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St Michael The Archangel History

St. Michael the Archangel is a church steeped in history, yet one that seems perilously close to being lost to the sea. Although it was suspected the Saxons built a church where St. Michael’s now stands, until 1994-5 there was no proof of this. During that time repairs to the tower uncovered a window dating from about 980 in a wall of the belfry chamber. This find made it probable that the lower two-thirds of the tower is Saxon. When the Normans rebuilt the remainder of the church about 1120, they largely retained and updated the Saxon stonework.

This and other later developments and alterations made any description of the first church or chapel on the site a matter of conjecture. Certainly the present porch supersedes the foundation of the Saxon nave. The Normans however made their church plan cruciform, and there is some evidence that the nave had an aisle on the north side and an aisle or chantry on the south side. The tower was probably situated centrally with transepts and an apse at the east end. The present porch is all that remains of the Norman nave. It once extended ten feet further west than today, but the extension was demolished when the road outside was widened in 1824.
From the porch the visitor enters the Baptistry under the tower. Standing in the centre must be one of the most sumptuous and elaborate fonts in the county and beyond. The font is the parish’s memorial to the Revd. Frederic Parry-Hodges, who was vicar of Lyme during most of the Victorian period. Beyond the Baptistry the nave is entered through the Norman chancel arch, while the arches to the north and south, though walled up, are 13th century and infused into the earlier Saxon tower. This re-ordering is further complicated by the upper levels of the tower, which were added in the early 16th century, raising its height to the present 58 feet.
The church has two examples of Jacobean wood carving in the west gallery and the pulpit. The chancel screen commemorates the Revd. George Barlow. Among the memorial brasses can be seen the bell from HMS Lyme Regis (1942-1948) which in 1944 took part in the Second Front D-Day landings in Normandy. Most church plate is modern, and the organ was acquired from St. Mary Major church, Exeter, in 1939. Further down the nave on the north side can be seen the most remarkable and enigmatic possession of the church. This is the highly controversial Lyme Tapestry, widely supposed to be the work of Flemish weavers around 1490.
Lyme Church is remarkable for its ring of bells, which today actually number twelve. In their structural alterations to the tower the Normans specifically intended it should house bells, though nothing is known of those which preceded the first new ring of six bells hung in 1770. The fourth of these bells was re-cast in 1843 with the inscription "O Sea Spare Me." The ring was re-hung in a new oak frame in 1911, when two more were added. Then in 1953 all eight were re-cast again and dedicated to the Bishop of Sherborne. A further four bells (two large and two small) were added in 1988.
The main bells made local news when they had to be lowered into the tower by a Sea King helicopter hired from RNAS Culdrose. The two small bells were mounted in a frame designed and constructed by the ringers themselves. All the bells are noted for the quality of their tone, and campanologists from all over the country come to Lyme to ring them. In 1995 a record was set when the longest unaided and unbroken peal of Surprise Royal was rung at St.Michael’s.