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A Detailed History

Most of the following is taken from part of a thesis for the final examination in the study of Archaeology by R. Waterhouse, a Bournemouth Student in 1991. A full copy of this can be found here.

Nearly every parish church in Devon once had a church house standing nearby.  The buildings had a combined function of parish hall, eating place, an ale house for the legal consumption of ale brewed by the churchwardens, somewhere to go to get warm before or after a church service, and a place to hold religious feasts.

Some are tiny one room structures, built of rubble and little better than sheds.  Others are palatial houses with hall, solar (small private room), withdrawing room, well, and garderobe (lavatory); beautifully built with finely tooled ashlar blocks (dressed stone), and lit with glazed mullioned windows.  Most are aligned east-west and many butt their churchyard walls directly.

The Church House Inn at Churchstow is an example of the Central South Hams style. This regional style is marked by the construction of its Church Houses in heavy slate ashlars (stone blocks) of the Meadfoot beds.  Quarries for this stone are in Buckland-Tout-Saints, Aveton Gifford, and Coombe Quarry in Kingsbridge parish.

There are only three well preserved examples of this sub-style surviving.  All have the characteristics outlined below; those of arched front doors with external stairs above and colossal flat-arched fireplaces.  These are at South Milton, West Alvington and Churchstow.

The Church House Inn at Churchstow stands slightly back from the main turnpike road from Kingsbridge to Plymouth; the modern A379.  This follows the course of a mediaeval ridge road and several other roads of similar date which converged on the large rectangular village green.  This has been largely swallowed up by modern development, but prior to 1969, the complete green existed, a major remnant of a small, planned mediaeval village.

The Church House Inn proudly proclaims, via two large signs on the front, that it is a thirteenth century Benedictine monks’ rest house, built about 1250 AD.  It is much more likely that it was owned by the Cistercian abbey of Buckfast, about eighteen miles to the North East, and built for the purposes outlined above in the 16th century.

The original building is rectangular; at least 16.5 metres long by 7 metres wide and is aligned east-west with the church.  It is entered by a rounded arched doorway of standard South Devon type, shouldered out at the back to take an inward swinging single plate door.  There were holes for a small drawbar, pulling from the west, now filled in.  On the west jamb of the door is a small circular superstitious charm, of a type commonly found on mediaeval religious buildings.  These normally take on the form of a cross within a circle, but this example appears to be similar to a Mercedes-Benz car badge, being tripartite: (see below).

The door gives into a large open ground floor room ceiled by 30cm square oak beams decorated with plain angel chamfers with bar stops.  In each bay of about 2.7 metres between each beam, there are thirteen evenly spaced 12cm square joists.  These are undecorated.

It would appear that the kitchen and lobby, which are normally separated by a partition, ran together.  At the east end of the building there may have been a solar (small private room).  This would have been of two bays at least, as the assembly marks in the roof structure argue for at least two more trusses.  These may have been lost when the eastern end of the building collapsed or was hurriedly demolished in the early 1700’s.

This period is argued for by the existence of several clearly visible graffitos of the date range 1695 - 1728 on the outside of the east jamb of the front door, suggesting that at this time the building was derelict.

The front and rear walls of the building were originally punctured with windows in every other bay.  All those in the front still exist but of the two surviving at the rear, one has been filled and the other opened out into a door.

The west wall is broken by a massive fireplace, three metres wide, with a keyed Tudor gothic arch springing from tabular capitals, all in slate.  The arch stones have slipped in places - this is a very adventurous structure on the part of the mason.

Opening off the chimney in the south side is a small smoking chamber.  This is built into an extension of a garderobe (lavatory) projection on the south west corner of the building and is about a metre across, being lined with plaster.

