The village blessed with the finest church tower in Devon

St Hieritha's Church, Chittlehampton
St Hieritha's Church

Situated in North Devon between Barnstaple and South Molton, Chittlehampton was first settled by the Saxons during their 8th century invasion of Devon. At its heart is The Square, a wide open space sloping upwards towards the church on its northern boundary. The outline of the square has changed little since that time. Up until the late 19th century the village was noted for the large number of hostelries serving a community of this size, a reminder of the days when these inns were needed to accommodate the many pilgrims visiting the shrine of St Urith in the church.

Cottages on the east side of The Square, Chittlehampton
Cottages on the east side of The Square

St Hieritha's Church

St Hieritha's Church tower

The church was completely rebuilt between 1470 and 1520 on the site of the earlier cruciform structure. It is dedicated to a revered Celtic saint from the dawn of Christianity in Devon, St Hieritha or more correctly, St Urith. It contained a shrine in her honour that was visited by pilgrims on the 8th of July each year until 1540 by which time pilgrimages and the veneration of saints and relics were drawing the ire of the Protestant Reformation. The generous offerings of the many visitors to the shrine made it possible to rebuild the church on such a grand scale.

1846 engraving of the north side of Chittlehampton square
Engraving from 1846

The magnificent western tower in the Somerset style now dominates the northern edge of the wide village square, once known as Town Place. In former times the church was partly hidden behind a row of houses as can be seen in the engraving from 1846. These dwellings were demolished between 1876 and 1879 not long after the most recent major refurbishment of the church in 1872.

The cottages bordering the church belonged to the Feoffees, a board of trustees administering the church and its property estate for the benefit of the community, and were sold by auction to the Trustees of the Rolle Estate who permitted the site to be enclosed within the churchyard following the demolition worknote1.

St Hieritha's Church interior
St Hieritha's Church interior

Inside the church, facing towards the chancel one can make out the rectangular reredos in the distance. Added in the 1872 refurbishments, it is a colourful mosaic depicting the Last Supper. Prior to that it was an exhibit at the Great Exhibition of 1851 in Crystal Palace. The font dating from ca. 1500 was placed under the tower in 1872, then moved to its present position near the main door in 1954.

There is a local tradition for comparing the attributes of North Devon churches using sayings that go like this:

Bishop's Nympton for length, South Molton for strength, Chittlehampton for beauty.
St Hieritha's Church font
The font

Chittlehampton is usually given the beauty accolade, but the churches selected for their length and strength vary parochiallynote4.

The Legend of St Urith

What do we know of St Urith? Very little it would seem, other than that she was born in nearby Stowford possibly in the 7th century AD or even earlier and was a pious Christian who suffered a violent death at a tender age. One suggestion is that she may have been converted to Christianity by one or more of St Kea, St Fili, and St Rumon, missionaries from Glastonbury who passed through this area on route to Cornwall in the early 6th century.note2

The fullest account of her brief life is given in Chanter's 1914 essay[1]. Chanter argues convincingly that her rightful name is Urith, and that Hieritha is a later corruption; he quotes these passages from the renowned 17th century North Devon topographers Risdon and Westcote which demonstrate that Hieritha was the accepted written form of the name by this period.

This parish [of Chittlehampton] is graced with a fair church and stately tower, and in times past hath been notable for that Hieritha (born at Hoforde, Com. Devonnote3), canonized a saint, was here interred, unto whose memory the church was dedicated, and she esteemed to be of such sanctity that you may read of many miracles ascribed to her holiness in his book that penned her life. [Risdon2]
It [Chittlehampton] is no great town, but rather to be termed a village; famous only for that good St. Hieritha, whose miracles are able to fill a whole legend, who lived there and was there buried. And I observed the tower of the Church to be a work more curious and fair than any in that County. [Westcote3]

Risdon refers to a book of her life, but there is no trace of this work today; reputedly it was exhibited in her shrine, and it may be that the book was lost or destroyed when this was dismantled in 1540.

Chanter turns to the hymn to St Uritha (the Latinate form of Urith) discovered in a manuscript in Trinity College Cambridge in 1901 as the prime source for the account of Urith's martyrdom. This was part of a 15th century notebook belonging to a monk from Glastonbury. Here are the three most relevant verses with translations of the original Latinnote5:

Gaudet quia falcatorum
Falce prato iniquorum
Martirium sustinuit
Virgo martyr nunc sanctorum
Consorcia angelorum

In premium promeruit
Hostium minas non expauit
Hostes morte superauit
Hostes quos absorbuit
Ubi virgo expirauit
>Fons habunde emanauit

