St Nectan Hartland (at Stoke), and the Church Rooms

The large, impressive church of St Nectan is dedicated to a 6th Century saint of Irish/Welsh extraction who lived by a holy well nearby until he was decapitated by a band of robbers.  Being a good Celtic saint he picked up his head and walked back to his well.  Everywhere his blood dripped, foxgloves sprang up.  They can still be seen every year on many of the local roadsides.   

After his death Nectan accumulated a reputation for saving people from deadly illnesses by his heavenly intervention.   Pilgrimages were made to his well. The associated buildings (of which nothing is known) maintained a strong Christian presence in the locality until the current church was founded in the 11th Century. The building was 'worked up' for 500 years until its monastery was dissolved in 1539, the last to go under Henry VIII.  

Traditionally the new church was founded in thanksgiving for the preservation of her husband's life in a storm at sea by Gytha, mother of King Harold killed at Hastings in 1066, and wife to Godwin, Earl of Wessex.  Some prefer to say it was Godwin himself who started the building in the royal manor of Harton (Hartland) which he held.

Nothing is known of the earliest building nor whether it was rebuilt or enlarged when the early (collegiate) church was replaced by a house of Augustinian regulars at Hartland Abbey (in the valley below the church) in the twelfth century.

The current building, believed to date from 1360, replaced the earlier church on the site, of which only the 12th Century font still remains. The 128 ft tower, rising in four stages, is claimed to be the highest in Devon.  For centuries it was a landmark to sailors at sea. It was built about sixty years after the rest of the church and contains a peal of six bells, last rehung in 1952, weighing practically 3 tons. The arch of the tower, open today, once housed a musicians' gallery where the 'church orchestra' of fiddles, double bass, flute and clarinet played for services.

The magnificent rood screen (the finest in north Devon), dates from 1450.  It is a massive structure of eleven bays, 45 ft 6 in long, 12 ft 6 in high and 5 ft 10 in wide at the top. Earlier times saw both the organ and seating on top of the screen.   Many touches of the medieval paintwork are still visible, particularly the 'barber's pole' uprights.

 

Other features of great interest include the fine Norman font, and the old wagon roofs. The monuments include an elaborate medieval tomb-chest, a small brass of 1610 and a metal-inlaid lid of a churchyard tomb of 1618.  

 

The church contains a set of five windows by the glass painters Caroline Townshend and Joan Howson depicting the history of the parish.  The main east window and the tower window are by Christopher Webb.  There are at least two windows by Alfred Beer - south sanctuary and east chancel chapel - It is possible that the removed but retained glass from the south chancel chapel window is also by Beer.

 

The whole building is fitted out with a fine if plain set of pews most dating from the 16th and early 17th centuries (confirmed by dendrochronology).   Many people find them somewhat uncomfortable and steps are being taken to equip them all with cushions, though this will not overcome the limitations of human geometry.