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Altarnun

Dedication : St Nonna                  Simon Jenkins: ***                                                    Principal Features : Superb bench-ends; Norman Font; Unusual Altar Rail

As with so many things Cornish, there is something indefinably “different” about their churches. This was a land where the earth’s riches of copper, tin and china clay were hard-won; where the treacherous coastlines claimed the lives of seafarers by the thousand. Their churches were as rugged as the people, and Cornwall readily embraced the austerity of Wesleyan doctrine. This is a Celtic land, and the county retains an air of brooding mystery.

Altarnun is typically Cornish. For a start, the dedication to St Nonna (or “Non”) is almost unique - only one other church in Tavistock, Devon has it.. She was the mother of St David, patron saint of Wales. The world was awash with saints in those days! Otherwise known as “Non”, she eventually moved from Wales to Cornwall in AD527. Her relics were held here after her death, and she gives her name to the village: “Altar of Non”.

The fabric of the church is granite and dates from c15. It is not quarried stone but “moorstone” that was literally removed from the moors. Of the c12 Norman church built here, nothing remains except the font. There is none of your Fancy Dan carving here: a crude face leers at you from each of its corners while a uniform radial motif adorns the sides, with serpents entwined around them. It is uncompromising, functional and somewhat Pagan in its appearance. It gives its name - “Altarnon Fonts” - to a dozen similar fonts elsewhere. Remarkably, traces of the original paint survive.

There is a wonderful “wholeness” and symmetry to Altarnun. It is more or less exactly as it was built. It has two aisles that are as long as the nave itself, divided by sweeping arcades. The impression is of one large room, very different from many other English gothic churches where the aisles have a feeling of “separation” from the nave, often emphasised by the addition of side chapels. The windows, amazingly, are of uniform design - even on the tower -  having been left untouched since the church was built. They appear to be a kind of transitional design: a light Decorated tracery surmounting typically Perpenidular vertical mullions.

 Altarnun is a church designed for a community. The chancel seems almost like an afterthought: a short protrusion from the nave. The altar rail sweeps across the entire width of the nave and aisles leaving a lateral corridor the full width of the church. the rail itself was carved in 1684 and has an inscription along its entire impressive length! The screen which also covers the entire width of the church was added in the 1880s replacing the original rood screen that was removed during the Reformation. This is a church where rich and poor, lay people and clergy were not granted much separation.

The church has waggon-roofs of beautifully seasoned wood, adding to the feeling of spaciousness and symmetry. For, again, the nave is not allowed to assert any superiority through a higher roof than the aisles!

The real glory of this church, however, are its bench ends. There are 79 of them, no less, all carved by Robart Daye between 1510 and 1530. We know this because he carved his signature on the bench end next to the font. All aspects of life are there, religious and secular.

If you like church architecture and are in the vicinity Altarnun - “The Cathedral of the Moors” - is not to be missed. This is a church built for the common man. No rich men’s monuments here.

Looking towards the east end. Note the symmetry of this church and its openness. If anything, the aisle ceilings are higher than the nave’s, but the roofs appear to be the same height.

The rugged and uncompromising square Norman font. No namby-pamby delicacy here!

The heads at each corner of the font are hardly what you would call high art! Note the paint residues, however. Note also the rather cheerful looking serpents heads that separate the human heads from the radial motifs at the sides.

The side altar in the north aisle, showing the rail that runs continuously across the whole of the east end. Note the inscribed letters on each spindle. On the far left of the rail the complete word “John” starts the story and on the upright to the right of this picture “ANC” forms part of the word “Lanceston” (sic).

The main altar is accessible and lacking in the grandeur of many gothic churches. Note the script and also the crude decorations at the tops of the spindles.

The full inscription across the rail is: “John Ruddle, minister of Lanceston, prebendary of Exon and vicar of this parish, anno 1684. William Prideaux and Samson Cowl, churchwardens”.

The tall Victorian screen reimposes a separation of clergy from congregation that was lost at the Reformation with the abolition of “idolatrous” rood screens.

Between the long altar rail and the screen is this unique “corridor”. There are doors through the screen and kneelers in front of the rail, facilitating the Holy Communion. The Church Guide tells that at Altarnun it has been the practice for over 350 years that the priest faces the congregation when celebrating the Eucharist, something that is seen as rather daring even today.

The waggon roofs are splendidly unpretentious, constructed as they are from “natural” timber. As can be seen from this picture, however, they are by means undecorated.

The delightful craftsmanship of the  waggon roof.

A cluster of the carved  bench ends that provide such a breathtaking display in this church.

For another spectacular collection of bench ends, predating Altarnun’s by only 20 or so years, please go to Brent Knoll, St Michael’s Church in Somerset.

I can only reproduce a selection of 10 of the bench ends here. Predictably, the secular images are much more fun and they give us an insight into life in the early c16. Jesters and musicians were part of Robart Daye’s world.

This is the only stained glass in the church - and it is a mediaeval representation of St Nonna.

There are many more ancient parish chests than this one, but how delightful to see it dated - indeed from the same year as the long altar rail.

This churchyard cross is believed to date from c6 - the time of St Nonna herself.