Welcome to Culbone church, dedicated to the popular Welsh saint Beuno. Able to seat around thirty, this is the smallest parish church in England – and certainly one of the most inaccessible. Situated on the South West Coast Path, I take the three mile route from Porlock Weir walking through periods of rich history and spirituality on my way to Culbone. I am in the parish of Culbone when I pass by the entrance to Ashley Combe, once occupied by Ada Lovelace computer software pioneer and daughter of Lord Byron. The occupants of Ashley Combe had their own pew in Culbone Church and so Ada would have worshipped here.
To the south of the path is Ash Farm, whose owner donated the market cross to the churchyard thereby introducing the custom of open-air markets to Culbone. Ash Farm is better known as the place where Coleridge wrote ‘Kubla Khan’ one of his finest poems. He was in the middle of an opium-fuelled reverie creating the poem when ‘a man from Porlock’ knocked on his door, breaking his trance and the thread of his composition. Coleridge must have known Culbone Church – did he attend services here while staying at the farm?
Walking towards the valley that embraces Culbone Church, I frequently see the Bristol Channel flashing through gaps between the trees. It was this sea which carried the seven Welsh monks who established their community in this valley in 430. It was another two hundred years before the first church was built. It is possible that around this time, Beuno, an active missionary, crossed this same sea and preached in this same valley which prompted the dedication of this Church to him. Culbone is the only Church in England named after St. Beuno.
Culbone has accommodated many communities since those Welsh monks: many have left their legacy. Its remoteness and inaccessibility made it an ideal place of banishment for criminals and social outcasts. Climbing through oak woods I remember that nearly three hundred years previously, a group of East Indians, taken prisoner by the British in India, were forced to work as charcoal burners here until they were granted their freedom.
Descending into Culbone valley, the Church, with its thirteenth century porch and fifteenth century nave, comes into view. The leper’s ‘squint’ built into the north wall providing a view of priest and altar is a reminder of the leper colony established nearby in the sixteenth century.
More recently the valley welcomed spiritual searchers seeking meaning and direction in their lives. An informal community was established based on the monastic principle that physical work encourages spiritual growth.
This remote valley with its small church and lively history has had enormous influence and touched the lives of many. It continues to be a place of pilgrimage. The most effective way to imbibe the spirituality of this place and share in its remarkable story is to travel slowly and quietly, to look and listen. Be ready to be moved, amazed, disturbed and even changed.
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