Writer: Vanwy Arif
Photography: Gary James
The Last Day on Earth or Saint Denis and the Otterham Ark
All are welcome but few stay, except those
resting till Doomsday, hymned to slumber by
breeze-strummed oaks. In final flood, Denis will
keep his head, upturn church vault to form an
ark. Piran will steer the pine-ribbed boat. Bowl
barrows will submerge beneath Otri’s flow.
Piskies and wise-women board. Time on
Earth is brief. We are choughs journeying,
onen hag oll.
There was quiet. And there was Otterham.
Driving to the village, I gazed at yellow furze and worried how a car travelling in the opposite direction might pass. More grass grew undisturbed on the winding lane than could be glimpsed in some suburbs. On arrival at the telephone box, church and pond, which formed the village centre, I understood the likelihood of there being two cars was low.
There was no community library or knitted scenes from the Nativity in this phone box. Most souls were in the graveyard. Padding about on the tussocky grass I marvelled at how springy the damp moss was. Boggy fields falling away from the church reflected the high risk of flooding.
Otterham was more questions than answers.
What was the name? Prasotri? The eponymous river Ottery was Otri in Cornish. I also came across Sen Tenia. Was this Cornish for St Tinney, whose namesake farm now boasted high-end tourist lodges? And then there was Awterham and Awtraw? I was glad Otterham had stuck, as this gave the area a claim to fame: the only place in Cornwall beginning with “O”.
Why was St Denis, headless French martyr, patron saint of headaches, the Parish Saint? No one knew. I chided myself for visiting mid-week. The Parish Feast, Revel Sunday, was to be held on the last Sunday in October, the day after my departure. I wondered what festivities I would miss. Reading of a sexton-cum-poacher tying his greyhound to the pulpit to warm while he dug graves, and of cows sheltering in the aisles from the Cornish sun, I felt Otterham was not “mournful”, “dim” or “dun”, as gloomy Thomas Hardy made out.
The church was open. Laminated signs explained that should we tug the wrought-iron gate and persevere with the medieval door-lock, we would be rewarded.
And we were.
Narrow pitch-pine pews, a vaulted, panelled ceiling which resembled a wooden-ribbed boat, gleamed like horse-chestnuts in the Autumnal light. Whitewashed walls and modest geometrically patterned stain-glass windows affirmed this was a Protestant church. Sculpted granite arches scoured smooth by the centuries, and Norman font bowls, announced that Otterham Church had seen many changes, not least the fading of belief in fairies and witchcraft.
The visitor’s book, dated 1994, was not one-quarter filled. GOD SAVE THE KING was written in capitals on the open page. I wondered how many monarchs had been saluted since the Domesday Book recorded in 1086 how William the Conqueror had gifted the Manor to his brother Robert. There would be too many queens and kings to fit comfortably into the church. Not to mention the Cornish kings and before that, the kings of Dumnonia. And those yet to come? Would Otterham survive until the next Doomsday?
It had certainly seen much. Otterham, so silent, so still, spoke, in the Anglo-Saxon re-naming of river and settlement, in the origins of its church and its parish dedication, of other shores, of invasions, settling and of journeys.
There was ancient. And there was Otterham.