VILLAGE OF CHARLES
The Imperial Gazetteer of England & Wales, Published 1867, has the following information on Charles:-
"CHARLES, a village and a parish in South Molton district, Devon. The village stands on the river Bray, 5 miles NNW of South Molton, and 9 E of Barnstaple r. station. The parish includes also the hamlet of Brayford. Post-town, South Molton, North Devon. Acres, 2,429. Real property L2,527. Pop 356. Houses 75.
ST. JOHN THE BAPTIST PARISH CHURCH, CHARLES, NORTH DEVON
The property is subdivided. The manor belongs to Sir T.D. Acland, Bart. The living is a rectory in the diocese of Exeter. Value L390. Patron the Rev. R. Blackmore. The church is perpendicular English, with a tower."
HOUSE AT CHARLES
Just in front of the St. John the Baptist Church
While I was in Devon in April 1995, I obtained a copy of a
small brochure, titled " A History of the Parish Church of St. John the Baptist,
It reads as follows:-
When walking through the lovely lanes of Charles it is easy to feel a sense of history, and indeed, for many centuries people have toiled and worshipped here. One of the best known missionaries in the South West, St. Petrock, came here to minister to the Celtic community nearly 1,500 years ago.
At Charles Bottom, by the bridge, there is a large menhir stone, probably a memorial, thought to date from the Bronze Age. On it, R.D. Blackmore, the author of 'Lorna Doone' often sat in the days when he lived with his grandfather and uncle at the Old Rectory, Charles, and there composed some of his early poetry and prose.
The parish of Charles is of great antiquity. Its name derives from two Cornish words 'Carn Lis', meaning 'Rocky Court, or Palace.' It was thus the headquarters of a Celtic chieftan which survived the Saxon occupation. There is no trace of the 'palace', but tradition had it that St. Petrock, a Welsh missionary, came to Charles in the 6th century, after establishing a church at Parracombe. He built, beside the ancient track-way from Barnstaple to North Molton, a wayside chantry in what is known as Walland Manor, and dug a well which still exists. (When the Rev. W.W. Joyce was Rector he built himself a study at St. Petrock's Cottage. It has a domed roof, and the well lies below the dome, sealed by a stone slab).
When King Athelstan founded Pilton Priory about 925 A.D., monks from Pilton travelled from the pack horse trackway via Barnstaple and Goodleigh to Charles through Middlecote Farm and Hudley Mill, to conduct weekly services. Each Saturday evening they would make the journey, staying overnight at the Priest's House, situated close to the present church. On Sunday they would hear Confessions, and say Mass, returning to Pilton the same day. (The records of Pilton Priory at the time of the Dissolution show 'the ferme of Middlecote' as one of its properties). It is likely that the Prior and the monks of Pilton built the parish church of St. John the Baptist, for the first mention of Charles as an ecclesiastical foundation recorded the Prior as patron. The priory probably retained the patronage till the time of the Reformation, but the chantry had earlier passed to the Raleigh family who were lords of the manor of Walland.
The parish church was probably built soon after the Norman Conquest. The tower dates from the Norman period, and the west light to the belfry may have been Norman until the tower was encased in 1624. The two north windows were both Norman with a stone shaft dividing each of them. The staircase door is Transitional. There was a screen across the chancel until the building was restored in 1875, and in 1844 there was a gallery. Only an ancient carved stone over the south door remains.
The font is hard freestone, and was given by Philip Ridgate in 1727, and the handsome canopy was given by the parishioners as a War Memorial in 1919. There are several memorials in the chancel. A brass plate marks the grave of John Blake who was Rector for 45 years until he died in 1614. There is a marble monument to the memory of the family of George Gregorie who died in 1719 at the age of 87 after 56 years as Rector. On the south wall is a marble tablet to the memory of the Rev. John Blackmore and his wife Mary who were buried in the chancel 1842/3.
