This week I’ve been exploring the mouth of the River Culm, the place where the river meets with the Exe before finally making her way down to the sea. For years I’ve driven through these two villages on my way to Bickleigh or Tiverton. I’ve often noticed the churches, St Mary Magdalen in Stoke Cannon and St Mary the Virgin in Rewe. It interested me to have two St Mary churches, to the two different Mary’s right next to each other. First I was met with a warm welcome at St Mary Magdalen’s. On the day I chose to go, they were preparing for a festival there. It was called ‘Over the Rainbow’ and they were celebrating the NHS and what people have been doing in lockdown. It was colourful and there was an excited atmosphere of, mostly women, preparing displays and stalls. The church immediately struck me as unusually cosy. I realised that a partition had been placed halfway down the church and there were no pews. When I chatted to a local woman, she told me that the community had gathered in a village hall in the past, when the church needed a new roof. As they gathered, they naturally formed a circle to worship and they realised that they preferred this to the more formal church setting. So they decided to rearrange their church. I’m not a regular church goer, but the cosy intimate feeling in the church, more like going into a beautiful room, made me determined to return.
I was also struck by the wonderful Victorian stained glass windows. Here the Magdalen (always a controversial figure in Christianity) was represented not once but three times. I loved seeing her, first with her pot of spices, then with a book of learning and finally over the altar, greeting the risen Lord. Around the back of the church I wondered if I’d find the river, but the churchyard backed onto a school and noisy playground. I made my way to Rewe church, just a few minutes drive along the road. Rewe churchyard seemed to greet me with dark trees whispering as if conspiratorial. The church was locked. It felt very different. But when I walked to the back of the churchyard, I met a wonderful view! The bank dropped away quite steeply and there winding her way, gracefully through the landscape was the Culm. The setting was spectacular and it felt to me that the proximity of the church to the river was no accident. Also the church being on raised ground felt somehow significant. I remembered Antony Firth, the archaeologist, telling me that there was evidence of stone henges and burial barrows in the landscape between Killerton and Rewe. A few nights later I dreamed that I was rocking in a cradle over the edge of the drop in Rewe churchyard. It was one of those dreams with an incredibly happy feeling. The sun was shining and I was with two friends, there was a feeling of nature all around and a gentle rocking.
I decided to go back to Rewe. But stopped again at Stoke Cannon on the way. I saw a sharp turn to the right after the church and went down it – there was the river! She was meandering her way in a wide channel under an old bridge. The first thing I noticed was lots of damsel flies. But then as I stood looking into the river, a song rose up in me. I wondered how many other women had stood by this river singing in the past, maybe as they were spinning or washing – or maybe like me, just daydreaming and feeling into their lives. I didn’t think too much about the words, just made them up as I went along.