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Church of the week

St Nectan, Hartland

Featured on 4th June 2021

St Nectan Church, Hartland

St Nectan church, Hartland, Devon

The striking tower of 'The Cathedral of North Devon' is a local landmark, visible for miles around and once used as an aid to navigation by sailors along the treacherous North Devon coast. Yet it is the perfectly preserved and beautifully carved 15th-century chancel screen that earns centre stage.

Nectan was a 5th century Welsh prince, who set sail from Wales, vowing to settle wherever his boat chanced to land. It came ashore on the North Devon coast. Nectan made his home living as a hermit at Hartland Forest. 

The story continues that when he was in his forties he helped a swinesherd find his animals and was rewarded with two cows. Later when thieves stole the cows, Nectan tracked them down and attempted to convert the robbers to Christianity. Instead they cut his head off, which Nectan then picked up and carried home before collapsing and dying at his well.

The well can be found some yards from the revolving lychgate which leads to the churchyard.  After Nectan’s death the well became a place of pilgrimage and by the 6th century a monastic community was already established.

The church we see today was completely rebuilt in 1360 and it is the 128 foot high tower which was added in 1420 that draws immediate attention.

Once inside the beautifully carved 15th century chancel screen draws you towards it like a magnet. It is one of the earliest screens in the county and by far one of the finest. It is perfectly preserved and divided in eleven bays, all with painted panels. Each arch is different, with the woodcarvers creating a masterpiece of medieval artwork.

The Norman font is delightful; small faces representing baptised parishioners can be found carved into the underside of the font bowl at each corner. They look down at matching faces on the base, representing unbaptised parishioners.

The late medieval pulpit was possibly installed at the same time as the screen and the wagon roofs in both the chancel and nave are also medieval, although one of the beams comes from the HMS Revenge, a battleship broken up at Appledore.

The church has many historic memorials to the Abbot and the Stucley familes of  nearby Hartland Abbey, including a small memorial brass in the Stucley Chapel to Anne Abbot dated 1610. Beside the Abbot brass are fragments of carved stone from the Benedictine abbey. 

The tomb at the high altar is said to contain St Nectan’s relics. Before the tomb, set into the floor, is a brass to Thomas Docton, 1618. Also in the chancel is a chair used by the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie when he officially opened the church fete!

The stained glass windows are worth a closer look; many were inserted by one of the Stucley family, who was fascinated by Arthurian romance. Look close to find a likeness of King Arthur, with Arthurian symbols, and a depiction of King Alfred, who held Hartland in the 9th century.


Main photo: James Stringer (CC-BY-SA2.00

Learn more about St Nectan's


on the road to Hartland Quay

EX39 6DU



Getting there