The earliest roads into Cornwall flanked the great moorlands of Exmoor and Dartmoor and the northern one that is now the A39 runs through Kilkhampton, Cornwall’s northern gateway. Kilkhampton is a small, friendly village favoured by tourists as a holiday centre for visiting the north Coasts of Devon and Cornwall.
The earliest reference to Kilkhampton, or Kilk as the locals fondly call it, comes in 1085 in the Domesday Book where it says, “The King holds Chilchetone” However there are ancient burial sites in the area and a local farm has the Celtic name Killock which means a ‘little Cell’ and so it’s likely that the Saxons named it the ‘ton’ or town of that hermit’s Cell.
In 1066 Robert Fitz-Hamon, Earl of Corboyle and his brother Richard de Granville came from France with William the Conqueror. The king rewarded his best soldiers with grants of land and Richard de Granville received the Manors of Bideford and Kilkhampton where he built the church in a small Square alongside the road.
The church is dedicated to Jesus’ disciple St. James the Great, the patron saint of pilgrims. Making a pilgrimage to the sacred places in the Holy Land took a very long time and so many pilgrims went to worship at the tomb of Jesus’s disciple James in the Cathedral at Compostela in Spain. Kilkhampton lies on the ancient pilgrim route from St. David’s in Wales, for pilgrims landed at Clovelly and visited St. James the Great’s church on their way to Fowey where they took ship to Spain and returned with a scallop-shell as a souvenir. The stone statue of St. James on the outside of the south wall shows him with his pilgrim’s staff, scrip and wallet wearing a scallop-shell in his hat.
A brief history of Kilkhampton Church:
The Norman church was rebuilt by the Granvilles in the Perpendicular style of the late 15th or early 16th century. The tower is 90ft high and the building is 90ft long. The only Norman remains are the acclaimed south doorway with beak head; small zigzag columns and unusual shaped capitals. In 1567 the Rector John Granville added the Porch which protects the doorway and put the inscription Porta Celi over it to remind us that in the Bible Jacob says, “How awesome is this place, this is none other than the House of God and this is the gate of heaven.”
Inside the church is really amazing. The font with the Grenville coat of arms on faces you as you enter but all attention is drawn by the sheer spaciousness of the building because the ancient wagon-roofs curving over the aisles are high and extensively carved while the tall, slender pillars support fourteen arches. The windows are full of richly coloured stained glass and the West window with its impressive 15th-Century tracery can be seen through the glass-screen fronting the lower belfry. The peal of eight bells was completed in 1948 in thankfulness for victory in WWII. As you move along the centre aisle there are 157 carved bench ends. One pair carved around 1380 came from the Priest’s stall but have been separated and so one is in the south-west and one in the north-west.
The organ, now one of the finest in the West Country was the gift of the patron, Lord John Thynne, sub-Dean of Westminster Abbey in 1859. There is speculation that parts of it came from the Shrider organ used in the Abbey from 1730 – 1848. It was completely reconstructed in Kilkhampton by Henry Willis and the old console with its reverse colour keys can be viewed behind the screen, which with the restored pulpit, and choir stalls was installed in 1860 .
Over the centuries, the de Granville family name has been variously spelt. Sir Richard, one of Queen Elizabeth I’s sea-dogs, spelt it Grenville and this was immortalised by Sir Alfred Lord Tennyson in the poem he wrote about his heroic death on his ship Revenge. In 1643 the local hero, Sir Bevill Granville routed the Parliamentarians at Stamford Hill. He died in battle at Lansdowne in Bath and at the Restoration king Charles II created his son and heir John the 1st Earl of Bath for the Grenville’s loyal support. The Grenville male line died out but continues through the female heiress who marrying into great families of Carteret and Thynne. In 1860 Lord John Thynne employed the great pre-Raphaelite firm of Clayton and Bell who were making the glass for Truro cathedral, to design and replace the windows in the Grenville Chapel which depict key members of the family from Rollo the Viking, the first Duke of Normandy to the William Henry the third Earl of Bath.
Visitors are always welcome and in my mind, no visit to North Cornwall would be complete without visiting this marvellous, historic church.