The Church of St. Peter the Poor Fisherman, Revelstoke, stands on the edge of the cliff overlooking Stoke Bay about 1.5 miles from Noss Mayo - "it nestled by the seashore right down on the rocks, grey and covered with ivy, and surrounded by quaint tombstones that seemed to have been scattered haphazard in the thick grass and the nettles" to quote Maurice Baring, the writer. Something of a mystery surrounds this little church built perhaps as Chaucer wrote his "Canterbury Tales": why would a chapel have been built in such an isolated situation? There are several popular theories - that there was once a settlement on the cliff which disappeared when the cliff eroded; that Revelstoke fulfilled the same function as St. Werburgh's Church at nearby Wembury, namely as a defensive stockade to protect the coast from attacks by Danes during the 9th Century. The name Revelstoke is thought to be derived from the Middle English 'reafful' (disturbance) and 'stock' (stockade) which would bear out this last theory. However, the name could equally well mean simply a cattle farm belonging to the Revel family, the word 'stoc' having meant cattle/dairy farm. The Revels were a rich and important family, lords of the manor of Revelstoke and, in the reign of Richard I, Richard Revel was Sherriff of Devon.
Although there is a widely held belief that the church is of Saxon origin, historian W.G.Hoskins describes St. Peter's as an early 14th Century church with south aisle and porch added in the 15th Century. The first written evidence of the existence does not appear until 1225 when it is mentioned in a charter.
In the 15th Century, the people of Revelstoke petitioned Bishop Edmund Lacy (Bishop of Exeter 1420 - 1455) for permission to have a burial ground attached to the chapel of St Peter. Until this time, the dead had had to be taken inland to Yealmpton. In their petition, the parishioners argued that 'from time immemorial' they had enjoyed and received all sacramentals except for the burial of the dead at the Chapel of St. Peter. The three mile journey to Yealmpton was often treacherous and "the whole parish of the aforesaid chapel (St. Peter's, Revelstoke) extends for a great distance along the shore of the sea, and while the dwellers and inhabitants of the Parish happen to be engaged in different reliefs of thus burying their dead at the said Parochial Church of Yealmpton, the enemies of the King and realm would be able to row or sail in, and so, in the meanwhile, burn and spoil the whole district (which God forbid!)." They also made the point that they relied on "the skill and toil of their hands" and could not afford the time away from their work necessitated by the burial of their dead in Yealmpton. This petition was granted.
Four centuries passed, Kings and Church lost power and the Industrial Revolution boomed but little is known of St Peter's during this time until in 1840 the church was badly damaged in a storm. The parishioners then began to use the Chapel of Ease at Noss Mayo (subsequently the village school and now the village hall) for their services.
As travel to the mother church at Yealmpton was difficult and as marriage services could no longer be held at St Peter's due to the poor condition of the building, a licence was granted in 1862 to enable marriages to take place in the Chapel of Ease. However, despite the bad condition of St. Peter's occasional services were still held there until 1869 when the building was deemed to be unsafe for use.
As this left the parish with no real Parish Church, Edward Charles Baring, Lord Revelstoke, who as Lord of the Manor in the late 19th Century, had been responsible for a great deal of building in the village of Noss Mayo, undertook to build a new Parish Church also to be called St. Peter's Revelstoke, on a site facing across the river towards Holy Cross Church, Newton Ferrers. This was built in 1882. It is not known when the Chapel at Stoke became known as St. Peter "the Poor Fisherman" rather than just St. Peter's but perhaps it is reasonable to assume that it was so named at the time of the building of the new church so as to distinguish between the two.
One of Lord Revelstoke's sons was Maurice Baring, a popular novelist in the twenties and thirties, now sadly unread. In his autobiography "Puppet Show of Memory", he describes St. Peter's at Stoke:- "in 1878 when I was four years old, another brother was born, Rupert, in August, but he died in October of the same year. He was buried in Revelstoke Church, a church not used any more, and then in ruins except for one aisle, which was roofed in, and provided with pews. It nestled by the seashore, right down on the rocks, grey and covered with ivy, and surrounded with quaint tombstones that seemed to have been scattered haphazard in the tick grass and the nettles". (Rupert's grave is situated on the East side of the church).
It will be seen from the dates on the headstones that there seemed to be many more deaths than usual around the 1840's. This was due to an epidemic of Cholera at that time which decimated the population of Noss Mayo.
With the provision of the new church in Noss, the little chapel at Stoke gradually fell into ruin, surrounded by brambles and nettles, until the late 1960's when a group of local people decided to attempt to save what was left of the church. An appeal was launched and emergency repairs carried out during 1971. In 1972 the church was vested in the Redundant Churches Fund (now The Churches Conservation Trust) which is responsible for its preservation and repair. During 1973 the Trust undertook a programme of major repairs which included the repointing of the walls and the reslating of the roofs. The local care of the church is undertaken by a small committee. Open air services are held twice a year during the summer months.
The above is a transcription of an undated notice displayed at the church, slightly updated after discussion with The Churches Conservation Trust. The original is accompanied by four sketches of the church and its features. It has been copied by Dr Chris Burgoyne, and is placed on the GENUKI site with permission of the Churches Conservation Trust. Transcription made 5th October 1998.
Enquiries about the Church should be addressed, in the first instance, to The Churches Conservation Trust, 89 Fleet St, London EC4Y 1DH.
A photograph showing the location of the church (almost hidden by trees), showing its remote location, is available.
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