Quaint stories linked with Brean's St Bridget Church

Brean has one of the quaintest churches in Somerset. Its tower was once of familiar Somerset type, but it was struck by lightning in 1729 and afterwards reduced

Brean has one of the quaintest churches in Somerset. Its tower was once of familiar Somerset type, but it was struck by lightning in 1729 and afterwards reduced in height and given a 'saddle-back' replacement which makes it look rather like a dove-cot. The churchyard is much higher than the level of the church floor and suggest that down the centuries Brean's sand dunes have endeavour to engulf this ancient place of worship.The church has the rare dedication in Somerset to the rather mystical St Bridget. The noted author of the Buildings of England series of books, Nikolaus Pevsner, has suggested that some of Brean Church's earliest masonry may be of the 13th century. The earliest Brean registers surviving relate to the 18th century and were entered in a parchment-leaved rough calf-bound volume, while the churchwarden's accounts were written in a paper-leaved book, at some time clumsily rebound and cut down to exclude some entries!In the pocket of one of these books someone inserted an 'infallible receipt' to cure a sick cow: "Take an ounce of dragon's blood and an ounce of Bol Armeniack, half an ounce of Irish Slait, one handful of nettles boiled in milk. Two candles give with this drench. For the same take three live eels, and pour them down the throat of the beast."Reindeer's remains have been found in a rift on nearby Brean Down, and caves in Uphill Quarry have yielded the bones of that fearful prehistoric monster, the mammoth, and also those of rhinoceros and cave bear. Are we also to believe that the locality once had its dragons, too?Much interest surrounds the dedication of Brean church to St Bridget. There are two St Bridgets, and we do not know to which Brean's church is dedicated. One St Bridget was an Irish patron saint who took the vow at an early age, and had a cell under an oak tree.The city of Kildare is said to have derived its name from St Bridget's cell, Kil-dara, meaning the cell of the oak. Many miraculous stories are associated with her.Another St Bridget was of Swedish extraction, and lived from 1302 until 1373. She was married when 14, and after her husband died established a new religious order, the Bridgettines, who founded monasteries all over England.She seems of have been a mixed character, and it has been said that: "Her chief public vocation - necessary rather than endearing - was to denounce and threaten corrupt clerics, unjust rulers, unchaste and worldly citizens, and those who owned slaves. She also founded an order of nuns, dictated five volumes of revelations, showed great courage and simplicity, and healed children".When Collinson wrote his History of Somerset in 1791 he said Brean church at that time had a floor of red bricks, but when it was re-paved a still older floor of pebbles was found beneath. At the west end of the nave several skeletons were found close to the surface. In the now shortened tower may be seen the remains of former large belfry windows, and on the west side is a stone inscribed 'John Ginckens, churchwarden, Ano. Dom. 1729'. Ginckens was the old form of Jenkins. The church's three bells are said to have been cast about 1500, and are inscribed: 'Sancte Micail, Quos Convoco Virgo Maria', and 'Sancte Dionisi Ora Pro Nobis'. 'Sancte Micail' implies 'dedicated to Holy Michael', and 'Sancte Dionisi Ora Pro Nobis' is translated into 'Pray for us, Holy Dionysius'.The other inscription, that on the tenor bell, puzzled the Rev E A H Strong, Rector of Brean, until he visited Dulverton church and there saw a bell inscribed 'Protege Virgo Pia Quos Convoco Sancte Maria' which, he commented, implies 'Holy Virgin, Mother Blest, Shield them whom I call to rest'.He concluded that this full quotation was shortened on the Brean bell because there was not enough room for the complete version to be cut.At one time there were square pews in Brean church's nave, one being eight feet long. The bench ends are modern, but are copies of an old oak seat still preserved, which was said by the late Colonel Bramble, a former Weston antiquarian, to have been nearly 600 years old and to have been hewn into shape with an adze. There is a splendid octagonal font, with four-leafed flowers carved around the bowl. It is of 13th Century origin. Part of the ornamentation has been cut away, and it is thought that at one time the font may have had a cover and lock. Fonts were often kept locked so that the contents could not be taken and used for witchcraft!In his West Country Churches, W J Robinson mentions that a mark in the lead with which the font is lined has been said to indicate a former partition, so that one part of the font should contain water while the other was dry, the child being held over the dry part so that the water poured on it might not mingle with that still in the font. He discounts this theory, stating: "At the restoration of the church the font contained a small leaden basin, probably used in later years to hold water, or it may once have been the 'decent basin' ordered by the rubric to collect alms in".Another feature of Brean church is its Jacobean pulpit. Carved on the wood between the panels is the inscription: "George Gudrid gave this, 1620".The church was extensively restored in 1883 when the chancel was rebuilt, a reredos of Dumfries stone added, and the oak fittings renewed, great efforts to help raise funds for this being made by William Sperring, who was churchwarden for nearly 50 years. Restoration included the present handsome wagon-shaped roof.The name of Strong will memorably be associated with Brean church and the village generally. In December 1971 the Rev Ernest A H Strong, the Rector, who was born at Brean Rectory 87 years ago, retired after 63 years in the Ministry. The Strong family had had charge of the church for nearly 90 years. Ernest Strong's father, the late Rev T Strong, was Rector for 40 years, and when he died his son succeeded him.When the Strong family's long association with Brean church began the Rev T Strong faced many problems. Sand drifts had accumulated in the churchyard, so much so that they reached church window sills, and a description of the church at the time on record is that: 'From its appearance, both inside and out, from its leaning walls, broken roof, wet floor, decayed seats, and generally dilapidated conditions, we should surmise that but little has been done to it since it was built in the fourteenth century'.The Rev T Strong changed all this, rallied parishioners to his aid, and started a restoration fund and himself contributed generously.His son, when he succeeded him, carried on the good work. He also wrote an interesting history of the church, which he placed in the porch. After describing the church's features he added: "the Church Expenses box is quite modern".The Rev Ernest Strong has also vigorously interested himself in public life generally. He campaigned to get Brean its own parish council and became its chairman.Best wishes will go with him in his retirement, which he intends to spend close to the church he has served so long. He will live in an annexe of the home of one of his sons, which is just opposite.In my articles on Brean, I think I have shown that unpretentious sort of place as it may seem, it cannot simply be regarded as a caravan-land.One day, many years ago, farmer William Hicks of Southfield Farm was in Bristol, heard Wesley preach, and was converted. There was no chapel at Brean, but William Hicks used to go around with a wagon on Sundays collecting people to services at his home.The lounge at Southfield Farm was licensed for services and marriages, and there came the day when John Wesley himself held a service there.Earlier I quoted an old prescription for curing sick cows that was found in Brean church's records. In his West Country Churches, W J Robinson also mentions that years ago there was said to have been much ague in Brean, from which people "shook so violently as to cause their houses to shake"."A favourite remedy," he says, "was to kill a spider, and make a pill of its body with bread crumbs. At Lympsham the spider was placed in water, 'when he do curley up'. Water and spider were then drunk together."This article, edited by Jill Bailey, was originally published December, 1971


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