Chapel Hill is a woodland with a sheer gorge and an old, disused chapel, St Michael’s Chapel. The chapel is a small aisle less chapel, spectacularly sited above the sheer side of Chapel Hill. The doorway is on the south side. The chapel is a Grade II Listed Building. The woodland is popular with dog walkers.
St Michael’s chapel is a disused Anglican chapel probably from 13th or 14th century. The chapel is made from local grey limestone rubble with some red sandstone dressings and a stone slate roof. The chapel’s exterior is very plain. It is a medieval chapel about which little is recorded. A suggested date is tentative. It has an unusual roof construction for the region.
The monument is scheduled, however, under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 as amended as it appears to the Secretary of State to be of national importance.
St Michael’s Chapel survives exceptionally well as a standing building with much of its medieval fabric intact. The setting of the chapel on a high rocky promontory at some distance from human habitation in medieval times, suggest that it may have been a special foundation. Its unhewn and uneven floor may be considered to be evidence for the chapel having been sited where a religious vision was reported, resulting in the sanctity of the bare rock being respected.
St Michael’s Chapel is in an extremely unusual setting for such a building and it will contain archaeological and architectural evidence relating to the period in which it was constructed and will be informative about religious beliefs in the medieval period.
The floor of the chapel, which is bare rock, shows considerable signs of wear close to the entrance indicating many years of use and suggesting the rock had never been sealed by an artificial floor covering. Internal features include traces of original wall plaster, a niche in the south wall which may have been a piscine.
The chapel may have been belonged to the Premonstratensian house of Torre Abbey which was founded in 1196 and lies about 1.5 km to the south although direct supporting evidence for its connection with Torre Abbey only exists for the post-medieval period.
The site is shown as St Marie’s Chapel on the 16th century map of Devon produced by John Speed and an earlier dedication of the chapel to St Mary survives in 17th century records, suggesting that the dedication to St Michael is of more recent origin. In a deed of 1238 is a reference to a hill called la Windiete. One suggestion is that Roger de Cockington built and dedicated the chapel to his wife Maria.
Another possibility is that, while the chapel may have been originally known as St Marie’s, it was built on an older place of pre-Christian significance. It was common to build churches on former pagan sites and the Archangel Michael was the field commander of the Army of God in the Books of Daniel, Judge and Revelation. St Michael led God’s armies against Satan’s forces during his uprising, and so, it’s been suggested, that Torre’s early Christians acquired the site for their new religion. It was named to establish a victory over evil, with the chapel – whatever its true name – coming later.
A cross was installed on the roof by order of the Marchioness of Bute early in the 19th century but this is no longer there.
It was said that a light was hung there as a signal to those at sea. Supporting the idea that it was some early form of lighthouse is that the hill was once tree-less and visible from the Bay. The Revered John Swete on his historic tour in 1783 drew the chapel as being on a barren hillside. On the other hand, Chapel Hill is a long way inland, and the cliffs at Rock Walk may have made a more visible position for sailors.
The chapel was certainly significant for seafarers. A guidebook of 1793 reports that, “The Tor Chapel, perched on the summit of the ridge of rocks, once an appendage of the abbey before us and as it has not been desecrated it is sometimes visited by Roman Catholic crews of the ships lying in the bay.”