or, The Curate's Egg
England's smallest parish church
Ihave a blissful few days' break in the West Country. It is cold and raw and bright and the snowdrops and the jonquils promise Springtime.
One afternoon I take a walk to find England's smallest parish church. The path climbs steeply above Porlock Weir, a pebbly beach sheltered between the bulk of the hills. The afternoon sun catches the shoulder of the hills and the heather shows purple. Soon the beach is far below and after crossing a couple of fields of sheep, I pause to catch my breath, Dante-like at the edge of a dark wood. From here the path winds through. woods of pine and oak and holly and rhododendrons. It used to be the estate of the Lovelace family. A 19th Century Lord Lovelace planted it densely and on returning from a Grand Tour, decided to romanticise the landscape with follies and a tunnel and grottoes. Through a long tunnel and under ruined bridges I go and then the path climbs .tgain steeply. I begin to rue those extra pounds put on at ( 'hristmas. For half an hour I have been steadily climbing till the path runs like a shelf along the side of the cliff. The National Trust has a policy of leaving the woodland to bury its own dead. In the interests of the bio-system dead trees and branches arc left where they lie. The woods have a mysterious feel to them therefore, because everywhere the lichens make strange green amputated limbs out of dead branches and green velvet sculptures out of fallen trunks. Through a corridor of trees I walk, the sea a distant susurration a hundred and fifty feet below, hurling itself on the grey stones of the beach the never-ending litany of the tide. Up here the walking is silent, on blanket of leaf mould and mosses.
And then after another half hour or so the path slopes down and in a small clearing in the woods is Culbone Church, St Beuno's, set in a little graveyard. There has been a church here since Saxon times; but the present building is basically Norman. It is a squat white stone church with a nave and slightly smaller chancel in all no more than 35 feet long and 12 feet wide; it is small
er than our Lady Chapel. The walls are about two feet thick and the window apertures in the side of the chancel are cut diagonally through the thickness of the walls so as to slant light onto the altar. There is a barrel vault and an ancient screen enclosing the little sanctuary. At the back by the door stands an ancient font. It may date back to the Saxon church. The box pews and commandments on the back wall seem out of place with the medieval feel. What captures my imagination is not the place's more recent history, but a vision of its medieval life; not bible and sermon, but the sacred mutter of the Mass, and the ineffable peace of coming into such a place and finding the Blessed Sacrament there. St Beuno's seems bereft, and its beauty a slightly wistful one.
I wonder what it was like for Ralph de Lucy, who according to a list of rectors, became parish priest of Culbone in 1329? At first it seems an impossibly remote time, and then I reflect that it isn't. Maybe ten generations separate us.. If he had lived to be sixty or seventy, and
told a youngster stories of his
life there and that youngster when an old man had told his grandchild it would take only ten such people to pass down by word of mouth what it was like for Fr Ralph to be a priest in the clearing in the wood in the first half of the 14th Century when the Popes were at Avignon and England fought wars in France and the Black Death stalked the land. Perhaps it was not the idyll it looks like from this distance. The preoccupations were probably more immediate and familiar, the births, marryings and dyings as year by year the mysteries of redemption were recalled in the tiny church in the woods by the sea. One thing is sure, it would be a great place to say your prayers.
I have found such peace, from the moment I arrived I found I could pray in a way I have not been able to for months; a real lifting the heart and mind to God, borne stupendously on the beauty of the moors and hills. I sat and prayed watching the sun set behind the hills until their great bulk had become just a silhouette, calm and reassuring in its mass. "Heart of Jesus, desire of the Eternal Hills," I pray, not really having understood what it meant until now. Now it is the stillness and beauty of that place which seems to draw the heart to contemplation; and something about the feel in the empty, tiny church in the woods, where once the heart of Jesus dwell.