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The Little Church On The Tor

One of the chapters of Forever Onward, Battling The Beast of Dartmoor has the title The Little Church On The Tor. It refers to a real place, the church of St Michael de Rupe, which perches atop the granite cone of Brentor. This unique house of worship plays a key role in my gothic chiller.

Forever Onward, Battling The Beast of Dartmoor book cover

Brent Tarr is a church on a very High hill; I believe nearest heaven of any church in England. The people are very rude and brutish”. - Dr James Younge, Devon diarist, circa 1680

The history of Brentor Church

First, the parts that might actually be true.

St Michael de Rupe was founded in 1130 by local landowner Robert Giffard. The Giffards originated in Normandy and brothers Walter, Osborne and Berenger travelled to England in 1066 with William the Conqueror. Their surname (pronounced JIFF-ARD) meant 'chubby cheeks' in Norman French. No doubt Robert lived up to this as he gouged on rich Dartmoor venison whilst the poor locals starved.

Each year, several thousand people visit what is undoubtedly one of the moor's most popular landmarks. Although the building's foundations are 12th century, the majority of the fabric they see dates from the 13th and 14th centuries, when it was enlarged.

Robert's church has been called the smallest in England. It is certainly the highest. To get there, the congregation must climb the steep rise of Brentor, 1,100 feet above sea level. But why does it stand in such a dramatic spot, high upon the tor's rocky promontory? This is where folklore, myth, and magic come in.

The Folklore of Brentor Church

Local tradition claims a wealthy merchant was travelling across the English Channel when his vessel was caught in a storm. The ship tossed and turned upon tumultuous waves, the merchant got down on his knees and prayed to God for help.

A plea was made, a bargain struck. If the heavenly father spared the merchant's life by calming the seas, he would build a church on the very first piece of land seen once the storm abated. Sailing into Plymouth Sound shortly after, Brentor's austere finger of stone was spied high above a fog-drenched shoreline.

It's a neat tale and there could be some truth in it. Robert Giffard may well have been a merchant whilst Brentor, standing proudly higher than her surrounding countryside, can indeed be seen from Plymouth Sound.

However, Dartmoor wouldn't be Dartmoor if there wasn't a more sinister alternative to this wholesome tale. One that involves the devil!

The men and women of Brentor were not always as rude and brutish as Dr Younge claimed and they chose to build a church on the edge of their village, which lies near the foot of the tor itself. Old Dewer hated this idea so, on the night their work was completed, he spirited the building to the top of the tor. He thought it would be too difficult a walk for them each Sunday morning, to climb there to pray.

On the following day, the villagers awoke to find their new church where Old Dewer had left it. Annoying as this strange state of affairs was, they weren't put off and immediately set about dismantling it stone by stone, and rebuilding it back near their village. But once they were safely tucked up in bed, Old Dewer returned and pulled the same trick as the previous night.

The good folk of Brentor realised there was no point trying to rebuild their church where they wanted it. Old Dewer would only come back and place it back on top of the tor. Resigned to their fate, they left it where it was (and indeed still is). And being a faithful God-fearing breed, they didn't let a little thing like the steep climb to the top prevent their weekly worship.

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