Last Updated on November 21, 2018 by Sophie Nadeau
Perched atop the impressive Brent Tor is the small Church of St. Michael de Rupe. It’s perhaps the most distinctive landmark on Dartmoor and as Pevsner wrote in 1952 is “an exciting sight for miles around”.
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About Brent Tor
Brentor is highly unusual in that it’s made up of basaltic fragments (or clasts), unlike other Dartmoor Tors which are predominantly granite. Around 350 million years ago, when the area was covered by a large shallow sea, Brent Tor was part of a talus slope that formed at the base of a submarine volcano.
Today, it’s found a little over five miles north of Tavistock on the westernmost edge of Dartmoor National Park and at 1083ft (330m) above sea level, it towers over the surrounding farmland. In good weather, you can see for miles in every direction. However, beware of the unpredictable Dartmoor weather; if the rain and mist descend you won’t see beyond your nose.
Is it BRENTOR or BRENT TOR?
There still seems to be some confusion even nowadays as to how the name should be written. In fact, many books and websites use one or other of the spellings and others use a mix and match! However, according to the booklet, ‘The Church of St Michael, Brentor’ by Charles K Burton and Gerald L Matthews (1955);
“By the 15th century the spelling settled to Brentor as it is today, although the Ecclesiastical authorities from the 18th century have called the parish Brent Tor; and so the civil and ecclesiastical names for the parish are at a variance.”
So, it seems that the spelling changed as to whether it was written from a secular or religious source. However, on many websites and in books today the spelling Brentor is used for the parish and village and Brent Tor for the hill itself.
HISTORY OF BRENTOR: Iron Age Earthworks at Brentor
For at least the last couple of thousand years, there has been some form of man-made construction on or around Brentor. There are the remains of what are thought to be late Iron Age earthworks that were never completed, and which surprisingly, are found close to the base of the hill. This is in marked contrast to other hill forts in the South West, and indeed anywhere, that are constructed at the summits for obvious defensive reasons.
The Church of St. Michael de Rupe, Brentor
The earliest record of the church is from the mid-12th century and it was probably built by Robert Giffard, Lord of the Manor of Lamerton (just a few miles from Brentor) and gifted to the monks at Tavistock. Tristram Risdon (c1580-1640) wrote about the church at the beginning of the 17th century and noted that:
“…(it is situated) full bleak and weather-beaten, all alone, as it were forsaken, whose churchyard doth hardly afford depth of earth to bury the dead: yet doubtless, they rest as secure as in sumptuous St. Peter’s, until the day of dawn”.
At this point, it must be mentioned that some of the graves have indeed been cut out of the rock itself. The graveyard is not in use nowadays due to the lack of depth of soil for modern-day burial requirements.
Legend of Brentor Church
Clinging precariously close to a precipice and built in the distant past it’s perhaps not surprising that St. Michael de Rupe is steeped in folklore. One such tale tells of a merchant at sea during a great storm praying to his patron St. Michael, and promising to build a church on the first land he spotted if he survived.
Brentor can be seen from Plymouth Sound so is there perhaps a grain of truth to this story?! Could the ‘merchant’ in question have been, in fact, Robert Giffard?
It does appear that the Tor had long been used as a beacon and that this continued after the church was constructed. In the book ‘Forest of Dartmoor’ (1848) Samuel Rowe writes:
”…the edifice probably perpetuated and emphasised the purpose to which the hill, ‘a famous seamark’, had been devoted – One of a line of Dartmoor beacons, from a remote time”.
Brentor Church Today
Standing at just thirty-seven feet long and fourteen feet six inches wide, with seating for about forty, St. Michael de Rupe is the fourth smallest complete parish church in England. It had in fact fallen into disrepair over the centuries and was heavily restored by the 9th Duke of Bedford from 1889-1890. During these renovations, forty skeletons were discovered under the church floor.
Services are held at St. Michael’s Church every Sunday at 6.00pm from Easter to September. It’s also used for weddings, and what a venue, but pity the poor bride and the rest of the congregation that have to walk up the slope if the weather’s inclement.
Brentor Church and the 1983 TV series Jamaica Inn
The miniseries Jamaica Inn based on the book by Daphne du Maurier had a well-known cast including Jane Seymour, Patrick McGoohan and Trevor Eve. The church was used in a scene between Mary Yellan and the vicar Francis Davey.
There’s a car park and toilet facilities just below Brentor. It’s quite a steep climb over uneven ground to reach the church and sensible footwear is well advised. Entry is free.
Places to visit nearby
Tavistock – An ancient stannary and market town just five miles away. Filled with antique shops, pubs, and cafés, it’s the perfect place to spend an afternoon.
Lydford Gorge – is the deepest river gorge in the South West and is now maintained by the National Trust. Free to visit for members, this location makes for a lovely walk.
Lydford Castle – A Norman earthwork castle and a 13th Century tower built as a prison. An English Heritage property with free entry. There is a car park nearby and a small adjacent church is home to some beautiful stone and wooden carvings.