To the left of the hearth there is a narrow doorway leading to a small spiral stair in the thickness of the stack.  It seems that the garderobe in the south west corner was entered off this stair, although there is now sign of an entrance now.  The evidence for the existence of this luxury comes in the form of a small blocked vent at what would be about seat level within.  At nearby Leigh Barton similar vents exist to channel fumes from the shaft into the open air instead of through the chamber within.

Opposite the front door, in the south (rear) wall is an identical, though lintelled door of the same width with external side chamfers.  This originally led outside, but at some later date, possibly in the seventeenth century, a two storey building was constructed against the rear of the house.  This has very narrow windows on the ground floor and had a door, (now blocked), which led immediately out to the well at the south west corner of the house.  These two pieces of evidence suggest that this was intended as an ale store which would need to have been kept very cool - hence the narrow windows and near to an endless supply of clean water for brewing.  It is interesting that this building is the one which now stores beer for the present public house.

The well (now in the lobby) is about a metre square and is about 10.5 metres deep.  On the east and west sides, about ten feet down, are two corbelled relieving arches.  The walls are constructed of slate ashlar and continue down for about five metres.  Below this point the well shaft is cut neatly from the solid rock and tapers to the bottom which is somewhat constricted, suggesting that its diggers were drying to dig below the water table with long handled tools which were not very effective.

The first floor also appears to have been open and un-partitioned.  It was in effect a hall, as it was open to the roof.  The parishioners entered it on church feast days via a wooden stair (now demolished) which led up the front of the building from the west and entered the hall by a low and a narrow arched doorway directly above the main front door, actually cutting into the arch blocks of the latter, suggesting that this design was decided on during construction, not before.  The narrow door is deeply chamfered and headed with a possible granite arch now covered in cement render.  Within, the door is widely shouldered out.

The hall must have been very dark within. All the windows are small in comparison with the size of the building and they are fairly widely spaced.  Perhaps this is because of the building’s situation, on the top of the hill, subject to south westerly gales.  The height of the roof from the floor within the hall is about six metres.

The roof structure is a standard South Devon ‘A’ frame.  The construction of the roof is fairly normal for its type. When the east end of the building collapsed, the entire roof structure was dragged violently across to the east and suffered severe cracking of the joints, in some cases actually breaking the tenons of the collars.  In 1724, the collapsed end was crudely tidied up and two tenements constructed on the end, using a large proportion of the fallen stone.

The roof was roughly repaired and pushed back, without much success, as the slumped endmost truss now supports the beginning of the roof line of the cottages, about a foot lower than its intended level.  The carpenter who carried out this repair seems to have carved his initials ‘F.P.’ on the west face of the collar of truss 6.  The roof structure is still conspicuously tilted to the east.

At this point the surviving Church house was converted into two more tenements, a mediaeval window at the east end of the north front being opened out into a door for one of the new houses, two partitions being constructed within the Church house and a door opened up on the west side of the front door, necessitating the removal of the external stair and turning the upper hall door into a window.

The westernmost tenement was very small, (one room up and one room down), so a door was opened in the west wall in the back of the great kitchen fireplace and a ground floor outshot constructed on its outer face.  One of the mediaeval windows on the first floor on the south side was blocked and a hearth inserted.  Later, this tenement may have been found to have been too small and the new door on the ground floor was re-blocked for use as a window.

The chimney stack is colossal.  It has a ring of masonry around the top and a lower skirt; presumably to throw off rain water.  There are also rain-deflecting horizontal slates close to the roof on the east side of the stack, reminiscent of thatched cottages.

The existence of a coping however, shows that this building has always been slated.

Why is it that an otherwise perfectly sound building should suddenly collapse, apparently without warning at one end and yet the surviving walls survive, perfectly vertical and unharmed?  There must be only one explanation; that the structure was deliberately demolished, for the sole purpose of the construction of the four cottages in 1724, possibly due to restrictions in the size of the site and that the demolition team did not take particularly great care when dismantling the roof.

An isometric drawing has been made of the building as it may have looked around 1510, its probable building date, and is shown below: