I’m out on the north-westerly tip of Devon at Hartland. At Hartland Point grey cliffs erupt from white water hundreds of feet below, monumental sections of slate themselves folded into waves, syncline and anticline, by earth movements millions of years ago. Look west and it’s an uninterrupted view towards America. The tower of the church of St Nectan at East Stoke, inland by about a mile and the tallest in North Devon at around 130ft, is swallowed up by the vast sky.
The antiquarian Richard Pearse Chope wrote that before the First World War Hartland ‘was almost isolated from the world outside’. This had as much to do with its topography as it did with its location, bounded on two sides by the sea and on the other two by deep valleys. On the road to nowhere, Chope continues, Hartland was ‘sufficiently forbidding to many people’ and ‘farthest from railways’, ‘an unknown country’ to all but ‘a few adventurous persons’. A perfect setting for a reclusive religious community and no doubt part of the reason why one was established here in the twelfth century, as well as why it was the last one in England to be dissolved by Henry VIII, in 1539.
Hartland Abbey developed out of a pre-Conquest foundation. Built in 1157 and consecrated three years later by the Bishop of Exeter it was re-established as a house of Augustinian Canons in 1169, with new building work underway by 1171. A sheltered valley some distance from the site of St Nectan’s church was chosen for the main buildings, later parts of which remain incorporated into the present house, built after the Dissolution on the former abbot’s lodgings. In early spring it is a beautiful place to be, snowdrops and primroses flowering throughout the wooded valley slopes, the leafless trees motionless in the coastal air.
Numerous treasures reside in the cool interior of St Nectan’s church. A fifteenth-century tomb-chest intricately carved from Catacleuse stone; the wooden screen of the same period, still bearing traces of original paint; the small room above the north porch crammed with all manner of stone fragments and oddities including a seventeenth-century organ; a plaque to the memory of Penguin Books founder Allen Lane, who lived in the area.
But it is the font that is the principal object here, at least for me. It is a phenomenal piece of later Romanesque sculpture, carved from a fine-grained golden volcanic stone, possibly from the aplite quarries at Hatherleigh. The two sections of this square table-top font are joined together mid-pedestal. Intersecting semicircles, in different sizes and designs, are carved around the top of the bowl; on the base they are interspersed with triplets of beading. On the corners of both sections, base and top, are carved human heads with slender moustaches, each one staring at its counterpart.
This font is the sole remainder now of the twelfth-century abbey. Within the context of other work it suggests that Hartland was perhaps less cut off than its isolated position might suggest. The same style of carving, with the use of similar, distinctive motifs, can be found scattered across the region, at Kilkhampton and Morwenstow in Cornwall, and in North and Mid-Devon at Buckland Brewer, Shebbear, West Woolfardisworthy, Clovelly, Bondleigh and Okehampton.
Thanks to Theresa Oakley (@archaetexts) for permission to use these photographs.