Sicca terra floruit
Nunc gaudet tota patria
Quod sue nouerce odia
Innocens virgo vicerit
villa Chitelhamptonia
Letare cum Deuonia
Quod taliter se gesserit.
Mown by scythe of pagan scornful,
Gladly in the valley mournful
Crown of martyrdom she gain'd.
Now, 'mid Angels high and holy,
See, enthroned, this maiden lowly

Hath the victor's prize obtained.
Trembled she at threat of no man,
But did triumph o'er the foeman -
Foeman whom she overthrows.
There, where fell this godly maiden,
Sprang a well with virtue laden,

Bloom'd the desert as the rose.
By stepmother once ill-treated,
Now on every side is greeted,
Urith as the lily, white.
Chittlehampton voice to heaven,
Raise thou with the rest of Devon,
For this martyr, ruby-bright.

Chanter summarizes the legend in these words:

From this hymn ... we can reconstruct the main parts of the legend of St. Urith. She was a beautiful maiden who from a tender age had dedicated herself to the service of God and a religious life. At the instigation of a jealous and probably a heathen stepmother, she is martyred, when on her way to prayer, by the haymakers of the village, who cut her in pieces with their scythes. At the spot where her head falls to the ground a copious spring bursts forth, and flowers [scarlet pimpernels] bloom wherever a drop of her blood is sprinkled.

St Urith's martyrdom is said to have occurred at St Urith's Well marked on the map to the east of the village. It is also known as St Teara's Well, or Taddy Well. In the 1950s it was capped for safety reasonsnote6

Whether or not there is any truth to this story we may never know, but what is certain is that this legend bears an uncanny similarity to that of two other Devonshire saints of the Saxon period, St Sidwell and her sister St Juthwara, leading Chanter to speculate on the apocryphal nature of these legends, and to suggest that "the story as we have it may only be that of a professional saint life-writer of a later date".

The Inns of Chittlehampton

Today Chittlehampton has but one Inn, The Bell, a very fine one too. In former times it had a surprising number for its size. Historically this was not because the inhabitants had an unquenchable thirst or were particularly debauched; rather they provided a place of refreshment and rest for the many pilgrims who came to the village to pay homage to St Urith.

What is surprising is that so many licensed premises survived to the middle of the 19th century, more than 300 years after the end of the annual pilgrimages to Chittlehampton following the dismantling of St Urith's shrine. White's Directory of 1850[4] lists six inns and taverns:

  1. the Barnstaple Inn
  2. the Bell Inn
  3. the Exeter Inn
  4. the Golden Lion
  5. the New Inn
  6. the Rolle's Arms

White also mentions the existence of two unnamed beer houses one of which was evidently the Green Dragon. The Barley Mow, possibly the other beer house, can be added to this list, and there was also a Kings Arms which had closed by this date.

This piece entitled The Inns of Chittlehampton by The Rev. J H B Andrews, vicar of Chittlehampton at the time, was written for the Parish Magazine in 1954. I have edited it lightly in the interests of clarity:

> ....The number of former inns or public houses in the village has often been the subject of remark. The rate books of the last century name seven and gave their annual values: Bell Inn, £11; New Inn, £6/10/-; Golden Lion, £18/15/-; Barnstaple Inn, £12/5/-; Rolle Arms, £5/5/-; Green Dragon, £11/10/-. The Barley Mow, the name of which still persists, is not mentioned. The Green Dragon - a beer house and not an inn - was vicarage property; being for some years the residence of assistant curates, it came to be called The Curatage. The King's Arms appears in earlier lists, but had disappeared by 1850. It seems to have been on or near the site of the present Methodist Church. It was used for sales, or 'surveys' as they were called, and must presumably have had a large public room. The Barnstaple Inn, The Rolle Arms, and the old Bell Inn all had large rooms which were used in 1872 to help provide 650 people with tea at the reopening of the church after its restoration. The Rolle Arms is still in use by the Women's Institute. The accommodation available suggests that most of these houses were real inns "where a traveller is furnished with everything he has occasion for while on his stay". Just as Glastonbury had its hostelry for pilgrims, now the famous George Inn, so must Chittlehampton have had its more modest hostelries for the pilgrims, most of whom came on foot. The Golden Lion may have had reference to the arms of the Lovering family, predecessors of the Rolles at Hudscott, but the name is not uncommon. There seems to be no particular reason for the name Green Dragon.

The number of inns declined as the 19th century was drawing to a close; when the license of the New Inn came up for renewal in 1884 it was declined, leaving only two other licensed premises.note7

The Bell Inn moved to its present location on the south side of The Square in 1888. It has been run by the same family for the past 30 years. On a recent visit in 2010 I noticed they offered a fine selection of real ales from Devonshire breweries. There is a smoker-friendly terrace to the rear leading down through a children's play area to an orchard containing a pair of alpacas who obligingly posed for the camera on this occasion.