John Blackmore, a farmer's son, purchased the advowson of the living about 1780. He served as Curate for many years, lived at the 'Old Rectory' and farmed the Parsonage Farm adjoining. Unfortunately for him the living did not fall vacant until 1840. By this time he was Rector of Combe Martin and Oare and, unable to undertake further responsibility, he appointed his second son Richard to the living. His elder son John was for some unknown reason passed over, and remained Curate of Ashford, near Barnstaple. But John's son, Richard Doddridge Blackmore, loved to stay at Charles with his grandfather and Uncle Richard, and regularly spent his holidays with them. When he was seventy years old he wrote the following lines:
'Sometimes of a night, when the spirit of a dream slips away for a waltz with the shadow of a pen over dreary moors and dark waters, I behold an old man with a keen profile under a parson's shovel hat, riding a chestnut horse up the slopes of Exmoor, followed by his little grandson upon a shaggy and stoggy pony. In the hazy fields of lower hills some four or five miles behind them may be seen the ancient Parsonage, where the lawn is a russet sponge of moss and a stream trickles under the dining-room floor, and the pious rook, poised on the pulpit of his nest, reads a hoarse sermon to the chimney pots below'
Thus after sixty years, this lovable man remembered the Old Rectory at Charles, and his travels with his grandfather, under whose ministry he worshipped so often in this Church. Here with his remarkable memory, he gathered the Exmoor lore which he incorporated so graphically in 'Lorna Doone'.
In 1925 local people subscribed for a new East window to commemorate the centenary of Mr. Blackmore's birth. It consists of three lancets, showing St. John the Baptist, The Good Shepherd and St. Petrock. The appeal and the centenary celebrations were organised by Parson Joyce who became Rector in 1916. In his time many improvements were made to the interior of the church, and much of our knowledge of its history stems from his writings. He was also responsible for the re-hanging and tuning of the bells. Five of these were cast in 1733, and there is a tradition that a bell was brought from St. Petrock's chantry when it was demolished in the reign of Henry VIII. It was recast and is thought to be the present treble bell. In 1937 a tenor bell was given to commemorate the coronation of King George VI, and also the launching of the S.S. Queen Mary. At the same time a ringing chamber was formed, with a vestry below.
The small priest's house was, after the Reformation, re-named the Church House, a place where entertainment and other functions were held after benches and pews were introduced, making the church unsuitable for village activities. It was also the parson's residence, until the 1870's when the Rev. William Henry Vivian purchased and made over to the living the farm and house now known as Grange Farm. The 'Old Rectory' was later built, and the rectors lived there until the property was sold in the time of Parson Joyce.
When Richard Blackmore became Rector he started a church school, and the Priest's House with the poor houses and a piece of land belonging to Mr. Parramore was conveyed to the Rector and Churchwardens as trustees for the building of the school room and a house for the head teacher. Some part of the ancient church house may have been incorporated in the house, for some part of its walls are of cob, very thick and ancient.
There have been many changes in the pattern of life and of the population in Charles and it is interesting to note that most of the village of Brayford is in the large parish of Charles, far removed from the ancient site of the church. In recent times the population of the parish has dwindled with the lessening of agricultural employment. The congregation was so reduced that the Diocesan Pastoral Committee proposed in 1971 that the church should be declared redundant and closed. However, there was strong local opposition to this course of action, and the enthusiasm of the congregation together with the greater flexibility of ministry made possible when Charles became one of the parishes of the South Molton Group in 1975, made it possible for the decision to be changed. An energetic programme of improvements was put in hand, carried out almost entirely by voluntary effort on the part of parishioners, especially the late Mr. Alan Holway, who planned the interior redecoration and undertook a large part of the work himself. The attractive interior is a tribute to the talents and generosity of local people, and the restoration work is still continuing: the complete repainting of the tower, and the repair of interior woodwork are jobs which will require professional skills.
The ministry at Charles is now provided by the members of the South Molton Team Ministry, and the clergy and congregation are determined that this ancient building with so much history shall be preserved. They will value your prayers and support.
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Peter Dunn 2001
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This page last updated 14 October 2001