The village of Stoke lies on the Hartland peninsula in Devon, which juts out into the Bristol Channel between Bude and Clovelly. Here is some of the finest coastal scenery in Britain, with convoluted sandstone strata creating impressive cliffs. At Hartland Point one can the lighthouse and on a clear day glimpse Lundy Island to the north. Stoke is small village with a large church and lies near Hartland Abbey.
The church at Stoke is dedicated to St. Nectan, a Celtic hermit and missionary who is believed to have had a hermitage near the church. Some of the land in the Hartland area was owned by the Saxon royal family from the time of Alfred the Great. Just before the Norman Conquest it was in the possession of Countess Gytha, the mother of King Harold, the last Saxon King of England. She obtained it as a kinswoman of King Canute on her marriage to Godwin, whom he made Earl of Wessex in 1020. Gytha founded a collegiate church at Stoke in about 1050. Earl Godwin held the manor of Hartland.
When Hartland Abbey was founded in 1160, St. Nectan's became a parish church. The presbyters who had served the collegiate church had their own farms and at this time could be married men. They were discharged and the income from the land used to support the new abbey. It is not known what buildings stood on the site of the church at this time. The current church dates mainly from the 14th century and is in the Perpendicular style. Restoration took place in 1848 when the chancel was lengthened. The church is one of the largest in the area and its tower is the second highest in the county at 39 metres. In the nave the windows were replaced in 1848 and initially a rather opaque glass was used which rendered the church very dark. The glass was replaced in 1932. Among the more unusual windows are those depicting historical characters associated with the area, Countess Gytha, Alfred the Great, William of Normandy and the popular but mythical King Arthur. These were designed by Caroline Townshend and Joan Howson in 1922. There is also a window showing heraldry of the local families including Geoffrey de Dineham, who founded Hartland Abbey and the Abbott, Lutterell and Orchard families that owned the abbey after it Dissolution.
The painted ceilings of the nave and lady chapel are particularly fine and the 15th century oak screen is one of the longest in the county. The rood loft could be reached by a staircase in the south part of the chancel. Also of note is the font, the only Norman survival in the church. The carved pew ends bearing the initials HP, located in the south chancel chapel were a gift of Hugh Prust in 1530.
Until the Dissolution of the Monasteries the abbey appointed the ministers at St. Nectan's. The parish registers are complete from 1558, including the period of the Commonwealth and Protectorate as the parish clerk, Charles Deyman became the Registrar under the Commonwealth.
|The Tower of St. Nectan's late afternoon||St. Nectan's in mid-June morning light|
|Carved pew end donated by Hugh Prust||The Screen seen from the south aisle|
|Ceiling of the Lady Chapel||Detail of the screen|
|King Arthur & Countess Gytha||Ceiling of the nave, repainted in 1982|
|Alfred the Great & William I||Stoke viewed from the cliffs above Hartland Quay|
|Norman Font||Hartland Abbey|
Hartland Abbey was founded in the 12th century as a house of canons of the order of St. Augustine of Hippo. It was consecrated by Bishop Bartholomew of Exeter in 1160. The abbey was founded by Lord Dynham, Lord of the Manor of Hartland, whose family had acquired the land after the Norman Conquest. The Abbey was the last in England to be be closed at the Dissolution, surviving to 1539. Hartland Abbey then came into the possession of Henry VIII's sergeant of the wine cellar, the appropriately named William Abbott. Since that time the abbey had been passed down through the family, sometimes through the female line. The first heiress was Prudence Abbott, who in 1583 married Andrew Luttrell of Dunster Castle in Somerset. This family ran out of male heirs in 1704 and Mary Luttrell married Paul Orchard of Aldercombe, Kilkhampton. Up until this time the house consisted of buildings from the original abbey but Paul Orchard began major alterations, which were continued by his son.
Paul Orchard and Mary Luttrell had no children. She died and Paul Orchard married twice more. His heir, Paul, was the son of his third wife, Rebecca Smith. Thus the abbey passed out of the original blood line of the Abbotts and Luttrells. Paul Orchard the younger continued the alterations of the abbey. The Great Hall, which ran perpendicular to the current house, was demolished as was the Abbey Chapel. The main buildings on the east side were reduced in height to the level of the cloisters and used as foundations for three new state rooms and bedrooms in "Strawberry Hill Gothick" style. The house as seen from the outside today was completed in 1779.
Paul Orchard the younger married but had no heirs and the estate passed to his sister, Anne, on his death in 1812. Anne married George Buck and lived to the age of 90, dying in 1820. Their great grandson, George Buck, took the surname Stucley on the death of his father and was granted new armorial bearings incorporating features of the Stucley arms. He was created a baronet in 1859. The interior of the house was greatly altered in the 19th century by Sir George, influenced by the interior of the new Houses of Parliament designed by Augustus Pugin. He also employed Sir George Gilbert Scott, to design a new entrance and front hall.
The Abbey is still in the possession of the Stucley family and is well worth a visit because of its history, furniture, pictures and gardens. It has its own website with many good pictures. The abbey is open on Wednesday, Thursday, Sunday and Bank Holiday from April 2 to October 1st and also on Tuesdays during July and August from 2 pm to 5.30. The gardens are open every day during the season except Saturday.
|Docton Mill Tea-room||Tea-room at Stoke|
Dr. Samuel Johnson, the Lichfield born lexicographer, remarked that there was nothing finer than an English Inn. However, he overlooked the benefits of tea-rooms for motorists and walkers alike and in the vicinity of Stoke there are two good examples - one near the church and one at Docton Mill, where there are also fine gardens.
Guide to the Church of St. Nectan, Stoke, Parish of Hartland, a pamphlet available in the church.
Hartland Abbey and Gardens, a coloured brochure available at the Abbey.
The Book of Hartland, by R. Pearse Chope, first published 1940, facsimile edition 1995, reprinted 2005.