O Come, All Ye Faithful
Country Life UK|December 11-18, 2019
The tiniest country churches, understated beacons of beauty and rural tranquillity, often have the most loyal support and atmospheric Christmas worship. Kate Green talks to some stalwart churchwardens
Kate Green

PARISHIONERS of St Michael de Rupe, Brentor, need strong constitutions and strong arms; it’s a stiff climb to the 37ft by 14ft 6in church, founded on a rocky Dartmoor tor in 1130 by local landowner Robert Giffard who, legend has it, was awash with gratitude at being spared from a violent storm off the Devon coast.

‘We can take a Land Rover up in good weather and a couple of parishioners lend us a powered wheelbarrow to help bring down hymn books in summer,’ explains churchwarden David Harris, a vet.

‘I love coming up here whatever the weather. There’s a huge sense of peace and that God is very close. It’s a privilege being churchwarden anywhere, but with so many visitors and pilgrims, in such an ancient place, it feels as if you’re a link in a chain that goes back centuries. It’s humbling to think of the hundreds of people who have done this job before and this makes you very aware of your responsibilities.’

Mr. Harris’s mother and co-churchwarden, Helen, admits that Michaelmas, with a baptism at 4.30 pm and Communion at 6 pm, was hard work, with warm water—the church has solar-powered electric light, but no water—booklets, wine and chalice needing to be carried up.

Last year, for the 100th anniversary of the Armistice, gas canisters for a beacon were hauled up the steep slope and everyone processed by torchlight; last week, local figures attended the 700th anniversary of the bishop riding out across the moor from Exeter to dedicate the church and the choir sang a specially commissioned piece.

Congregations vary and can be weather dependent, but there were 102 at Christmas last year—‘barely room to breathe’. Mrs. Harris, who has lived in the parish for 28 years and taught at a local school, says her duties are ‘like being in charge of a cathedral as we have so many visitors—it must be well over 10,000 a year. It’s also much loved locally. It’s a great honor to be involved with a church like this’.

The congregation at tiny St Beuno’s, Culbone, can be elite—five or so hardy souls—but on high days and holidays, such as Harvest Festival or Christmas, the 35ft by 12ft church, in its mystical setting deep within Exmoor’s steep, wooded slopes, will be packed. ‘The singing always sounds good, as we’ve got excellent acoustics,’ reports churchwarden and farmer Tony Richards.

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