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English Church Architecture -

Torbay (U.A).


BABBACOMBE, All Saints (SX 925 654)     (March 2013)

(Bedrock:  Lower Devonian, Meadfoot Group)


"Structurally quite simple, broad in proportions, the interior with a surface treatment both fascinating and repellent."

Nikolaus Pevsner: The Buildings of England, pub. Penguin, 1952.


"The two finest church interiors of the later 1860s are at Penarth and Babbacombe...  The rather sombre tones [at Babbacombe] suddenly flare into brilliance with the marbles of the font and pulpit, rich yellow, black, dusty pink and gleaming white...  The whole sequence is of extraordinary beauty."

Paul Thompson:  William Butterfield, pub. Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1971


Probably no Victorian church architect has inspired such strong and varied reactions to his work as William Butterfield (1814 - 1900), and for understandable reasons, for it is impossible to be indifferent to him.  Nevertheless, All Saints', Babbacombe, erected 1865-74, for all its little idiosyncrasies and deliberate disharmonies, is not the most trenchant of its author's buildings:  indeed,  its use of structural colour is relatively subdued, and Pevsner's antipathy to it can probably best be understood as a response of the times.


The church (seen through rain, left, from the southeast, and at the foot of the page on the right, from the north) consists of a chancel with a S. chapel and N. organ chamber, an aisled nave, a S. porch with a pyramidal roof (also shown at the foot of the page, on the left), and a W. tower with a short spire. The last is an unsettling composition "of uncertain pinnacles, parapet and lucarnes" (Thompson).  The building exterior is constructed of grey Devonian limestone with golden Ham Hill dressings from Somerset, beneath roofs of local slate.  Windows are mostly three-light, with cusped lancets beneath various simple forms of pre-ogee tracery. The chancel E. window (illustrated right) is five-light, with outer lights subarcuated in pairs above cinquefoils in circles, and with a larger encircled sexfoil in the apex.


Inside the church, the nave arcades consist of one narrow bay towards the west, with a double-flat-chamfered arch dying into the jambs, followed after the intervention of short wall pieces by four standard bays with double-flat-chamfered arches springing from circular piers in two colours of polished marble.  (See the view down the S. aisle from the east, below left.)  The aisle walls and the nave walls above the arcades are constructed of a soft pink sandstone with dark stone bands, countered on the nave walls by narrow diagonal ribs and by irregular blank septfoils in the arcade spandrels, with each pattern seemingly deliberately and methodically set at odds with the others.  (The detail of the N. nave wall is illustrated below right.)  The very small clerestory windows high up above, composed of quatrefoils in splayed openings beneath segmental arches and which project outside in little gabled dormers, were inserted later.



The chancel arch carries a roll moulding with a fillet on the outer order and a flat chamfer on the inner order, the latter supported on semicircular responds and the former, continuous down the jambs.  A low wall with quatrefoil piercings separates the nave and chancel and the chancel is separated from the S. chapel and N. organ chamber by a single large arch on either side, each divided by a red marble stone shaft into two cinquefoil-cusped subsidiary arches with a large open quatrefoil above.  The chancel vault is painted and formed of four narrow bays, the two over the choir taking quadripartite form and the two over the sanctuary, sexpartite form.  A pair of narrow marble shafts each side of the chancel divides the quadripartite and sexpartite sections and there is a single shaft between the two bays of the latter.  The sanctuary floor is tiled with the usual elaborate patterns (as shown below left).  The sanctuary walls are striped with red mottled marbles of varying shades and intensities, and above, approximately 9' (3 m.) up, two cusped vesicas to the north contain portraits of SS. Paul and Mark, while the equivalent positions to the south are occupied by windows.  The spandrels above on both sides are filled with decorative roundels and there are vertical arrays of roundels at either end of the E. wall.  (That on the right hand side is illustrated below right.)



Furnishings make a large contribution to the interest of the building.  The font (below left) is executed in brown and black marbles and features a double row of open arcades beneath the bowl, placed counter to one another to give the appearance - as it were - of a font inside a font, akin to a nest of 1970s-style coffee tables.  The very elaborate pulpit is supported on circular columns and constructed in white, brown, pink, grey-green and black Devonshire marble to form a highly elaborate composition described by Thompson as a "pierced play of planes" and best understood by reference to a photograph (below right).  Notice the cinquefoil-cusped arcading around the base, the little trefoil-cusped open arcade round the centre, and the open cinquefoil-cusped arch heads supporting the top rail.



The sedilia comprises three equal seats separated by arm rests but with no arches above, recessed in the sanctuary S. wall.  The choir stalls are typical of Butterfield's wooden furniture - heavy and simple, and characterised by quatrefoil piercings.


Paul Thompson, discussing Babbacombe church and the admiration the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-89) had for it, recalls Hopkins's poem of praise to God entitled Pied Beauty, the second stanza of which might almost have been written in appreciation of Butterfield's elaborate vision here:


"All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how)?
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him."