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Widecombe History Group Talk
Church Houses in Devon by Sue Andrew
Church Houses appear to have been a great local asset for about 500 years. Some are now private houses, some function as Inns and some are still important community centres. They were the forerunners of Village Halls and the history of several were considered in Sue's illustrated talk. Some villages like Walkhampton have interesting features in their local church, c1500 AD, it has a stained glass window depicting five wives and a wood carving depicting 'purgatory' that relate to Church Houses. An interesting Indenture dated 1st March 1597 was discussed. It was in the 15th century that Pews first appeared in churches, up to then the Nave was a ‘public place‘ where gatherings were held. Many Church Houses were built between 1440 and 1540 and there were about 100 in Devon alone. One does not see many in the North of the country. We were informed that Cornwall has several and examples were shown during the talk, and also examples from Somerset. The talk was mainly concerned with those of Devon. The words 'Church Ale' can be confusing in these days, but it refers to celebrations held in connection with the church calendar. Yes ale was consumed on these occasions, as it was an opportunity to raise funds for the upkeep of the local church. By 1548 there was a ban on producing 'ale' mainly brought about due to who was reigning at the time. Prohibition comes to mind, in the reign of Queen Mary, and by 1630 the practice of Church Ale had virtually ended. Various Church Houses were mentioned and photographs of several were shown to the meeting. These varied from The Monks House at Buckfast, Crowcombe in Somerset, Poundstock in Cornwall and the recently well restored one at South Tawton. In the 18th century many were used as schools and by the 19th century often as Poor Houses. They often varied in size like the small one at Throwleigh, the one at Drewsteignton which has massive beams. A rather neat one at Meavy, just across the green from The Royal Oak Inn and Meavy Church. The Priest’s House at Holcombe Rogus, and an interesting one at Sampford Courtenay all added to a very interesting talk. Then there is our own Church House at Widecombe, a very imposing building possibly dating from the 14th century. Look at the outside, built with beautifully cut Granite Ashlar stones, the chimneys still show that it was once thatched. (A photograph is inside the building showing the thatched roof in the 19th century) It has a well built ‘Pentice’ (a lean-to with its roof held up by lovely granite monoliths). Inside the original massive oak beams holding up the second floor, nicely shaped, the stone stairway to the second floor and the bakers oven still to be seen. Go around to the village green (Butts Park) and look at the north side of the building and the double flight of steps are there to be seen. Upstairs the ‘A’ frames holding the roof are numbered and to the discerning eye there is much more to see. Now owned by the National Trust and used by the parishioners as a ‘Village Hall ’it stands pride of place right next door to the Church. This too was used as a school and a poorhouse during its chequered life. There is an agreement dated 22nd May 1608 whereby John Baker had the use of the building by 'paieing twentie fower shillings a yere' (24shillings a year), unto the parish for the use of the building and he had to ‘permit the parishioners to keep ale once or twice a year and to use the said house and butts park at convenient times as they have been accustomed. (See copy attached in the minute book).
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