A tiny church called Culbone, near Porlock

PUBLISHED: 13:10 04 November 2011 | UPDATED: 20:14 20 February 2013

A tiny church called Culbone, near Porlock

A tiny church called Culbone, near Porlock

Malcolm Welshman, retired vet, author and cruise ship guest speaker, pays a nostalgic visit to the small but perfectly formed Church at Culbone, near Porlock, where he and his wife Maxeen got married 35 years ago

Our wedding was almost over. Only the register to be signed. Its black leather cover, worn and faded at the edges, hinted at the rich legacy of history that lay within. The first entry, 1813, a bold script.
The marriage of a farm labourer to a maidservant from a nearby Exmoor Estate. Alongside their names were two crosses. The last entry was ours. Only the 49th in the past 163 years.

Our entry was made on 8 May 1976 in that tiny church called Culbone, tucked into a valley on the edge of Exmoor, near Porlock, hidden in a deep sweep of woods that overlooks the Bristol Channel.

Two years previously, a holiday on Exmoor had led us to this church, also known as St Beunos. It lies 400 feet above sea-level, the track to it snaking two miles along a rugged, wild Somerset coast, where in spring you walk through soft green mantles of sycamore and larch. The track finally meanders down to a small stone bridge. Below it, splashes of silver dance as clear cold water from up on the moor leaps and bounces across the rocks in a cascade that courses down to the shore.

Here is Culbone a tiny hamlet consisting of lodge, church and a couple of cottages, remnants of a larger community that encompassed 1,337 acres to include several farmers, charcoal-burners and a colony of lepers! A reminder of the latter can be seen in the leper window in the north wall of the church. It was installed after 45 lepers were banished to Culbone in 1544, the colony remaining there for 78 years until the last leper died in 1622.

The hamlet is eclipsed by the towering steep woods on either side. Melancholy, dark and brooding on a winters day. But not the day we first set sight on it. Then the church was bathed in a warm halo of afternoon sun. Magical in its sylvan setting we were drawn to it, spell bound. And resolved to be married there.

Of Saxon origins, St Beunos is said to be the smallest complete church in England; and it is mentioned in the Domesday Book and also in the Guinness Book of Records. Its probably pre-Norman in origin with a 13th century porch and late 15th century nave. The rough hewn walls two feet thick, are made of rubble, like many other West Somerset churches which were destined to be rendered and limewashed. The walls stretch a length of 35 feet with a width of just under 13 feet. Half the size of a tennis court. Within the tiny interior, 30 people can be seated in dark panelled pews installed in the 15th century to replace the original straw seating. In addition, for the local gentry at the time, theres a large 17th century balustraded box pew.

Enticed inside, through the heavy oak door dating from 910, we stood, slightly awed, in the centre of the nave. Light and airy, the white washed walls, simple, unadorned, spelt peace. Under the lofty sweep of the chancel arch lay the altar draped in blue linen. To one side a pottery vase shone with buttercups.

Behind the door, still stands the harmonium. Given to the church in 1897 and played at every service since. Like the day of our wedding. That day in May 1976. Then it was played in spirited fashion by Joan DArcy Cooper, wife of the potter, Waistel Cooper, who lived in the adjacent lodge. She died in 1982 and is buried in the graveyard. No doubt her spirit lives on in the notes that spill out from the church.

Lawrence, the vicar, smiled serenely as I turned to watch my bride-to-be walk the few paces up the aisle to my side. As the harmonium was vigorously pumped, Lawrence led us into the first hymn. Our voices soared to the strains of

As we werent living in the parish, it had required a special licence to hold the service at St Beunos. A trip to London. An interview with a dignitary of the church. An oath taken in his richly furnished office. And 25 cash. That gave us the splendid scroll, complete with red seal, which Lawrence displayed with a flourish during his address. A triumphant blast from the harmonium heralded the end of the service. Arm in arm, we emerged from the cool, grey interior into the strong May sunshine that radiated down from the moors high above us. We blinked.

Just as five years later, another pair of dark brown eyes were to blink. Those of our baby daughter, Rebecca, her long eyelashes still moist from her baptism

in Culbone.

And now, on a late October afternoon, as leaves swirl down in drifts of brown and gold, I sit on the base of the church cross and my mind swirls with those leaves. To tumble through the past 35 years since I emerged with my wife from that tiny church. I only have to look at the scene before me, to know the jewel that is Culbone will shine in my memories forever.

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