Last Updated on July 28, 2019 by Sophie Nadeau
Within the magnificent backdrop of the rolling South Hams countryside you’ll discover the medieval church of St Sylvester in the tiny hamlet of Chivelstone. It looks remarkably similar to numerous other rural ecclesiastical buildings constructed in Devon but it is the ancient pulpit within that sets it apart.
The Parish of Chivelstone
Looking at the tiny sleepy rural hamlet of Chivelstone today it seems hard to believe that, by the mid-16th century, the church of St Sylvester had become the religious centre of this coastal parish which is situated at the most southerly point in Devon. It includes the villages of South Allington, Ford, Lannacombe and the largest today being East Prawle.
The coastal area, known as Prawle point, is one of the most notorious stretches of water along the British coastline. The churchyard at Chivelstone is testimony to this and is the final resting place of numerous poor souls who lost their lives in ships wrecked throughout the centuries.
History of St. Sylvester’s Church, Chivelstone
Chivelstone itself was first documented in the Domesday Book as Cheveletone and Lord of the Manor in that era was Juhel de Totnes. He was granted many manors in the south-west by William the Conqueror and founded Totnes Priory c.1087. By the end of that year William I had died and Juhel had been expelled by his successor.
It’s not clear when the first church was built in Chivelstone, but by the end of the 13th century, there is mention of a chapelry that was attached to the parish of Stokenham and was held by Totnes Priory. This was recorded in the Taxatio Ecclesiastica compiled in 1291-92 under the order of Pope Nicholas IV.
The present day building was constructed in the 15th century and enlarged some time in the mid-16th century. St. Sylvester’s was restored, according to ‘Kelly’s Directory of Devon and Cornwall 1939’ , in 1897 but is currently in need of further extensive restoration.
The church is highly unusual in that it’s the only one dedicated to St. Sylvester in the entire county of Devon. Little is known about Pope Sylvester I, the Saint of New Year’s Eve, not even his birth year but, we do know that he died on December 31st 325AD – the last day of the Gregorian Calender.
The Rood Screen at Chivelstone Church
The main body of the Rood Screen was created when the present church was constructed in the 15th century and depicts a number of painted Saints in the wainscoting that is so typical of numerous Devon churches such as St. Andrew’s at Kenn, All Saints at South Milton and St. John the Baptist at Higher Ashton.
What is quite unusual is that the smaller screens to the far north and the south aisles are painted in a Renaissance Arabesque, indicating that they and the aisles are later mid-16th century additions to the church. These unusual Arabesque additions can also be seen at the churches in Blackawton and South Pool.
The Late 15th/early 16th Century Pulpit at Chivelstone Church
The octagonal pulpit is most definitely the most exciting object in this church and totally different from other pulpits in Devon. It’s certainly not in its original position, being tethered tightly against one of the stone pillars and the base is relatively new having been replaced towards the end of the 19th century.
When viewing this ancient pulpit it’s hard to imagine just how large the oak tree must have been that was felled for this creation. The girth of the tree must have enormous as the piece is hollowed out from a single piece of wood, and then intricately carved to the exterior. The interior reveals how the wood was quite literally scooped out.
… and finally – The Graveyard at Chivelstone
The earliest graves marked in the Parish graveyard date back to 1712 and include a number of unfortunate people that lost their lives in shipwrecks along the notoriously dangerous coastline. Perhaps the most poignant of these graves is that of Captain John Thomson and his wife Barbara Kerr who drowned in 1868.
In his book “Kingsbridge and its Surroundings” (1874) S P Fox wrote bout the wreck of the Gossamer:
“A China tea clipper ship, of 735 tons register, was wrecked in December, 1868 (near Prawle Point) and thirteen lives were lost. There was a strong South-wrest breeze, and a heavy sea… The Captain was seen to lash his bride of just two weeks to a spar in the hope that she would stay afloat. For a time the two of them clung to the storm tossed bit of wood until the sea took them in its cold embrace…”
START POINT LIGHTHOUSE – The lighthouse was built by Trinity House in 1836 at the very furthest point of the headland and can be viewed by a guided tour. The scenery from the cliff top is breathtaking and is part of the South West Coastal Path.
BEESANDS – A small fishing village in Start Bay that is located between the lost village of Hallsands and Torcross. It is a popular tourist destination but is never overly busy. You are spoilt or choice with two great places to eat in this small village – Britannia on the Beach, which is a beach hut serving and selling freshly caught produce and probably the best fish and chips you have ever tasted! The Cricket Inn just down the road has also a great reputation for fresh produce and is considered one of the best foodie pubs in South Devon.
SALCOMBE – A very popular resort town especially with Londoners, many of the houses in the town are second homes. High on the cliffs overlooking Salcombe is Overbeck’s – A National Trust property that was the seaside home of Otto Overbeck, an inventor who amassed his wealth from the creation of the ‘Rejuvenator’. This was an electrical device that was meant to restore the body’s natural electrical balance using electro-therapy.