Reviving St. Anne’s Chapel: Pictures and Words

In America, we have the Main Street. In Britain, they have the High Street. In Barnstaple, perhaps the most interesting thing about their High Street is not the blending national retail shops with the fiercely local storefronts that are a staple of this British farming and market town.

I am not even surprised seeing surfers dressed in shorts in the middle of December walking comfortbly down the High Street on a Saturday afternoon. It’s not even the fact they have a River Island now that sets them apart.

But, what I have found to be the most interesting part of the town’s economical center is that at nearly every corner, there are signposts pointing visitors and locals alike in various directions towards various historical buildings and markers. All hidden behind this traditional avenue of British capitalism, the town’s true history lies waiting to be discovered. And as I have followed those signposts over the last few weeks, I found myself seemingly taken back in time again and again — to the England that I dreamed of a boy drawing pictures of St. George and the dragons he slew.

The first time I walked through the gates just off the street near the The Co-Operative supermarket, I immediately felt the history of the town thrust upon me. With its greyish-green cobblestone pathways, to mirror the greyish-green stone walls and greyish-green stone churches, the history of this town is felt all around you. Local historians agree that the site most likely housed a Saxon church when the town developed around the business spurred by the river trade. The site of the Barnstaple Parish church, Paiges and Alice Horwood almshouses, the area is welcome sight to anyone seeking a bit of the town’s history.

Also tucked into this ancient churchyard is St. Anne’s Chapel. Just today, amidst some rare December breaks of sunshine, workers installed scaffolding around and atop the chapel, to have been built in the 14th century although exact records are not available.

Once also used as the town’s elementary school, the chapel is being repaired and restored and thanks to recent cash awards from Britain’s Heritage Lottery Fund and the local Devon County Council, the Barnstaple Town Council announced recently. The renovations will include new restrooms, electrical systems, lighting, furniture, sound and heating systems.

Despite the work going on around it, the gravestones that once filled the yard are still all around the chapel. The markers have been placed in memorial against the walls of the building. According to local historians, the burial ground has not been used since the early 1800s.

Finally — and especially for my friends in St. Louis — the mixture of Norman and French imagery in this English courtyard brings the history of this island together for me. At the entrance to the chapel grounds, a massive iron gate donned with the military symbols of the time stands guard.

Shopping Trip that Turned to Ruins

While shopping in Exeter, I found myself distracted by some red brick ruins. Like a cat with a piece of string, each I time I see something “old,” I feel compelled to explore. I have seen Roman ruins in Winchester (was just a few old stones but the placard said it was the remainder of a Roman wall.) We have looked through cemeteries throughout North Devon hoping to see cool stuff too.

Growing up in Guilford, Connecticut, my hometown boasted the oldest, continually lived in residence in the country – meaning a house still standing in its original form but not yet turned into a museum. That house was built in 1641. The oldest building in town was in fact a museum, built two years earlier in 1639. I was always quite impressed by that.

The St. Catherine’s Chapel and Almshouse was built in 1457. Not “super-old” but beat my record of old by 182 years. Its oldness jumps out at you. It was my first true trip to Exeter, one of the older cities in England dating back to an Iron Age settlement around 200 bc. It was conquered and used as a military base by the Romans. Its proximity to the water and the River Exe that flows northwest into Devon made it a prime trading center.

Near the center of all activity in the city is the Exeter Cathedral finished in 1180

(I didn’t go into the cathedral the day we were there so it doesn’t count in the “old game.” There appeared to be a lot of renovation going on around it. Plus I was intent on finding a greyish, tweed blazer. Apparently I am too tall to fit into Exeter’s clothes-stocking norms.)

Anyway… sorry for the editorial comment. Back to the history.

The chapel and almshouse stands oddly between an upper-crusty toiletries shop called Molton Brown and a restaurant called The Milk Maid. As we were walking among the shops near and around theExeter High StreetI was immediately drawn in by the deep red color of the stone. There are really only the walls to four rooms remaining of what was the chapel and the rooming house for 13 “homeless” men that were looked after by the church.

The site was now a museum of sorts with two very distinct features: clear windows encapsulating the items found during the excavation of the site after a period of bombing during World War II. In additional to pottery and metal fragments, the designers of the exhibit included a Coke can to preserve the littering that took place at the site. The other interesting historical markers at the site are engraved stones. On the stones are written phrases taken from the original financial registers of the almshouse.