that the church was built by William de Tracy who as well as being the lord of the manor of Bovey Tracy was one of Thomas a Beckett’s murderers. The building was a penance for his part in the infamous act of slaughter, (Pegg, 1986, p15).
Over the centuries it seems that many topographical writers were none to impressed with Sourton, in 1630 Thomas Westcotte wrote: ‘It is a good summer place for the natives, though perchance it will not be pleasing to some tender and nice constitutions in the Winter‘, (Pratt, 2011. p.2). In 1895, Lloyd Warden Page noted the following;
‘Sourton is a poor looking village, having many unoccupied houses, which in the mining days were prosperous enough. The church is only separated from the base of the tor by the railway, which here runs at a considerable altitude. There is nothing very remarkable about it, except the weathered appearance of the tower attesting its exposure to moorland elements‘, (Page, 1895, p.108).
Ok, so lets set the record straight, at an altitude of 260m (856 ft) the church is certainly exposed to Dartmoor’s harsh weather conditions. So much so that in the 1870s James Henderson established an ice factory just over a half mile from the church due to the very low winter temperatures. Legend has it that Sourton Moor gets so cold in winter the Devil actually froze to death whilst in the area. But as to the church being unremarkable I would say that was a trifle unfair, as with many of the small moorland churches it has plenty of charm and character and has received a facelift over the past couple of years.
The English Heritage ‘Pastscape Website’ has very little to say about Sourton Church as can be seen here:
“14th century chancel rebuilt in 1848, the rest 15th century, restored in 1881. The chancel walls are of local stone rubble, otherwise the walls are of granite ashlar. Gable ended slate roofs with 19th century coping stones to gables. Plan comprises nave, chancel, north aisle, west tower and south porch. The chancel probably has the earliest origins dating back to the 14th century although it was substantially rebuilt in 1848“, (English Heritage, 2011 – online source).
As you approach the church the first thing you notice is small moorland track that runs alongside the churchyard and up onto the moor, this would certainly have been used by folks going to the Ice Factory. At one time the churchyard would have looked very different as many of the graves were market by table top tombstones,( a slab of granite resting upon four supporting pillars). It seems that during some restoration the incumbent rector decided that they were not befitting, possibly because they resembled the prehistoric pagan cromlechs, and had them removed. The table top slabs were reused to pave the church paths and the supporting pillars were aced outside the village for anyone to take away, (Baring Gould, 1982, p.66).
On approaching the church porch, if you ‘lift up thine eyes’ you will notice a very worn sundial which today is 1 of only 11 to be found on Dartmoor. The sundial is said to date back to the 18th century although the gnomon was replaced in 1913.
Just to the right of the church door are the rather sad remains of a stoup which in it’s heyday would have contained holy water for use of those entering. Open the heavy wooden door and once your eyes adjust to the dark interior (good luck with finding the light switches, I couldn’t) the first thing you see is the splendid wagon roof studded with bosses. Directly infront stands the 15th century font which I must say is in remarkable condition for its age. On the north wall of the nave is a very impressive wooden panel which although now rather faded displays the arms of Charles II, (Pevsner, 2004, p.745). By the early 1900s the panel had virtually disintegrated and was restored in 1916 by Herbert Read and was kindly paid for by Major Charles Calmady-Hamlyn, (Pratt, p.4).
Moving on to the chancel where in the south wall is a small lancet window which according to the church guide was salvaged from an earlier building which probably dated to around the fourteenth century. The actual windows are made from a mosaic of fragments of fifteenth century glass and form the only coloured window in the church. Also located in the chancel is a squint and a small doorway which lead up to the Rood Loft which probably housed a carved screen. There are some nicely carved roof bosses which peer down from the chancel roof and in most cases are still in good condition. Although I could not locate them, Bond notes that:
‘In the sanctuary of this church are two fragments of a stone screen, said to have been removed from Okehampton church. The stone did not fit Sourton Church, and could not be cut to fit; hence the work was left exposed for many years in the churchyard. Finally these two fragments were brought in and fixed against the chancel walls. They have good detail and retain some colour, (Bond, 1909, p.347)
Over the centuries the chancel gradually fell into a state of dire disrepair and was rebuilt in 1847 although on different foundations. There is a slight discrepancy in the actual date of the rebuilding as the following was written in 1842; ‘The Chancel at Sourton, after long neglect which has almost reduced it to a heap of ruins, has been rebuilt in a very appropriate manner‘, (Transactions, Volume 3, 1842 By Exeter Diocesan Architectural and Archaeological Society, Exeter, England).
In 1881 the church was much restored into pretty much what we see today, below is a plan dating from 1904:
At the north end of the church stands the much aligned tower which has a small doorway which leads vertically inside the actual walls to a spiral staircase. The tower is home to 5 bells which were cast in 1796 at Cullumpton, amongst the inscriptions is the following; ‘I to the church the Living Call And to the Grave do Summons All‘, which appears on the tenor bell. I think that is a very stark reminder of what life is all about and what purpose The Church serves.
In 2010 the church underwent some very expensive restoration work which involved repairs to the tower and exterior walls and was funded by English Heritage and a whole host of other organisations.
It is well worth a look around the graveyard as there are some interesting tombstones, the earliest of which dates to around 1670. There is also a nice example of a slotted gatepost which stands in the centre section of graves and looks to still be in-situ and attached to a small enclosure wall. Whether this was part of the graveyard or a small domestic enclosure which later became a burial plot I know not. There are also some good views of the Sourton Tors which lay to the south east and provide a splendid backdrop to the church. Nearby is the old railway line which ran from Waterloo to Plymouth and was opened in 1874 which at the time would have made quite an impact on any services being held when the train past.
The Granite Way
Today the old line forms the ‘Granite Way’, a 11.5 mile cycle path which runs from Okehampton to Lydford. I especially love the way that local parishioners have taken full advantage of this tourist route by laying on refreshments for weary cyclists – nice one, “Give us your money‘ as Bob Geldof once said. The money this venture raised went towards the Tower Repair Project as mentioned above.
On a final note, Pegg, (1986, p.5) quotes a poem that according to him once hung in the porch although there was no sign of it now unless I never had my glasses on and missed it, either way it’s worth repeating here.
St Thomas’ Church below the Tor,
(The railway rumbling by the door);
A moorstone church, to tors akin,
Grey without and calm within.
Here saints had knelt and sinners prayed,
Ere Richard rode upon Crusade;
Here, before Agincourt was won,
The mass-bell tolled at rise of sun.
Here still they kneel, and still they prey;
Nearby some sleep till judgement day,
While Science shatters Nature’s bars,
And flight outsoars the outer stars.
Pause Stranger, here and silence keep
For souls that watch and souls that sleep;
And know God is nearer found
Here, than in the world around.
Date and Author Unknown.
Baring Gould, S. 1982, A Book of Dartmoor, London; Wildwood House Ltd.
Bond, B. B. 1909, Roodscreens and Roodlofts, Pitman.
Gover, J.E.B., Mawer, A., & Stenton, F. M. 1992 The Place-Names of Devon, Nottingham: English Place Name Soc.
Orme, N. 1996 English Church Dedications, Exeter: University of Exeter Press
Page, J. W. L. 1895, An Exploration of Dartmoor, London: Seeley and Co.
Pegg, J. 1986, Discover the Churches of Dartmoor, Tavistock: John Pegg Publishing.
Pevsner, N. & Cherry, N. 2004, The Buildings of England – Devon, London: Yale University Press.
Pratt, J. A. 2011 Sourton, A Short Guide and History, Unknown.