Robert Stephen Hawker

St. Nectan’s, Welcombe

In The Life and Letters of R. S. Hawker, his son-in-law C. E. Byles writes: ‘A memorandum in Hawker’s hand states that on the 19th of October 1850 he was transcribed for the curacy of Welcombe, which he continued to serve along with Morwenstow for the rest of his life. […]’

‘Welcombe is in Devonshire, and is divided from Morwenstow and Cornwall by the brook that runs in the bed of Marsland Valley. The way thither from Morwenstow is by a rough steep lane up and down the valley sides, a difficult road in bad weather, and a stiff pull for man or beast at any time. But the beauty of that wooded vale, “Broad-cloven thro’ the green of rolling hills,” banishes all thought of discomfort or of weariness. Every Sunday henceforward Hawker rode the three miles to Welcombe on his pony (or drove when, as they say in Cornwall, he was “gotten up in years),” to hold an afternoon service in the little church. The morning and the evening services he performed at Morwenstow. In his riding days he used a military saddle, and, with his ample cloak and fine physique, presented, it is said, something of the appearance of a cavalry officer.[…]’

‘The church at Welcombe, and an ancient well standing near, are dedicated to St. Nectan, a brother of St. Morwenna. The fine old carvings in the church, representing the Fruitful Vine and the Barren Fig Tree, have supplied the designs on the title-page and back of Cornish Ballads and Footprints. On the lower side of the tympanum above the pulpit is an inscription, designed to catch the preacher’s eye when he casts it ecstatically heavenward, “Woe unto you if ye preach not the Word of God.” A wholesome check to heresy.’ (Life & Letters, p.206)

“Sunday was a heavy day! Poor Jewel the Sexton at Wellcombe died on Thursday and I fixed to bury him after the Service. But in Church, five minutes after I had begun my Sermon on the Young Man of Nain, a mass of the Roofing about four feet square fell suddenly on the people below. There was a shout screams and a rush. I was calm but thoroughly frightened. Still under the Sounding Board I was safe and I directed every body to keep quiet and they did so. I told them to cross the aisle and leave the dangerous side and then I commenced ‘And as I was saying, Brethren’ &c &c. But I was personally afraid that more would follow. Luckily it was not the Wood work but only laths and the plaister of years thickened.” (Letter from Hawker to J. G. Godwin, Life & Letters, p.593)

The sounding board has been taken down since Hawker’s time, but the pulpit with its 16th century carved panels remains in place. The gilded lettering around the top reads ‘Where there is no vision the people perish’ (Proverbs 29:18) but on our visit the elaboration of the ‘v’ in ‘vision’ led to a temporary misunderstanding and a puzzled discussion as to whether bison had ever roamed the West Devon countryside.  The entry on the British Listed Buildings website renders it as ‘Where there is no Bishop the people perish’ – also a subjective interpretation and disappointingly unimaginative by comparison.

According to Pevsner, the stained glass window in the north transept of the church depicting Christ in a landscape dates from 1929 and is the work of Morris & Co. This company seems to have been a successor to Morris, Marshall, Faulker & Co., the firm founded by William Morris in 1861. In 1925 Morris & Co. Art  Workers Limited began selling glassware made by James Powell and Sons from their London shop in Hanover Square but I’ve been unable to discover whether the glass for the window was made by Powell’s. Perhaps there is more information about this somewhere in the parish records?

“In the northern wall,” says Hawker, “there is an entrance named the Devil’s door: it was thrown open at every baptism, at the Renunciation, for the escape of the fiend; while at every other time it was carefully closed.” (Life & Letters, p.207)

Books and music piled beside the organ in the north transept. Our visit to St Nectan’s took place on a September day of fierce wind and heavy showers, with the result that the interior of the church was too dark to take pictures of the general architecture or the beautifully carved rood screen which still retains traces of it’s original paint and gilding. John Betjeman doesn’t include Welcombe in his Collins Guide to English Parish Churches, but a more recent book by John Lane and Harland Walshaw, Devon’s Churches: A Celebration, provides an excellent full page illustration and describes it as feeling ‘neighbourly’ – a good way to sum up its air of plain and unpretentious simplicity.

On the east wall, early Victorian Creed, Lord’s Prayer and commandment boards, highlighted in gold leaf, hang alongside reredos paintings of Christ the Good Shepherd and Mary Magdalene. These paintings were created by Rev. Erisey John Porter, vicar at Welcombe between 1882-1903. Rev. Porter seems to have been a Morwenstow man, and the title of the only published written work of his that I’ve been able to trace – The Prophetic Mirror: being an attempt to arrange the subjects of prophecy in plain verse – suggests that he might have got on well with Hawker.

St Nectan’s well is situated on a quiet roadside just across the green from the church. The well-house is a Grade II listed building and dates from the 14th-15th century. On the day that we visited the clear water was brimming over the stone lip and the well and its surroundings looked to be excellently cared for. A few miles north of Welcombe, in the village of Stoke, is the parish church of Hartland and another holy well, both of which are also dedicated to St Nectan.

Text and photos © Angela Williams, 2011, 2012


– Read further extracts from The Life & Letters in Hawker at Welcombe (PDF)

– ‘Parson Hawker at Welcombe’ at Literary Places

– Welcombe parish has connections with a number of other writers and artists – Dora Carrington and Lytton Strachey holidayed there, and Ronald Duncan made his home in the village for over forty years. Read more at Literary Places…

– Morris & Company in the Twentieth Century by Linda Parry (PDF)