Ottery's beautiful and historic church - 'little sister' to Exeter Cathedral

Ottery St Mary Parish Church

Ottery St Mary Parish Church - Credit: Friends of Phyllis Baxter Action Group

One of Phyllis Baxter’s favourite photographic subjects was St Mary’s Church in Ottery, to the point of once abseiling one of its towers and taking incredible pictures of the inside of the church’s roof.

Phyllis Baxter abseiling down the front of Ottery St Mary Church

Phyllis Baxter abseiling down the front of Ottery St Mary Church - Credit: Friends of Phyllis Baxter Action Group

Very often we talked about this beautiful church in the heart of the town which she called 'the little sister that proudly stood next to the big sister in Exeter'. We assume her statement had to do with the fact that the present structure has been likened to a miniature version of Exeter Cathedral, nevertheless as beautiful and as popular as the big one.

Phyllis Baxter dressed in red sat at her desk with a pen, book and other office equipment

Phyllis Baxter had a dream to write a book and launch a website about Ottery - Credit: Phyllis Baxter

As it always happens when writing about this town and its hidden treasures, our curiosity runs parallel to our admiration for the beauty enclosed within the walls of unique buildings such as our parish church; so we went back to our friend Grenville Gilbert who, for many years, was one of the churchwardens and who quickly satisfied our curiosity and transported us to the early beginnings of St Mary’s Church with this interesting historic account.

“I have always loved Ottery St Mary Parish Church, 763 years of worship have taken place within its walls. In Simon Jenkins’ book England’s Thousand Best Churches, published in 1999, our church is judged to be amongst the very best in the country. Jenkins awarded the highest merit, five stars, to only 18 churches and ours is one of them. According to a well known national newspaper, it also has one of the best Lady chapels in the country. The church once belonged to the secular canons of Rouen in France. It was Bishop Grandison, the 17th Bishop of Exeter, who purchased the church from the canons with a view to establishing a 'sanctuary for piety and learning'. On 15th December 1337, Edward III granted a license for the foundation of a collegiate church in the town to be completed around 1342. Royal visitors have included Henry VI (1452) and Henry VII (1497). The beautiful Dorset Aisle was built about 1520 as the gift of Lady Cicely Bonville, Marchioness of Dorset and owner of Knightstone Manor. It remained a collegiate church for just over 200 years and was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1545, along with other colleges and monasteries. In 1760, the Reverend John Coleridge came to Ottery and took up the post of Master of the King’s School. Shortly afterwards he was also made Vicar of the parish, therefore the well known connection of Ottery with his youngest son the famous poet, philosopher, and theologian Samuel Taylor Coleridge."

Grenville also recalled anecdotes taking place in 2009 during the evening celebration of the 750th anniversary of the dedication of Ottery St Mary Parish Church. “The Rt Revd Michael Langrish, the 70th Bishop of Exeter, hit the outside of the large west doors of the church with his crook so hard that it went straight through one of the panels. Whereupon he turned to me and said 'Grenville, I think that you will need a faculty to repair that!' (For those who don’t know, a faculty is a special licence from the diocesan authority rather like listed building consent - only worse!).

“The evening was an ecumenical event; I never forget that, once upon a time, the church was Roman Catholic. We even had a special ale brewed which was called, appropriately, “Bronescombe Ale”, and a very good brew it was indeed.”

St Mary’s Church is a church that has got to be worth a visit. Set on a hill above the beautiful valley of the River Otter, today the church continues to fulfil its function as the spiritual focus of the parish. It remains at the heart of the community and plays host to a wide variety of activities from concerts to medieval banquets as well as the usual weekly services. It is very much the 'people’s church' - everyone is welcome to step inside and to join in!

Grenville always likes to write poems to celebrate special occasions and he is often asked to do so. On the occasion of the 750th anniversary of the dedication of Ottery St Mary Parish Church, he felt it was an appropriate occasion for a poem. It is an inspiring poem that again takes us to the depths of the history behind our parish church and can be read here