The rector who took time off to write a novel

Posted in Blog, Devon

‘But there is Ilfracombe, with its rock-walled harbour, its little wood of masts within, its white terraces, rambling up the hills, and its Capstone sea-walk, the finest “marine parade,” as Cockneydom terms it, in all England, except that splendid Hoe at Plymouth … And there is the little isolated rock-chapel, where seven hundred years ago, our west-country forefathers used to go to pray to St. Nicholas for deliverance from shipwreck … For be sure, if you are sea-sick, or heart-sick, or pocket-sick either, there is no pleasanter or cheaper place of cure … than this same Ilfracombe, with its quiet nature and its quiet luxury, its rock fairyland and its sea-walks, its downs and combes, its kind people, and, if possible, its still kinder climate, which combines the soft warmth of South Devon with the bracing freshness of the Welsh mountains; where winter has slipped out of the list of the seasons … and instead of standing three months chin-deep in ice, and christening great snowballs her “friends and family,” as St. Francis of Assisi did of old, knows no severer asceticism than tepid shower-baths, and a parasol of soft grey mist.’

So wrote Devon-born and bred Charles Kingsley, a lover of Ilfracombe, in his Prose Idylls, published in 1873. 19 years earlier, in 1854, Kingsley had come to Bideford, hired a house at the end of the Strand (now Stella Maris Court) and written his best-seller Westward Ho! So successful was it that readers came to Bideford as tourists to see the real sites used by Kingsley for his story’s setting – thus starting the town’s tourist industry. In March 1903 the Mayor of Bideford set up a committee which decided on ‘something to look at’ as a Kingsley memorial, that is a statue rather than a building named after the author. By June funds were coming in and by May 1904 some £400 had been collected and the committee was inspecting models of a statue and planning to locate it at the bottom of High Street on the Quay. A design by Joseph Whitehead was accepted – an 8 foot high Sicilian marble statue with a 9 foot high Portland Stone plinth at a cost of £530. In February 1906 the mayor of Bideford and Lord Clinton unveiled the completed statue at the site where it still stands today.

Twelve years before coming to Bideford to write Westward Ho!, Kingsley, aged 23, was installed curate of Eversley, Hampshire, becoming rector two years later in 1844, a post he held for the rest of his life, being much loved by his parishioners despite his periodic absences. Shortly before taking up his curacy he wrote: ‘Night and morning, for months, my prayer has been: “O God, if I am not worthy; if my sin in leading souls from Thee is still unpardoned; if I am desiring to be a deacon not wholly for the sake of serving Thee; if it be necessary to show me my weakness and the holiness of Thy office still more strongly, O God, reject me!” And while I shuddered at the idea of a repulse, I prayed to be repulsed if it were necessary, and included that in the meaning of my petition “Thy will be done.” After this what can I consider my acceptance but as a proof that I have not sinned too deeply for escape! as an earnest that God has heard my prayer and will bless my ministry, and enable me not only to rise myself, but to lift others with me! Oh! My soul, my body, my intellect, my very love, I dedicate you all to God!’

I wonder what thoughts and prayers are occupied the Rev. Peter Churcher’s mind as he prepared to be installed as Vicar of Pip and Jim’s, Ilfracombe, Combe Martin and Berrynarbor on 13 May – and whether he will take any time off to write a bestselling novel!