St.Christopher has looked down from this wall for over six-hundred years, and he has not been alone, since the glory of this otherwise quite simple church is the ancient stained glass of its north and east walls. It is some of the earliest and best-preserved in the whole country outside the great cathedrals, having needed only very limited restoration, and miraculously surviving intact both the Reformation and the Civil War, and many other vicissitudes.
St.Christopher is succeeded along the wall by St.Michael, the patron of the church, and then by a variety of saints in the four windows of this wall, before we reach the famous window in the east wall, which is in three parts: a triptych, with Christ at its centre, illustrating the seven sacraments. There is much plain glass, making that which is coloured all the more striking, but the true delight now is in the solemn medieval faces who enact the various rites with pursed lips and beneath the page-boy haircuts of the period - probably the 1480's. Surely they could not have expected to have survived so long, or that the last trump would be so long delayed.
I managed to ride past the gates of St.Michael's without noticing them, for the church hides itself down a little lane and behind a vast copper beech. I should have taken directions at the Nobody Inn, where on this steamy afternoon a number of drinkers were refreshing themselves on the lawns outside. They were still there when I left later, up the remarkable lane to Ashton: it follows a long re-entrant in the hills, a world of its own, then climbing at last to reveal a sudden view across the Teign to Christow. The steep fields around were yellow in the drought.
Ashton church is a gradual pull up from the Teign, but you can't miss it - the tower is proud of the trees on a sharp outcrop. When you leave the bike, there's a short steep climb by stairs to reach its door. It's not auspicious: the churchyard is largely rank and overgrown, and a notice in the porch sternly directs you to the side-door, as if to a tradesman's entrance, which is actually the west door. But this makes the ensuing revelation when you finally step inside all the better. The nave climbs up in front of you by ancient pews of carved oak to a broad screen of oak across the double aisle: the eye is led to it by a font and then columns of Beer stone, still as white and unworn as the day they were set in place. There is a unity - every thing is of a Perpendicular piece. There are intrusions: the not-quite-yet-classical Chudleigh family memorial of 1657, the rood a Victorian re-creation. But the church breathes the spirit of the fifteenth century.
And not least in the detail, for the screen carries paintings of thirty-two saints and their attributes, original and vivacious (and in the case of St.George rather camp, as Todd Gray remarks). They have been dulled by time, but few have been defaced, and they would have given a lively hagiographic lesson to worshippers. But there is more, because the screen where it extends across the northern chapel is decorated on its reverse by paintings of a slightly later date, possibly it is thought copied from some chap-book, portraying figures from the Incarnation with accompanying texts in scroll-work. The small chapel, thought to have been a chantry for the Chudleigh family, is bare now: but this allows space to admire the paintings, and to stand back to view the fading medieval grandeur of a wall-painting: the vision of St.Gregory, revealed when the Chudleigh memorial was moved in 1899. What gasps that reveal must have elicited!
The few thatched cottages that make up Higher Ashton climb the hill behind the church, and there is a manor-house a few hundred yards below it. But this is a backwater in a backwater, a church built in a time when Devon lanes were barely tracks, and only serviced by ponies and sledges and packmen. Across the continent a renaissance was well under way; meanwhile in Doddiscombleigh and in Ashton, they secreted away these glories of an antique fashion.
And you still can't get a mobile signal in the Teign valley: I hurried down the river and was late for supper.