Standing proud in Ottery St. Mary is a magnificent testament to history, architecture, and faith: St. Mary's Church. This ancient parish church has stood for centuries, witnessing the ebb and flow of time and serving as a symbol of continuity in an ever-changing world. If you think it bears a resemblance to Exeter Cathedral, it’s because both buildings owe their existence to the same man, Bishop John de Grandisson.
St. Mary's Church, also known as the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, is a remarkable example of medieval architecture. A church has existed on the site since the 12th century, however, the church as we know it today began to be built in 1338. The church has undergone several transformations and renovations over the centuries, yet it retains its grandeur and spiritual significance to this day. While unusual for a church, Ottery has two towers, north and south. On top of the north spire, is a weather cock which is thought to be the oldest functioning weather cock in England, dating from the 1340s.
Inside the church you can find a wooden eagle lectern, one of only 21 such medieval wooden lecterns remaining in the country and a marble font designed by William Butterfield, a Victorian architect and designer who undertook a major restoration of the church in the mid-1800s, adding pews, moving the pulpit and installing tiled floors. In the Dorset Aisle, you can see the stunning Apostles Window dating from 1843, depicting each of the Apostles with his particular emblem (eg St Peter with a key). Late afternoon on a sunny day is the best time to appreciate this window. Set into the walls of the church, both inside and outside, are 21 remaining consecration crosses – carvings of winged figures in a square frame, holding crosses, which would have been anointed by the Bishop with holy oil when the church was consecrated.
One of the most renowned features of St. Mary's Church is the impressive Astronomical Clock, which dates back to the 14th century. It is one of the oldest working clocks in the world and has been meticulously maintained over the centuries.
St. Mary's Church is not only a testament to architectural and historical significance but also a place of worship for the local community. Regular services, weddings, and other religious ceremonies are held within its walls, providing a sense of continuity with generations of parishioners who have gathered here to celebrate their faith. The church hosts various community events, concerts, and exhibitions throughout the year, bringing people together to celebrate the arts, culture, and their shared heritage. It serves as a focal point for the town, providing a sense of belonging and continuity to residents young and old.
Did you know that St. Mary’s Church has its own ghost? Within the church is an effigy to a soldier called John Coke who is said to have been murdered by a younger brother in 1632. Tradition says that his spirit steps down from the alcove where the effigy sits, and wanders about the church.
In the churchyard, the statue of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge is a recent addition, sculpted by Nicholas Dimbleby, and installed 21st October, 2022 – the anniversary of Coleridge’s 250th birthday. The poet was born in Ottery, just opposite the church, where his father was vicar, and attended the local Kings School.
St. Mary's Church in Ottery St. Mary is far more than just a place of worship; it's a living testament to the rich tapestry of history, faith, and community that defines the town. With its stunning architecture, ancient traditions, and role as a gathering place for the community, St. Mary's Church continues to inspire and uplift all who pass through its doors. As it has done for centuries, it remains a timeless beacon of history and faith in the heart of Ottery St. Mary.