History of St. James Church, Swimbridge
(click photos to enlarge)

St James - parish church of Swimbridge, Devon

A church has been located on the present site for over 1000 years. The presence of a chapel here was recorded in the Domesday Book (1086). In the 11th century the church was granted a charter giving it a right for people to be buried in the churchyard. According to the historian of our church, the Rev. J.F. Chanter, St James is built on ‘holy ground where the saints of old worshipped untold centuries ago’.

The altar at St James Swimbridge
is how St James (at far right) is carved on the reredos behind the altar

Our patron saint was one of the first disciples to join Jesus. St James was present at the Transfiguration and became one of the first Christian martyrs. His feast day is celebrated on 25 July. St James’s remains are at the pilgrimage church of Santiago della Compostela in Spain, where he is the national saint. He is usually represented with a scallop shell and a staff. This is how St James is carved, on the right hand side of the splendid alabaster and marble reredos (by Harry Hems, dated 1894) behind the altar at our church. This photograph also shows some beautiful church plate from c.1600 (however, valuable items like this are now in a bank vault for safe keeping).

St James Swimbridge - Bell sallies
The bell sallies

The oldest part of St. James’s church is the tower. Its lead-covered, broached spire which has been dated by the distinctive style of the joints in the oak timbers that support the spire to about 1310 A.D. The tower is 90 feet in height and is one of only three such spires existing in Devon. It now contains a peal of six bells: for several centuries there were four. In 1753 these were melted down and re-cast as five. A sixth was added in 1882.

Ringing festival certificate
A bell ringing team award from 1980

The church has a strong history of bell-ringing. The bell-ringing teams of the late 20th century won many awards, recorded in a series of plaques like the one on the right:

The church is best known for its uncommonly lavish furnishings. There is a fine carved limestone pulpit from c.1490.

The extraordinary font has a lead bowl which is revealed by opening folding cupboard doors. St James Swimbridge - the fontThese are set within an octagonal paneled oak casing. This is carved in the Renaissance style fashionable in the reign of Henry VIII. Two holes in the casing were, according to tradition, caused during the Civil War by musket balls fired by Parliamentary troops at an enemy suspected to be hiding inside. Apparently the soldiers were called away to South Molton before they could damage the church’s furnishings and art works. Above the font is a finely decorated canopy.

Even more spectacular is the Rood Screen from c. 1500, ‘one of the most glorious Devon screens’ (Pevsner). It is 44 feet wide, stretching right across the middle of the church, and ten feet high. It is richly carved with fan vaulting and copious tracery in the Gothic style, featuring corbels with angel heads and a mass of intricately rendered vine leaves and grapes. Carefully restored in 1880, the screen remains a remarkable piece of craftsmanship. There is a photo to enlarge below, right.

There are elegant and touching monuments. Among the most notable is in memory of John Rosier, a lawyer who died in 1658. The inscription is couched in legal terminology:

The Rood Screen
The c. 15th rood screen

Loe with a Warrant sealed by God’s decree
Death his grim Seargant hath arrested me!
No bayle was to be given: no law could save
My body from the Prison of the Grave,
Yet by the Gospel! My poor Soul hath got
A Superdeasm and Death seazd it not.
And as for my downe cast body, here it lyes
A prisoner of hope it shall arise
Faith doth assure me: God of his great love
In Christ will send a writ for my remove
And sith my body, as my soul is, free
With Christ is: Come Glorious Libertie.

Parson Jack Russell
Jack Russell in a doorway, maid in attendance - CREDIT: RUSSELL BY BRITTON & SONS, BARNSTAPLE 1876

Despite its medieval origins, the building has only been a parish church since 1866. The first vicar was the famous sporting parson, the Reverend John (Jack) Russell (1795-1883).

Parson Jack Russell kneeler
Kneeler showing Parson Jack Russell

It was while studying at Oxford University that Russell came across a milkman exercising a fox terrier bitch. The young man was so taken with the animal that he persuaded its owner to sell. Russell called her Trump and her first litter provided the ancestors of the Jack Russell strain of terriers that is now world famous. A painting of Trump was described by E. W. L. Davies, Russell’s first biographer (The out-of-door life of the Rev. John Russell, A Memoir, 1883): ‘In the first place the colour is white with just a patch of dark tan over each eye and ear, while a similar patch, not much larger than a penny piece [a Victorian penny was three or four times the size of our decimal penny] marks the root of the tail. The coat, which is thick, close and a trifle wiry, is well calculated to protect the body from wet and cold, but has no affinity with the long, rough jacket of a Scotch terrier. The legs are straight as arrows, the feet perfect, the loins and conformation of the whole frame indicative of hardihood and endurance, while the size of the animal may be compared to that of a full gown vixen fox.’ This is how the Jack Russell is represented on the sign of the Jack Russell Inn, opposite the church, and on one of our lovely needlework kneelers: this one was designed by Stella Levy and sewn by George Richards in 1992.

