St Peter, Tawstock, England


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Peter
Location: Tawstock, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 6 September 2020, 11:00am

The building

Photo: © FHL2 and used under license Fine medieval building, housing spectacular monuments, especially of the 16th and 17th centuries. One in particular caught my attention: Rachel Bourchier, Countess of Bath, also known as Lady Rachel Fane, in marble (1680), holding a heart in her right hand. The organist told me that Lady Rachel was a ‘crypto-Catholic,’ a dangerous thing to be in those days, and that the heart may have been a reference to the Sacred Heart. The whole family (Bourchier Wrey) were Catholic for centuries but still supported the parish church, which was more or less (but not quite) their private chapel. The church also has a small red quatrefoil window above the chancel. I have come across this elsewhere as a symbol of hidden adherence to The Old Religion. The nave, which is unremarkable, is used for every-week worship, with the monuments standing round the edges. There is some 18th century plasterwork on the ceiling of the crossing, beautifully echoed by the ivy growing through the chancel wall.

The church

They are part of the Two Rivers Mission Community, a group of 11 churches situated between Barnstaple, Bideford and Great Torringtonwork. They are working hard to hand on C of E traditions while looking for a new vicar. Not an easy mission but they manage commendably well – especially considering that many benefices that do have a vicar seldom get to see their overworked Reverend.

The neighborhood

Tawstock, a village in North Devon, sits in the valley of the River Taw. The wooded valleys of the Taw and Torridge retain a lot of their beauty. The estuary gets tourists to Barnstable, Bideford and Appledore, but they do not penetrate inland. The steep Tawstock valley still has big trees, the church, the house and – at first sight – very little else. If you like Georgian Gothick, the house is a joy. It has a medieval gatehouse too.

The cast

Lay reader in suit and tie led the service and preached.

What was the name of the service?

Morning Prayer.

How full was the building?

Owing to social distancing, the nave seemed passably full. About twenty adults and seven children.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Very kind lady who was cleaning let me study the monuments while the organist was practising. She did not accept my offer to sweep up bat droppings.

Was your pew comfortable?


How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Friendly gathering behind masks.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

‘God is love, and he that abideth in love abideth in him.’

What books did the congregation use during the service?

So sorry. I forgot to look. There was a prayer book and a hymn book, both recent.

What musical instruments were played?


Did anything distract you?

Children, who sat in the pews with us but were given other things to do. I felt they were encouraged to find the service boring and irrelevant.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

Hymns, members of the congregation going up to read lessons, prayers (seated), sermon, all made comical (and largely inaudible) by wearing masks. Very lively organ accompanied the traditional hymns. There were three readings. Most of the language was not modernised although the service was not Mattins. It felt like a parody of Mattins and I enjoyed it enormously.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

My watch had given up. About 15 minutes at a guess.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

7 — I wish I had heard the preacher above the children. I got the impression he put a lot into it, with no desire to get any credit out of it.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

I may well be wrong, but I think it was about praying continuously. I gathered he gave up on his own address and read the words of a friend. I wish I could have heard them.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The building, which offers numerous ways to heaven: splendid wood carving as well as world-class stone carving, delightful plasterwork, and the unusual effect of going downhill to the high altar.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

Fighting children. Though good, of course, to be reminded of my aggressive inner child.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

I had another go at the monuments and everyone kindly let me do this while they talked outside. I was told they normally offer coffee. They could not have been more friendly and helpful.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Social distancing forbade.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

10 — I haven't finished with the monuments. I'm sure the parishioners must be used to visitors who come for the building, but I did enjoy the people too.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

I certainly enjoyed it.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

Lady Rachel Fane with heart in hand.

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