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English Church Architecture -



STOKE GABRIEL, St. Mary & St. Gabriel (SX 785 627)  (March 2013)

(Bedrock:  Middle Devonian, Torbay Group)


This is not a very rewarding building considered only outside although the large yew at the entrance to the churchyard should be noticed as it is reputedly 1,200-1,400 years old and one of the most ancient trees in Britain.  The height of the church is also striking, especially when viewed from the lower area of the churchyard to the southeast (as in the photograph, left).  However, that apart, the church suffers badly from having had nearly all its windows renewed with uncusped alternate tracery of the most shapeless kind, and from the fact that the majority of it has been clad in the worst of all possible materials, cement, including the whole of the W. tower which is consequently now undivided by string courses and which tapers slightly to surmounting battlements supported by the shallowest of supporting buttresses.  It looks a very poor thing notwithstanding its height, and the retention of its original W. window in Devonian sandstone, with alternate tracery and subreticulation, does little to redeem it.  The only other mediaeval windows in the church are the westernmost in the N. aisle, with four lights and supermullioned tracery with two tiers of subreticulation separated by a latticed supertransom, and the chancel E. window, with three lights, strong mullions and a quatrefoil in the apex.  The church consists of a chancel, nave and tower, with aisles running alongside the nave and continuing for a further bay eastwards beside the chancel to form chapels, separated to the north by a rood stair turret which rises above the aisle roof.  Two ugly nineteenth century extensions to the south are the flat-roofed porch, which might easily have been designed for an industrial building, and the almost equally forbidding cross-gabled organ chamber and vestry projecting from the chapel.  Entrance to the church is gained today through the N. door in the second bay of the aisle from the west.  The doorway is four-centred, with a carved dripstone and label, and carved spandrels between.  The material is clunch, quite probably Beer Stone, which has not worn well in this exposed position.


So one enters the building with very few expectations to be greeted by an interesting and attractive interior that come as a surprise.  First, there are the three-bay aisle arcades formed of tall slightly stilted arches bearing wave mouldings on three orders, supported on piers composed of four semicircular shafts separated by wave mouldings, with carved capitals running all the way round.  (See the N. arcade, right.)  The overall effect is one of spaciousness and lightness - an effect enhanced by the separate, broadly similar arches between the chancel and chapels, and the absence of a chancel arch. Demarcation between the nave and aisles on the one hand, and the chancel and chapels on the other, is not lacking, however, for running across the full width of the nave and aisles in between, is an exceptional rood screen (of which the central section is illustrated below left).  It is, to be sure, only partly mediaeval, but the Victorian extensions and repairs are so sensitively done that it is far from obvious where the work of each period begins and ends:  the blank arches on the dado containing painted figures of the saints, seem mostly original, and the tracery above the open divisions and the elaborately carved cornice to the loft are exquisitely cut whatever their precise age.  The date of the mediaeval work is probably the first half of the fifteenth century, making it earlier than the equally rewarding “wine glass” pulpit now standing in front (below right).  The latter is so similar to the re-sited pulpit in St. Mary's, Dartington, believed to have been under construction in 1499 (notes in Dartington Church), that it must surely be by the same hand.  Each has an octagonal drum with mouldings running up the angles, deeply carved with vine leaves and bunches of grapes, while between, there are blank panels where once stood statuettes beneath further leaf carving.  However, in addition here at Stoke Gabriel, the angle mouldings also retain their paintwork. 


Finally, other features to notice include two seventeenth century monuments on opposite sides of the sanctuary, three mediaeval bench ends at the back of the nave, a few eighteenth century box pews in the north aisle, and the simple octagonal font with a bowl carved with quatrefoils in squares, supported on a stem decorated with blank trefoiled arches.  The windows contain little stained glass and that, too, is welcome.