Parson Jack Russell gravestone
Jack Russell's gravestone in the churchyard

Many stories are told of Russell’s life as vicar of Swimbridge. Like his fellow clergy, Russell loved to hunt and kept his own pack of hounds. One day his Bishop tried to persuade Parson Jack to give up his pack, as an example to others. ‘Of course, if it is your wish, my Lord, I will give it up this very day’. The bishop, greatly relieved, shook his hand, only to be sadly deflated when, after a pause, Russell added: ‘From tomorrow Mrs Russell will manage the pack in her name’. However, Russell was an energetic and kindly vicar. There was much hardship, poverty and sickness to be found in any rural parish in Victorian times. The task of dealing with it, in the days before social services, fell largely on the parson. Parson Jack dealt with it sympathetically, as generously as was within his means, and without fuss. He was also instrumental in building two churches; St. Thomas at Travellers Rest (1866-7), and The Holy Name, at Gunn (1873). Swimbridge Church of England Primary School was built in 1866 and is still going strong. Russell lived at nearby Tordown House and served his parish from 1832 until 1880. His grave in the churchyard is much visited by his latter-day admirers.

As mentioned above, Russell, his church and his dogs feature on the beautiful needlework kneelers made for the church in the early 1990s. This project is remembered here by Stella Levy:

The project came about because the vicar Peter Bowers and a few villagers thought it would be a nice idea to bring the community together. It was not viewed as just a church project. People from all denominations and non-believers came to help sew. 

Terrier kneeler
Kneeler by George Richards showing Jack Russell terriers

At the time I held tapestry classes in my home, where I taught people to design and sew their own tapestries. My home at the time was The Traveller’s Rest Old Church, at Cobbaton, in the Swimbridge parish. Built in 1866 with money raised by the Rev. John Russell and converted into a home after being deconsecrated by the Bishop of Exeter in the 1970s. So I thought a project like this would be a great opportunity to meet and pass on my skills to the parishioners.

A meeting was called and held in the Old School Room, to which I and many villagers came. All those gathered decided they wanted their own designs, rather than go to the normal church kneeler kit supplier.

Cockerel kneeler
Kneeler by David Netherway showing the cockerel on the weather vane and allotments

We all met every two weeks in the School Room, where people brought along photos or designs they wanted to sew and I converted/drew them onto the canvases. I took the drawn up canvases and lots of tapestry wools to the meetings so people could choose their colours, and then I proceeded to teach them a variety of stitches to incorporate into their kneelers. The artist Gerry Moore drew a series of six Parson Jack Russell hunting scenes drawings, which his wife Ruth and other people stitched.

We also managed to get a children's (boys and girls) sewing group going, I think the youngest was eight at the time! 

Some people paid (I think around £20 per kneeler) for the materials used, and coffee mornings and other fund raisers were held, as some people were sewing more than one kneeler (one chap, George Richards, who had never threaded a needle before, stitched eleven!).

As a community project, it was a great success - some people who came along hadn't met other villagers, or were living alone. We all had great fun, getting to know each other fairly well over the course of two years or more. It was the start of the great community spirit that Swimbridge continues to have.

Church design kneeler
Kneeler by Pauline Bignell showing lychgate and church tower

Here is one of the kneelers showing the lychgate and the tower at 2pm one sunny afternoon. We look forward to welcoming you!

Within St. James Church visitors will find guide-books and post-cards for sale. There is also an alphabetical guide to the names inscribed on the gravestones to help locate the burial place of those graves within the churchyard. The Parish Registers of Baptisms, Marriages and Burials date back to 1562 and copies of these are kept on microfiche files in North Devon Records Office (01271 388593) to which all enquiries about early records should be made. For detailed information on this Grade 1 listed church see:
http://www.britishlistedbuildings.co.uk/en-98691-church-of-st-james-swimbridge

This précis is taken from A Guide to the Parish Church of St James, Swimbridge (1996, amended 2006) and Parson Jack Russell by the late Frank S. Pepper (1981, reprinted 2011). Copies of both these booklets are on sale in the church at £1.00 each or contact Mark Haworth-Booth, churchwarden, from the “contacts” page.  Acknowledgments are also due to ‘The Parish of Swymbridge in North Devon’ by the unfailingly helpful Mervyn C. Dalling. The splendid photographs of the church are by the Reverend Prebendary Peter Bowers, who has also kindly contributed to the Pictures section.
The Parish Magazine, published monthly, is available for an annual subscription of £3.00.

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