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COLYTON: Illustrated talk on historic church houses for Devonshire Association

Thursday, 27 March 2014


METICULOUS research shone out from a talk on the county's rich heritage of mediaeval church houses, when Dr Sue Andrew completed the 2013 season at the Devonshire Association's Axe Valley branch meeting at the Peace Memorial Pavilion in Colyton.
Her well-illustrated March lecture was neatly complementary to Todd Gray's February lecture on Devon's mediaeval church bench ends, covering roughly the same continuity and change during the 500 years up to the disapproval of the Reformation.
London born and Edinburgh educated, Dr Andrew has family connections which always made her feel that Devon was home. She gained her PhD at Plymouth University and, since her 1983 marriage, she has herself lived in the handsomely restored church house at Walkhampton, a West Devon village between Tavistock and Yelverton.
The most concentrated section of her illustrative slides covered her own home, outside and in, before and since she and her husband undertook their restoration.
She traced the origins of church houses to a development of the Catholic religion which ruled that churches, previously home for all kinds of secular village activities, should in future be reserved for the sacred. At the same time, church architecture and fittings were improved, often leaving little behind apart from Norman fonts, and the new community houses were built in proximity.
There is little information about exactly what went on in the houses but it is obvious that some were big enough to provide hospitality for passing monks and wayfarers. Long before pubs became a commonplace, many of the houses made their own ale using local barley, to compete with similar houses nearbye. We can assume that village priests encouraged this activity as much as anybody else.
Dr Andrew began her tour of the surviving houses at Poundstock in Cornwall and then Crowcombe in Somerset. She then moved to home territory to look at Buckfast Abbey, with its rich evidence of a mediaeval monks' guest house, followed by a wide variety of other Devon houses.
At times, some village religion switched back and forth between Catholic and Protestant but by the early 17th century the latter had taken control and various things were banned, ales among them. She showed how public houses, as we know them, moved into many of the disused buildings to go their own way but the speaker was also able to show that other church houses, such as the one at Widecombe, were still used for parish meetings.
Her talk was preceded by the branch's annual general meeting at which chairman Dr David Westlake reported on "a reasonably successful year". There was too slight an increase in membership, from 55 to 56, and it was the influx of visitors that made the lecture programme viable. The 2013 lecture on the now defunct Allhallows School and the Rousdon estate where it functioned, brought a record full house of paying visitors - not all of them old boys.
With thanks for another year of hands-on dedication, Dr Westlake was re-elected chairman with a committee of secretary Kathryn Gray, treasurer Dr Michael Barr and reporter Sean Day-Lewis.

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