I am walking along the footpath that follows the coast of Exmoor in south-west England. Oak and birch trees spill dappled light onto the narrow track while occasional breaks in the woods give tantalising glimpses of the ocean. I know where I’m heading and am afraid of being late. I should have left more time to walk the hilly two and a half miles to Culbone, the last piece of Somerset before the Devon border.
I round a bend and there it is below me: England’s smallest parish church. It looks like a toy plonked in a clearing in the woods, dwarfed by tall trees, with its little spire set slightly askew. It’s utterly enchanting and brings tears to my eyes.
Steepled or towered, spiky with pinnacles or modestly unadorned, the little churches of the West Country cling on as the quintessential symbols of rural England, even in this secular age. Isolated in meadows or woods, on hills or tucked into valleys, they have been the centre of village life for centuries. Step inside and you can almost smell the passing of time. These days their services may be occasional and sparsely attended, but the buildings are still loved and cared for; there are fresh flowers by the altar and the brass has been polished. Although I am more a church visitor than a regular church goer, I do sometimes attend services. I may not believe in the divinity of Christ but I believe passionately in Christianity. I love the art and music that have been created for the glory of God, and I respect and admire the reverence that permeates the very stonework of our churches, and which has endured through the cataclysm of the Reformation and the modern drift away from religion.
To serious students of church architecture and ecclesiastical history, the churches of Devon and adjacent areas of Somerset are not particularly notable, but to me they are something very special. Devon is my home county, a sublimely beautiful region of rolling hills and wooded valleys, where the journey is usually as inspiring as the destination. Visiting local churches means driving or cycling between banks bright with primroses or over purple-heather moors where the churches seem to have grown organically from the surrounding granite. It also means battling horizontal rain and bone-numbing wind when the church provides shelter as well as spiritual refreshment. So join me in seeking out the mediaeval mindset which our churches reveal.