The Bell Inn, Chittlehampton

Alpacas in an orchard behind The Bell Inn, Chittlehampton
Alpacas in an orchard behind The Bell Inn


St Urith of Chittlehampton by Rev. J F Chanter, Report and Transactions of the Devonshire Association, Vol 46(1914), p290-308. J F was the son of J R Chanter, best known as the author of works on the history and topography of Lundy. [return]
The Chorographical Description or Survey of the County of Devon by Tristram Risdon, completed by 1632 but not published in full until 1811. >[return]
A view of Devonshire in 1630 by Thomas Westcote, first published in 1845. [return]
The North Devon Coast by Charles George Harper, Chapman & Hall, 1908. [return]


Naturally there was opposition to the demolition proposal among the tenants, despite the alleged state of dilapidation and lack of basic facilities in these cottages.
Given that one of the Feoffees at the time was the Honourable Mark Rolle, heir to the Rolle estate which owned much of the land in the area, one cannot but wonder if this transaction was little more than a device to subvert a covenant of the trust which forbade the Feoffees from demolishing these properties. A fuller account of the circumstances leading to the demolition of these houses was given in the Chittlehampton Parish Magazine of 1956, reproduced here. [return]
Mentioned in St Hieritha's Church Chittlehampton (StHCh), an anonymous pamphlet available for a nominal consideration from the church. This is an unusually well-researched document for its kind and is a mine of historical information. Highly recommended. >[return]
Hoforde is a misreading of Stowford in the original manuscript. Com. is an abbreviation of the Latin in comitatu, meaning 'in the county of'. [return]
The quoted version comes from the StHCh pamphlet. Stabb gives "North Molton for strength, South Molton for length, Chittlehampton for beauty", while The North Devon Coast by Charles George Harper[5] gives this variant:
"Hartland for length, Berrynarbor for strength, and Combemartin for beauty"
The translation given is attributed by Chanter to the Rev. George Woodward. An alternative translation is presented in the StHCh pamphlet. [return]
The workings carried out on St Teara's Well are described in this extract from an article by the former Vicar of Chittlehampton, the Rev. J H B Andrews (the full article is here):
In the 1950's North Devon Water Board destroyed the structure over the well on grounds of safety, covered the area with concrete and built the lintel into the adjacent wall. A manhole gave access to the well but they put in a lift pump further downstream. Several years later workmen putting in a new water main uncovered another stone eighteen inches under the surface which must have been the lip of the well. It has a stoup or cavity which could be filled naturally and this too was built into the wall as though it formed a sepulchre. Fairly recently SW Gas removed the water pump. If the manhole cover is lifted it reveals clear slowly moving water with beautifully coloured unmortared stonework on two sides, there is a basalt like rockface at the base with a thin covering of sand. In 1954 the bishop led a pilgrimage to Chittlehampton, the well is regularly blessed by the vicar on the saints day and the village still holds a revel on 8 July.
The New Inn's license was revoked in 1884, as recorded in this piece from Trewman's Exeter Flying Post of Wednesday September 10 in that year:
Chulmleigh, Brewster Sessions. The annual licensing sessions for the South Molton division, were held at Chulmleigh on Wednesday. Superintendent Baker stated that he had given notice to Mr William Taylor, of the New Inn, Chittlehampton, of his intention to oppose the licence. Superintendent Baker said Mr Taylor had been twice convicted for offences against the Licensing Acts, once on the 16th June last, and also in September 1882. Many persons leaving the applicants house had been summoned for drunkenness and other offences against the Licensing Acts and the house bore a bad character. Mr Seldon, appearing for William Taylor, urged that defendant was not a strong man, and had a long family. His father-in-law, to whom the house belonged, had laid out a considerable sum of money on it. If the Bench did not think Taylor a proper person to hold the license he would apply on behalf of the owner to have the licence in his name. P.C. Hockridge stated that applicant's father now lived with him, and that there were already two licensed houses in the village. The Bench declined to grant the renewal.


St Urith of Chittlehampton by Rev. J F Chanter, Report and Transactions of the Devonshire Association, Vol 46(1914), p290-308. J F was the son of J R Chanter, best known as the author of works on the history and topography of Lundy. [return]
The Chorographical Description or Survey of the County of Devon by Tristram Risdon, completed by 1632 but not published in full until 1811. >[return]
A view of Devonshire in 1630 by Thomas Westcote, first published in 1845. [return]
The North Devon Coast by Charles George Harper, Chapman & Hall, 1908. [return]


The map icon showing a well is taken from the maps icons collection, courtesy Matthias Stasiak.