Exmoor: Stoke Pero Church

“Culbone, Oare and Stoke Pero, three churches where no priest will go”, goes the local Exmoor rhyme. Three parishes so remote that, before the days of motor transport, it took for ever to reach them, over some of the roughest and open terrain England has to offer. And of all the remote parishes, Stoke Pero has to win hands down, for even by car it is a difficult place to find. The narrow lanes cross wide expanses of moorland, close to Dunkery Beacon, the highest place on Exmoor. When you arrive at Stoke Pero, there is no cosy village green scene to greet you, for the church serves a widely scattered community. The wind cuts across the open land with an icy blast and even the church seems to be hunkered down against it, squatting in a dip in the land. As you enter the porch an old sign reminds you why.

Once inside the church, the simplicity of its decoration is the first thing that strikes you. Whitewashed walls with little in the way of decoration are the backdrop for ancient, worn pews and the most beautiful barrel vaulted roof. The red of the altar cloth at the far end almost seems an intrusion of colour, a scarlet splash of paint on a plain canvas.

The doorway to the belltower is tiny – so narrow that only the slimmest can enter. Despite its size it has a degree of solidity about it. The main door to the church is the opposite – a massive piece of oak with letters and symbols scratched into its surface. To date, the meaning of these remain unknown. Any ideas, anyone?

Leaving the church, the sun is shining again and the wind has eased. Many of the Exmoor tombstones from the 19th century have verses on them. Was this the fashion of the time or a peculiarity of Exmoor custom? This particular one seemed to me to be slightly malicious – saying “I might be dead but you’ll be next” – not a great comfort to the bereaved!

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