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Diary: Serenhedd James

11 September 2020


Westward leading

AS LOCKDOWN eased, an old friend lent me his cottage in Cornwall, just outside St-Just-in-Penwith; I scooped up chums at Salisbury and Exeter as I made my way down. I knew I was going to enjoy Exeter when, negotiating the one-way system on the way in, I discovered that Mecca Bingo was on Synagogue Place.

I have confessed previously that I find Salisbury Cathedral rather dull (Diary, 2 November 2018). Exeter, by contrast, is everything I like: a real architectural jigsaw. The towers of the Romanesque old cathedral form the transepts of the Gothic new; and the triangular west front puts me in mind of the Duomo at Milan. The heat may have helped, this time round.

Our visit was a delight, made all the more enjoyable by a charming and well-informed sidesman — a Mr Elliot, I think — who, on discovering that I was an alumnus of Exeter College, took us to visit the tomb of the founder. Walter de Stapledon was consecrated to the see of Exeter in 1308, and established his Oxford outpost six years later.

Stapledon was a member of the Plantagenet talent pool. Alas, his work as Lord High Treasurer was not universally appreciated: in 1326, an angry mob dragged him from his horse and hacked off his head. His recumbent effigy in the sanctuary faces a magnificent 14th-century image of the five wounds, which survived the depredations of both Reformation and Commonwealth — a rare treat indeed.


Treasure house

EXETER has everything a cathedral should have: a towering episcopal throne, 60 feet high; a richly carved choir screen, with altars in their proper place; an organ above that dates from the Restoration; a medieval minstrels’ gallery in the nave; an ancient astronomical clock; a fabulous set of misericords; plenty of medieval glass; and the longest vaulted ceiling in the world, with thick and indulgent ribs.

There is a good selection of memorials, too. At the evocative end of the scale is that of George Knight-Bruce, whom I recognised immediately. He ended his days as Rector of Bovey Tracey, but before that had been Bishop of Mashonaland. It was in response to his call for missionaries that Bernard Mizeki met his martyrdom in 1896.

At the other end are memorials that, as a fully signed-up member of the eccentric-names club, I enjoyed to the full: to the Revd Nutcombe Nutcombe (d.1809); to Saccharissa Hibbert (d.1828); to Shulman Peard, Vice-Admiral of the White (d.1832). Canon Charles Hawtrey (d.1770) was Sub-Dean and, sadly, no relation of his Carry On namesake.


Keeping faith

DISSENT abounds — or at least once abounded — in the south-west. As in Wales, Cornish Methodism was very much part of a demographic church-or-chapel divide. Unlike the chapels in Wales, those that we passed didn’t have biblical locations carved into their gables. Instead, they proclaimed their denominational affiliation: mainly “Wesleyan” or “Bible Christian”. Many appeared to be for sale.

In St Just, the huge Methodist chapel is known as “the Miners’ Cathedral”; built in 1833, it dominates the skyline and dwarfs the medieval church. A wander round its graveyard took us back just over a century to 20 October 1919, when a snapped cable at the Levant tin mine near by sent 31 men plummeting hundreds of feet to their deaths.

Fifteen graves bore a new stone with the name of a dead miner, “Levant”, and the date of the accident; several graves, no longer tended by families, had been restored and re-marked. This was all carried out as part of last year’s centenary commemorations. While the Levant mine is now famous as the backdrop for Poldark, local people are clearly keen that their dead should not be forgotten.


Guilty pleasure

I WAS kindly sent by Liverpool University Press a copy of Peter Howell’s John Francis Bentley: Architect of Westminster Cathedral, which it published in paperback earlier this year. It is full of interesting information and illuminating illustrations, and I enjoyed it immensely.

The gazetteer at the back demonstrates just how prolific Bentley was. I had not realised that his only Anglican altar in London is not far from his unfinished cathedral, at St Gabriel’s, Pimlico — where, once upon a time, I was PCC secretary.

I headed west with a whole bagful of books; to my shame, I returned with most of them unread. This was mainly because of the glorious sunshine, which provided unmissable opportunities for walking and trips to the beach. Please don’t tell the Books Editor — I owe her a review.


Open and shut

AT ST JUST, we found the church porch unlocked. We were admiring its little empty stone niche when the door beyond opened, slightly. The gap revealed a white-haired lady who told us, in no uncertain terms, that the church was closed and that we had to leave immediately. Apparently, the building was open only because she was waiting for a workman to come and inspect the roof.

It has been a difficult six months all round, of course. Nevertheless, as my non-churchy companion later observed, in the course of our visit to St Just we were greeted warmly everywhere else: in the bookshop; in both village stores; in the pubs. Perhaps there is a Coronatide parable in the fact that it took a visit to the parish church to make us feel unwelcome.

We had a nicer visit to Sennen. The little church had reopened, and three points of history presented themselves in quick succession: an ancient and weathered Cornish cross in the churchyard; a board painted with Charles I’s letter of 10 September 1643, thanking loyal Cornwall for its support during the Civil War; and hand-sanitiser, track-and-trace forms, and cordoned-off pews.

What must St Sennen have thought, as he stood on the craggy cliffs at Land’s End at the start of the sixth century, eighty years before St Augustine first preached to Æthelberht of Kent? As far as he knew, it was the end of the world, and beyond it the glassy sea.


Dr Serenhedd James is an Hon. Research Fellow of St Stephen’s House, Oxford.


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