Cornwall’s churches are rarely simple buildings nestling into the landcape. Instead they are assertive structures with heaven thrusting spires or towers, commonly three times the height of the church. This gives Cornish churches a squat appearance externally, though often they are found to be tall inside. By the 1500s granite was the material of choice and many were enlarged, but often left with much earlier fabric. Quaint villages are rare here, generally churches are found in towns, hamlets or trading ports. Methodist and Nonconformist chapels partly filled the gaps left after the Reformation. Here is a sample of special churches.

Daye’s dancers

At St Nonna’s Robert Daye carved his name on a bench end with pride in the mid 1530s. He and his Somerset team carved 79 bench ends for nave and aisles here. They include a bagpiping shepherd, sheepdog and parish flock of sheep. There is also a fiddle or crowder player, holy water clerk (Robert Hodge) by the south door, and, best of all, a pair of flick book sword dancers!

St Nonna, Altarnun

Building heaven on earth

Over 460 householders donated money or nails to rebuild St Petroc’s in 1469-72. Around 30 religious and trade guilds and parish groups raised two thirds of costs. Cornwall’s largest church at 150 feet is also the best documented in Britain. Only the fine Norman font and north tower base survive of the earlier church. A Salisbury like spire and Norman west door went in a 1699 lightning strike and 1870s restoration, respectively.

St Petroc, Bodmin

Painting the church to be read

Entered through an early 16th century distinctive panelled porch of the West Cornwall type, St Breaca is the archetypal painted church in Cornwall. Medieval wall paintings survive in both aisles and even window splays. Apart from St Christopher complete with mermaid, there is also a Warning to Sabbath breakers with anchor and lute (‘fishermen and Godolphin family this means you!’). Saints are segregated into international in the south aisle, including the almost saint Henry VI, and local in the north aisle.

St Breaca, Breage

A place to believe in

Down a network of lanes in a wooded valley is St Crida, parish church of Grampound. A sympathetic restoration in 1904 restored its atmosphere. Like half of Cornish churches Creed has a lopsided plan with tower, nave, chancel, south aisle and north transept. It has a stained glass sleeping soldier from Christ’s tomb, Norman pillar piscina with 14th century trefoil head and tasteful modern additions like the tower stair and memorial to the 17th century local MP, John Hampden.

St Crida, Creed

Death came suddenly

Arguably Cornwall’s least spoilt church, St Wyllow escaped restoration until 1904-6. Forgotten in its farmyard setting near Polruan, the church once had metal tie beams across both aisles and nave. Here are Cornish bench ends with symbols of Christ’s Passion, high quality 15th century stained glass and an unusual Easter Sepulchre tomb. A brass of John and Ann Mohun (pronounced Moon) records that they died of the sweating sickness within 24 hours in September.

St Wyllow, Lanteglos by Fowey

Whitewashed tomb

When the Victorians set about putting right Georgian vandalism they usually went a step too far, except at St Swithin’s. Most box pews have gone and the pulpit is a trundling chariot not three decker, but the wagon roofs are decently ceiled with plaster and Sir John Chamond’s 1624 tomb was whitewashed. Here are 17th century Barnstaple made ‘heraldic’ tiles, large plaster royal arms and a ghostly late 17th century wall painting of Abraham attempting to slay Isaac.

St Swithin, Launcells

A blaze of colour

St Neot’s has the most complete survival of medieval glazing in any parish church, apart from Fairford in Gloucestershire. More old fashioned than Fairford, St Neot’s glazing spans the 1460s to 1530s. All but the west windows were recorded before mid 1820s major restoration and much survives. Don’t miss Adam and Eve in the 1480s creation window who appear to have stepped straight out of a Flemish painting, or the 1530 stags ploughing St Neot’s fields.

St Neot, St Neot

Royal fetlocks and faggots

One of Cornwall’s least known churches, St Torney is an architectural gem. Wealthy patronage accounts for an early 14th century Exeter style chancel and crenellated and buttressed granite ashlar south aisle, a pared down version of St Mary Magdalene, Launceston but with replacement window tracery. The Plantagenet fetlock or padlock badge of Katherine, Edward IV’s daughter, who in 1495 married William Courtenay of Landreyne, appear, with Courtenay’s arms and faggot bundle badge, in the north aisle roof.

St Torney, North Hill

What’s Bodmin Moor granite doing here?

St Paternus has documentation as good as Bodmin for the early 1490s, 1506-8 and 1518-24. These phases mark the completion of a south chapel, south processional aisle, and north chapel, and show that periods of intense fundraising were followed by recovery time. On Valentine’s day 1507 the masons were at Hingston Down quarry (Kit Hill), but then switched to Rough Tor on Bodmin Moor. This resulted in a whitish granite south aisle suddenly turning brown halfway along.

St Paternus, North Petherwin

Cornish simplicity?

The simplest parish church in Cornwall is St Winwalo, Tremaine. Once a Launceston priory chapel, Tremaine retains its Norman north wall with tiny window and door with dragon tympanum (accidentally destroyed by a 19th century stove pipe), and font. Inside is mostly 16th century, like the tower, with domestic style mullioned east window, continuous wagon roof, and rood loft stairs cut into the thickness of the Norman wall.

St Winwalo, Tremaine

Expelled from his own chapel

Bible Christian founder William Brian or O’Bryan, whose mother was a Quaker, was born at Gunwen in 1778. In 1808 O’Bryan gave land for a Wesleyan Methodist chapel, but two years later was publicly expelled in the same chapel. O’Bryan retaliated in 1819 by giving land for a rival Bible Christian chapel at Innis. Gunwen remained a Wesleyan stronghold and in 1869 a new two storey chapel, with Sunday School below, was built.

Gunwen Methodist Church, Luxulyan

Rector and craftsman

Norman origins are evident in the north doorway with Agnus Dei carving, and the finely carved font. Later additions include the tower with three surviving pre Reformation bells, some of Cornwall's finest. Members of the local Trevanion family are remembered by elaborate memorials. In the 1860s a talented craftsman rector, William Willimott, restored the dilapidated church by making and installing ten stained glass windows, tessellated reredos and commandment panels and carved screen and altar frontal.

St Michael, Caerhays

Cornwall Historic Churches Trust

The Cornwall Historic Churches Trust was formed in 1955 to assist in the restoration and repair of Cornish churches which have architectural or historic merit. Our patron is HRH the Duke of Cornwall. The Trust has limited capital and resources and its work can only continue and be effective through the generosity and support of our Friends in Cornwall and beyond. We welcome new Friends.

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