Morwenstow, St Morwenna & St John the Baptist

Grid Ref SS206153
Morwenstow, Nr Bude, Cornwall, EX23 9SR

morwenstowMorwenstow, 6 miles (9.5 km) north of the town of Bude, is Cornwall’s most northerly Parish, with a population of about 750 people spread across eight hamlets. Its ancient Parish Church is dedicated to Morwenna (a local saint) and St.John the Baptist.  It is part of a United Benefice with Kilkhampton.

Overlooking a steep valley leading to the cliffs, and partly sheltered by the terrain from the often fierce Atlantic weather, the churchyard affords a clear view of the ocean, just three fields away. The church and indeed the parish are probably best-known for their associations with the 19th century cleric, poet and eccentric, the Rev. R.S.Hawker, vicar from 1834 to 1875.

Approached through a picturesque lych gate, Morwenstow church is an architectural treasure house with some of the best Norman architecture in Cornwall. The present-day building consists of a west tower, nave and disengaged chancel, five bay north and south aisles and a 19th century north east vestry. In common with many other west country churches, Morwenstow has fine wagon roofs. The tower, topped by four corner pinnacles, has a ring of six bells.

The oldest feature is a granite tub font of early Norman date.  The south door, north aisle piers and chancel are survivals from the 12th century church which housed the shrine of St Morwenna.  The church was extended eastwards in the 1300s, the probable date of a wall painting and piscina found by Parson Hawker.

Building work at Morwenstow church began again at the Reformation as Protestant worship replaced Catholic. Both aisles stop short of the chancel; chantry chapels having been abolished in 1548. The tower, which probably replaced a Norman one, was still being built in 1549 and south aisle capitals bear the late date 1564. The north aisle was widened and screens and medieval-style bench ends added in 1575.

The reredos above the altar features a triptych of engravings of the Crucifixion by the artist John Baptist Jackson (1701-1780), as well as a remarkable red chalk drawing of St John the Baptist by the Venetian artist, Giovanni Battista Piazzetta (1683-1754).  Memorial windows of 19th century date include a fragment of medieval glass and commemorate the Waddon Martyns of Tonacombe, the local ‘big’ family, and the Hawkers.  Between the lectern and pulpit lies the tombstone of Parson Hawker’s first wife, Charlotte.  Her tombstone had a space left for him,  but he was buried with his second wife, Pauline Anne, at Plymouth

Hawker’s imposing Vicarage (now a private house) stands nearby and water from St.John’s well in the garden is still used for baptisms. St. Morwenna’s former well is in an inaccessible position part-way down the cliff and Hawker’s Hut’ – the driftwood hut built for sermon-writing and contemplation is on the Coast Path.

The most striking recent addition to the church also has a Hawker connection.  It is the restored figurehead of the brig. ‘Caledonia of Arbroath’ wrecked here in 1842.  Reverend Hawker was unusual in giving Christian burials to shipwreck victims at a time when most were buried where they washed up.  A replica of the figure head marks the grave site near the temporary mortuary or ‘Dead house’.

Comments are closed.