St Mary’s, Isle Abbots, Somerset

Isle Abbots has a remote moorland setting above the Somerset levels, a general absence of signposts adding to the feeling of solitude. Forget the chocolate box setting at the end of a lane, next to thatched cottages; you will only have eyes for the tower, an elegant design c.1480, possibly the sveltest in Somerset in its golden Ham Hill stone.

Finely proportioned, it keeps many pre-Reformation statues, especially the Virgin Mary and the Resurrected Christ stepping out of the sepulchre which flank the west window. Through the south door, enter a light and harmonious interior. Facing you is the Tudor north aisle, whose altar bears an altarpiece of a Renaissance Madonna; a Norman font betrays the origins of the building, next to the barrel organ.

Look east to the chancel, beautifully built around 1300, by the rectors (the nearby Benedictine Muchelney Abbey). It has an east window of five stepped lancets, likewise fine tracery in the other windows, and a singularly elegant piscina and sedilia.

Isle Abbots was probably building the north aisle around 1530, at the same time that nearby Ruishton church was starting its tower, and the learned and pious Richard Whiting was Abbot of Glastonbury, the greatest abbey in the west of England. Fast forward a decade, the mortar was still drying out in the north aisle at Isle Abbots, Ruishton tower was awaiting the parapet it never received, and the head of Glastonbury’s last Abbot was displayed above the gateway of the dissolved abbey.

In 1895, Richard Whiting was beatified by Pope Leo XIII. As Feste remarks in Act V of Twelfth Night, ‘the whirligig of time brings in his revenges.’

Pevsner enthused about Isle Abbots, and devotes over two pages to it. A.K. Wickham, the greatest enthusiast of Somerset churches, raved about this church. It is easy to see why.

Go, visit it and fall in love with it, not forgetting your map (Grid ref: ST3521). And pray that, by God’s grace, we may be given the time to accomplish his purpose in us. Pray also for vocations to the religious orders.

Simon Cotton