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The Little Church on the Tor

Updated: Feb 13

Forever Onward, Battling The Beast of Dartmoor book cover

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.

The History & Folklore of Brentor Church

“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

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, gouging on rich Dartmoor venison whilst the poor locals starved.

Robert's church has been called the smallest in England. It's certainly the highest. To reach it, the faithful 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.

Local tradition claims a wealthy merchant was travelling across the English Channel when his vessel was caught in a storm. As 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 his life by calming the seas, the merchant would build a church on the very first piece of land seen once the storm abated. Sailing into Plymouth Sound shortly after, he spied Brentor's austere finger of stone above the fog-drenched shoreline.

It's a nice 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, near the foot of the tor itself. Old Dewer hating this idea, 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 to attempt each Sunday morning, especially if the locals had spent time at The Stag's Head Inn the night before!

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

This pattern of behaviour was repeated a number of times before the good folk of Brentor realised there was little 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 such a faithful, God-fearing breed they didn't let a little thing like the steep climb to the top prevent them from attending weekly worship.

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