In a world of change and struggle, these churches represented continuity and some approach to permanence. They were places you could turn to - if you were of the right persuasion - for celebration and for consolation. They were all the more powerful because your parents and grandparents and generations before had come there for the same reasons, and sanctified the building with their hearts.
So visiting an old church is a form of time-travel, where we can enter the world of our ancestors and in some part share their sorrows and hopes. We can briefly experience their spiritual world, and see reflected there the skills and crafts that they could offer to it.
If you are lucky, it is still a living thing. So my first visit of this scheme, which I will describe shortly, was to the splendid parish church of St.Andrew's at Cullompton, where on a Sunday morning at twelve-thirty the congregation was just emerging from the principal service of the day. Youngsters kicked a football across the grass: inside there was gossip, and tea-cup washing and the putting away of instruments, and the general sense of well-being that comes from a duty gladly done. An enthusiastic lady told me they could still draw on a congregation of five hundred even while they were reaching out to the less enlightened parts of the parish. But I'd have to leave now as she had to lock up: it's all the computers and electrics, you know. So sadly I did. But by then I'd had a chance to marvel at the fan vaulting in the airy south aisle, which cheers even the dark gloomy and very ancient Golgotha below, the medieval ossuary remains of what would have been a rood base. There is a fine West Gallery too, (and I'm fond of them, for Hardyesque reasons) which stretches across the whole substantial width of the church.
My little scheme - not being a Christian it seems hardly fair to call it a pilgrimage - is to visit by bicycle as many as I can of the churches described in Todd Gray's 2011 book Devon's Fifty Best Churches. I might take along the Devon volumes of Pevsner's classic The Buildings of England too. But Gray's colourful book, with the highlights of each church pithily described, is an inspiration. And like all such tick-lists (Munro's catalogue of Scottish mountains is a prime example) it has an important secondary function - it gets you to places that you might otherwise miss, and the chiefest joy is in the journey. Particularly if it's on a bike.
Cullompton is a sad place today. Todd Gray finds the glories of its church at odds with it. There are some fine old buildings of all ages in and near its bull-ring, but despite the nearby M5, it has remains blighted by the motor-car. and comprehensively devastated by supermarkets and the internet.. All these country towns need to repurpose themselves to build an environment that flaneurs ( like me) can be happy in, but their citizens too.
I pedalled the few miles to Kentisbeare after lunch. It was hot, the lanes deep and dark in the shade, but the verges sere and spiky from the drought that has blessed us so far this summer. Kentisbeare's pretty cottages straggle up a little hill. The chequered tower of St.Mary's beckoned above their roofs. A steep path through yews climbed up from the lych-gate, before I could rest my bike politely on a chest-tomb by the door.
From the riches of a town church - well, Cullompton was rich four hundred years ago - we have come to a village church. There's the peace of a Sunday afternoon, with only the clatter of a pigeon's wings to break it. The church is cool, and as you step beyond the porch, the first sight is the wonderful little East Gallery of 1632. It's low enough to decipher the three short verses honouring its donor and the naive paintings along its rail. Turning east, the chancel-screen appears, colourful and canopied, as flamboyant in this plain setting as Pevsner alleges. We are lucky that the wool-merchants chose to spend their money thus. The woolmen concerned, the Whyting family, also saw fit to import some domestic panelling for their little chapel, which in consequence has the air of an abandoned Oxbridge dining-room. Abandoned, because it is now largely empty since the organ was removed to the West Gallery some years ago: not a happy move for the chapel or the gallery, I feel.
There are some largely illegible graffiti carved into the wall of the church tower, some from the seventeenth century: it entertains us now, a little flourish of individuality from the past, though it tells us that even then there were people about with too much time and not much respect. Below the north-east corner of the churchyard is a lovely thatched Church House (surprisingly omitted by Pevsner) in a neat garden.
I cycled back down the Tale valley and so back to my start at Clyst Honiton, thirty-plus miles and two churches. That seems a comfortable target for these days out.