Saturday, 7 February 2009

Summoned by bells to St Ervan

The other day I took my silver haired rellies out to St Ervan church. This little-known church in Cornwall was mentioned in a guide book on churches that one of them received for Christmas and the description was so interesting it even tempted a heathen like me to go and have a look. St Ervan lost its tower many years ago and the stump remained a stump until given a proper job roof as late as the 1950s. For many years an improvised tripod of tree trunks supported a bell in the churchyard and this was how a youthful John Betjeman found the church whilst on holiday in Cornwall.

Betjeman visited Cornwall from an early age and is buried at St Enodoc. He championed Victorian architecture and Britain's railways when they were most under threat and had a knack of making the most mundane things appear special.

But St Ervan was something exceptional, a strange place in a strange land.

Betjeman found St Ervan when he was still quite a young chap and by chance - always the best way. I can imagine what an impression a semi-ruined church with its bell outside the porch on some rusticated sheer legs would have made on him. He met the vicar who summoned Betjeman by whacking the bell and later gave him tea in the bookish atmosphere of the vicarage. And "Summoned by Bells" was how Betjeman described his autobiography.

Like many churches in Cornwall, that of St Ervan is wonky. In plan, the choir is at an angle of several degrees, enough to look deliberate at any rate. And my learned relations told me that this to symbolise the head of Christ lolling on the cross. Anyone in the congregation looking towards the altar would never be allowed to forget this.

But what really struck me about St Ervan was the story of its tower.

Despite great thick walls, the tower was considered to be unstable by the middle of the nineteenth century and the parishioners had a go at pulling it down. First they tried with horses. That didn't work. Then they tried with one of those new fangled traction engines (Why didn't anyone photograph this?). That didn't work either.

Without pausing to consider whether the tower was really going to collapse that easily, they eventually resorted to dynamite and in 1883 succeeded in destroying the top half of the tower.

And a goodly portion of the roof.

When Betjeman found the battered little church, it was still a jagged stump, although they'd repaired the roof and could at least hold services in the dry.

Such determination to destroy the tower could stem from the fate of St Issey's tower to the north, which collapsed in 1869 after being struck by lightning. Much closer to home, the church tower at St Eval also gave trouble. Merchants from Bristol contributed to its rebuilding because it was such a welcome marker for vessels coming up the coast.

I remember the legend of Widecombe-in-the-moor in Devon when the devil visited the village. When he paid in a high value of coin for his ale at the inn, the ale turned to steam as he downed it, so infernally hot were his vitals. And when he left, Widecombe on a flying black horse, his steed lashed out and caught one of the pinnacles on the tower, sending it tumbling through the roof and onto the congregation below with great loss of life.

Some attributed this not to the devil but to another lightning strike. I reckon it was the devil. When I was a mixed infant at Goonhavern County Primary school, a touring group of players dramatised the story of Widecombe's disaster. I was convinced then and have been ever since.

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