During last month’s two-day conference on the Past in its Place at Buckfast Abbey, Devon there was scheduled an excursion on foot up the steep slopes of the nearby hill to the south of the modern abbey to visit the beautiful churchyard and ruined church of Holy Trinity, Buckfastleigh.
Prominently situated overlooking the valley below, recent excavations have demonstrated the existence of the foundations of a late Anglo-Saxon church associated with multiple generations of burials contained in wooden coffins with iron nails, and charcoal scattered in at least one of the graves investigated. Together the evidence serves to indicate high-status late Anglo-Saxon mortuary practices. In turn, this is commensurate with Holy Trinity marking the original site of the monastery known to have been in existence by AD 1018 and prior to its translation to the valley floor in the 12th century.
This was an apposite location for our Past in its Place conference, not only because of the church’s long history as a time-mark in the landscape, but also because this church and churchyard are wrapped in folklore as described here.
Stories focus in particular on the penthouse building on the north side of the church, containing the tomb of seventeenth-century squire, Richard Cabell. Viewed by peering through iron bars and weighed down by a large white slab, this is a distinctive dimension to the churchyard.
Richard Cabell is recalled as an immoral person who murdered his wife (despite the fact she may have actually outlived him 14 years, but there’s no smoke without fire as they say). On the night of his burial, a pack of phantom hounds bayed at his tomb and have done so since on the anniversary of his death or some such nonsense.
The building and slab are interpreted as strategies by villagers to put his soul to sleep but even then a red glow can be seen emitting through the iron bars. If you were ever inclined, running around the tomb seven times and sticking your hand through the iron bars will result in the squire or the Devil himself biting your fingers. A system of caves, including one with a demonic-looking combined stalagtite/stalagmite, add to the otherwordliness of the environs. Of greatest literally interest is the suggestion that the story, known to Conan Doyle, was the principal inspiration for The Hound of the Baskervilles.
The church’s isolated hill-top spot has historically made it a target for body-snatching, vandalism and arson as well as meteorological mishaps. Arsonists set fire to the church in 1849, it was hit by a lightning strike in 1884 and then if that wasn’t bad luck enough it was hit by German bombs during the Second World War. Arson had a last and devastating affect on the church again in 1992, destroying all but the church tower and blowing apart the Norman font. Blamed by some on Satanists who worshipped at Cabell’s tomb, it must be kept in mind, as we have discussed elsewhere for Hawarden church, Flintshire, churches can frequently fall victim to fires, whether deliberate or accidental, and in many circumstances other than supernatural instigation and devil worship. Still, Buckfastleigh church has had a particular run of bad luck and unsavoury attention.
What strikes me is the materiality of the folklore; a persistent theme. It is the grandiose position and size of the tomb and its building and the very weight of the slab bearing down upon it, that together provoke the demonic associations. Ambivalence to the isolated location, separated from the dwellings of the living, may have fostered this narrative.
I couldn’t help but wonder about the aerial and fiery dimensions of the site and its folklore too. Such a prominent tower and hill-top location prompts real aerial attacks from lightning and the weather more generally.
Incidentally, I can now add to the folklore: a good archaeological friend of mine who was on the dig says that he found a petrol cap…. was this related to the 1992 fire? Or was it the demonic petrol cap of a 17th-century hell-hound?
In any case, the shell of the church has become a memorial to its own illicit destruction by forces unknown; whether they were really the result of those who believed in devil worship or not. There is indeed a plaque inside the structure memorialising the criminal act. The additional plaque is merely a warning sign against litigation due to the perils of a roofless structure, but given the supernatural dimensions of the locale’s folklore, it might read as a more ominous warning:
YOU ARE WELCOME
IN THE CHURCH.
BUT AT YOUR OWN
Finally, there are many dimensions to Buckfastleigh church that are simply worthy of attention for anyone: a war memorial and many distinctive gravestones, most from the 19th and 20th centuries as one might expect. Still, there is one particularly odd example of a 19th-century church monument close to Cabell’s much-feared mausoleum. Given the folklore surrounding weighty stone monuments, I presume there must be some story about this most bizarre feat of mortlockery and skeuomorphism. I would like to hear more about comparable monuments from elsewhere please!
After our visit, we returned to the conference for more papers on memory in the landscape, inspired and invigorated by this most eerie and stimulating of places. Abandoned churches with still-active churchyards have a distinctive atmosphere wherever they are found. Still, the recent and devastating impact of arson on this location makes this a particularly sad and bereft place of worship.