Friday, 6 March 2015

The chapel on the tor

Video 2 of Torbay Council's renovation of Chapel Woods and the 13th century Chapel project. Other videos at
An example of the many brilliant topographical views made conveniently accessible by UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) technology: Barrie James's movie commissioned by Torbay Council of the progress of woodland management work at the hitherto-obscured site of the 13th century St Michael's Chapel, at the summit of a crag of limestone above Torre Station, Torbay.

Over the previous century, the site at Chapel Woods has become heavily overgrown with non-native holm oaks at the expense of native broadleaf woodland. Since January, Torbay Council has been renovating the site to open up the views and favour native species.  See Work continues to reveal historic secret chapel at heart of Torquay (Torquay Herald Express, February 22, 2015). You can explore the location with the National Library of Scotland Side by Side Viewer .

Judging by comments are various websites, reaction to the work seems ambivalent. Some at least preferred the site overgrown, as a local secret. But on balance, I think the clearance is a positive move; the crag-top location is one of many picturesque scenes, in Devon and elsewhere, that have become choked with woodland over the past century or so (such as the spectacular Valley of the Rocks at Watcombe).

Beyond a reasonable assumption that it once belonged to the nearby Torre Abbey, the Chapel's origin and purpose is a genuine enigma, and little more is known about it than when this 19th century guidebook description was written:
This [road] we follow to the right, passing on the left hand Pilmuir, the residence of Lord Sinclair, and emerging at length on the Newton Road, dose by the Terminus of the South Devon Railway. A few yards further on, and on the opposite side of the road, we find a footpath leading into the wood, and winding up the side of a steep hill, the summit of which is formed by a huge crag of limestone rock, crowned by a building named St. Michael's Chapel. This is a very simple structure, consisting of a single room. It is 29 1/2 feet long, by 14 feet 3 inches in breadth, and faces east and west. It stands within a few feel from the perpendicular precipice at the western end. It is built of solid masonry, with an arched roof constructed of horizontal slabs. On the west side there are two small windows, and in the cell of the lowest are the remains of a perpendicular and two horizontal irons. There is a large window on the east side, and some vestiges of a porch on the south. No traces of a floor have ever been discovered. There are four arches in the building, of different forms, — an elliptical, a segmental, an obtuse gothic, and an equilateral gothic. The cross at the eastern end was erected by the Marchioness of Bute, a few years since.

Of its origin and nature we know simply nothing Some have imagined that it was a chapel dedicated to St. Michael, and connected with Tor Abbey. Others conceived it to have been a votive building raised by some who had escaped from shipwreck. It has been thought to be a place for repentance, "where pilgrims were wont to repair, and by an expiatory penance atone for a life of pleasure." And again it has been supposed that it was an abode destined for the punishment of offenders, with no reference to devotional purposes. But the whole is pure conjecture, and must ever remain such, for neither the building itself, nor any ancient records throw one ray of light upon the subject. One thing however is certain, that it commands a splendid view, one that will more than repay the labour of climbing for it.
- The handbook for Torquay and its neighbourhood, with the natural history of the district (1854, Internet Archive handbookfortorq00unkngoog).
The chapel and its surroundings form the setting for The Shipwrecked Mariner, A Legend of St. Michael's Chapel, one of the three stories in Legends of Torquay, &c, (Torquay: RT Wreford, Braddons Row, London: Whittaker & Co,, Ave Maria Lane, 1850). Despite the introduction claiming "to collect some of the scattered traditions ... garnishing with a few additional touches the romantic pictures", these legends have the smell of being 100% invented. The book is from the same stable as the similarly fictitious 1848 Legends of Devon (see Parsons unknown).

 - Ray (edited version of Devon History Society post).

No comments:

Post a Comment