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Paignton, Devon
 
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Perhaps to most of us PAIGNTON means a holiday by the sea, a vivid memory of the flowers and lawns and rockeries bordering the promenade by the red sand, and the wonderful lookout from the centre of Tor Bay to white-walled Torquay massed like a Mediterranean hill town in one direction and the red cliffs of Berry Head in the other. For those who enjoy such things there is a pier, and for all there is the glorious park which Paignton has made out of a marsh in our own time. From Preston to Goodrington is one long stretch of sheer delight for the holiday-maker.

But Paignton was a place of some importance long before the Georgians and Victorians took the seaside to their hearts, and piers and boarding-houses started bobbing up like mushrooms. Two medieval towers proclaim its importance, one, 90 feet high, belonging to a church famous for its carvings, the other part of a vanished palace, its old wall enclosing a new vicarage.

The old palace tower is known as the Miles Coverdale tower, because of the legend that he used it in writing his translation of the Bible, but it is a legend accepted without any authority that we have been able to discover.

Most of the church is 15th century, but the west zigzagged doorway, the eastern pillars of the nave, and the bowl of the font are Norman, the carved bowl much worn after being buried in the churchyard, dug up in pieces, given away, bought and sold, and used as a garden vase. Its new oak cover towers seven feet high, with pinnacles and canopies, eight statues, and a dove. A handsome vaulted 14th century porch protects an older doorway, and four ancient doors open on a wealth of carving, old and new, in wood and stone.

Grandest of all is the stone screen of the Kirkham chapel, a veritable monument of the golden age of medieval sculpture. It has three rich niches, two forming canopies over tombs. This noble screen is the work of masters of the 15th century when it was drawing to a close, and a dazzling sight it must have been as they took away their chisels and left this treasure to posterity. A soldier's stave knocked off the heads of the mourners and spoiled the faces of the Holy Family, but here is grandeur still, most of it with a remarkable intricacy of detail, stone like lace (as if it were made with a needle), canopies with vaulted ceilings, panels exquisitely carved with flowery tracery, and a wonderful array of saints, apostles, evangelists, and angels on pedestals. Lying on two tombs, one on each side of the lovely doorway, are two men of the Kirkham family with their wives, and in the niches round them are the mourners. One of the scenes inside the arches shows us the Holy Family with St Anne and her three husbands, and another shows us the mass of St Gregory, he who thought our little English boys not Angles but Angels when he met them in the marketplace of Rome.

A narrow panelled door leads us through this wondrous screen into the Kirkham chapel, where two figures kneel on the wall, probably Sir William Kirkham and his wife, who were indicted as Papists in 1612. He is an odd figure in armour, with extraordinary legs; but the Irish bishop who came over to help the Bishop of Exeter 600 years ago is a greater shock, for he appears in the south aisle as a skeleton lying on a sheet.

There are more headless figures under canopies on the heavily carved pulpit, one of our rare stone ones from the 15th century, of which only 60 or so remain. Laden vines twine between its panels and round the cornice, and the vine is repeated along the frieze of the fan-vaulted chancel screen, a fine bit of modern craftsmanship. Stone carvers of our own day have also competed with the medieval craftsmen. The beautiful lady chapel reredos is copied from one in Exeter Cathedral picturing the Annunciation, the Visitation, and the Presentation. The chancel reredos with its bishop and saints has fragments of the old reredos on which it was modelled in memory of a Pilgrim Father baptised and married in this church. He was Samuel Chapin, one of the founders of Springfield in Massachusetts, and the memorial was given by his descendants.

In old glass are the arms of the indefatigable Bishop Lacy, who saw to the rebuilding of the church 500 years ago. In the vestry are a fine piscina and a grand vestment chest, both 600 years old. Children of last century played their part in saving enough money to restore the fine old cross outside, and children of this century gave the cover for the Book of Remembrance with its inspiring words, They stir our souls to life.

We noticed that a vicar here, Samuel Belfield, preached for 61 years in the 18th century, and a chorister, George Gooding, sang for 70 years in the choir.

In 1687 there was buried in the churchyard a master mariner whose adventures must have long been the talk of Paignton. He was William Adams, born here in 1612. At 27 he and several companions sailed for the West Indies, but were captured by a Turkish man-of-war and taken to Algiers. After five years they managed to make a small boat, in which they escaped, ultimately reaching England.

The King's England, Devon (1938) by Arthur Mee. An original copyright transcription by CuriousFox, edited for identification purposes.



 
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