The parish of Littlehempston is one of the five parishes that together make up the Dart Valley Mission Community. The other parishes are Buckfastleigh, Dean Prior, Landscove and Staverton. You can find out much more about the Dart Valley Mission Community on their website: www.dartvalleymissioncommunity.org.uk.
Littlehempston Church is even older than it looks. The main body of the church, as we see it now, is fifteenth-century. But the big chancel is a rebuilding of the early fourteenth century, while Littlehempston’s Norman font is a survival from the twelfth-century church of which further evidence was found in the recent re-ordering, when traces of the original red sandstone arcade were exposed. It used to be thought that Littlehempston’s elevated churchyard, semi-circular in plan, might be of an even earlier date: Dark Age, or Anglo-Saxon at latest. However, test drilling in 2013, south of the church, has established that the ground between the porch and the churchyard wall, formerly steeply sloping, was made up behind that wall in comparatively recent times: perhaps as late as the 1860s, when the church was comprehensively refurbished.
Back in the Middle Ages, the rebuilding of Littlehempston’s chancel (for which the rector paid) coincided with a period of great landowner prosperity during the overcrowded decades of the early fourteenth century, when rents soared and wages fell under pressure of rising population. It is less certain when the nave, aisles and tower were rebuilt. However, they probably had to wait until mining and sheep-farming restored prosperity to the region long after the Black Death (1348-9) and frequent returns of the plague (1361, 1369, 1374-9 and 1390-3) had reduced the population by a half. Littlehempston’s vaulted two-storey porch and its great west tower are characteristic additions, financed by rich parishioners, of the late fifteenth or early sixteenth centuries. And that must be the date also of Littlehempston’s surviving rood screen, with the handsome barrel vaults of its roof.
Other medieval furnishings include three fourteenth-century stone effigies, the earliest of which (the ‘active’ cross-legged knight on the south window ledge) belongs to the first decades of the century, when English medieval tomb sculpture was at its best. They are thought, however, to be imported, as is the fifteenth-century donor window in the north chancel wall, rescued from neighbouring Marldon Church during the long incumbency (1784-1823) of the scholar-antiquarian Stephen Weston. Most of the remaining furnishings belong to the well-documented Victorian re-ordering of the mid-1860s, when the Rev. Fitz Henry Hele was rector. An important addition of that time was the huge ‘cathedral-size’ organ at the west end of the church, built by Speechley & Ingram (Exeter) in 1868 and still one of the best in the region.
Fitz Henry Hele’s re-furnishing included packing the nave and aisles with close-set pews. But the congregation was shrinking even before World War 2. And the church was again in trouble when Beatrice Carfrae began her long campaign (1961-99) to bring it back into reasonable repair. Littlehempston Church was re-roofed in Mrs Carfrae’s time, its organ was restored, and the screen was stripped and re-painted. Then in the early 2000s, with English Heritage support, the tower was weather-proofed and the bells were re-hung. For the latest re-ordering, see below.
The Re-Ordering of Littlehempston Church and Community Space (2011-2012)
Church attendances have been falling everywhere for many years. However, the effects have been most obvious in rural parishes like our own, with tiny populations to draw on. By 2010, it had become clear to the Parochial Church Council (PCC) that we were running out of money and that there was no hope of surviving on our own. One option, considered briefly, was to declare the church redundant. But nobody in the village was ready for that yet. So we decided instead to re-order the medieval building for community use, combining traditional place of worship with village hall.
Multi-use village halls need a large well-heated space, with disabled-access lavatories and a kitchen. Littlehempson Church now provides all of those: obtained by removing the Victorian pew platforms and putting wheels on the pews; by installing underfloor heating, supplemented by wall-hung convector heaters of industrial strength; by re-opening the medieval west door to give wheel-chair access to one of the two lavatories in the tower; and by building a fully-equipped kitchen at the far west end of the south aisle, where it is partly hidden by the new internal lobby. To preserve the ambience of the old church, we have kept the Victorian floors in place, and have made no changes east of the rood screen. However, we can now clear the nave in a matter of minutes: for dances and village suppers, for recitals, craft markets and sales of produce etc. And in no time at all, the re-arranged pews can be wheeled back in place, restoring the church to ‘repose’.
What we have achieved at Littlehempston is access for all, without destroying what was best in the old building. To our knowledge, wheeled pews have never been used before. Our unobtrusive kitchen, deliberately low-key, is not tucked away (as in so many churches) in a cupboard. By keeping the Victorian paving intact, we have avoided the common mistake of re-flooring throughout, with the inevitable loss of any feeling of antiquity. Our ideas aren’t copyright. If you think they might fit your own church as well, please go ahead with our blessing!