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ST PETROX photo © Nick Shepherd T

he church of St Petrox perches above the mouth of the river like a guardian but its exposed position has presented it with problems and challenges. First recorded in 1192 in deeds relating to Little Dartmouth, St Petrox is referred to as the ‘Monastery of St Peter’. There is little recorded history of the church around this time – and there is little more information on what the ‘monastery’ was. Historian Percy Russell – one of the first to pull together a history of Dartmouth - suggests that the monastery was perhaps started by the man whose name now graces the church: St Petrox. St Petroc was an interesting saint

– a Welsh aristocrat who gave up worldly things and travelled to Ireland to study in piety.

Later he ministered around

Cornwall - where legend has him converting the rather evil Cornish King Constantine to the faith. He was based in Bodmin for a while before heading to the continent, where he is supposed to have met the Pope, travelled to India and beyond and had many fantastical adventures before his death. His bones were held at Bodmin - and venerated. Then some other monks from Renne

- who St Petroc had also spent some time with during his travels in Europe – contrived to put together a daring raid to steal the bones and take them back to Brittany. This seems an incredibly strange thing for pious monks to do but if you abide to the adage “follow the money” you won’t go far wrong. Shrines to Saints were big business in the eleventh and twelfth centuries as indeed they still are. Kingswear’s early development was driven partly

by the tide of worshippers who came over from the continent to visit the tomb of St Thomas at Canterbury. Many landed at the town and had to pay to stay there before heading off to the South East of England. Piety was probably the main reason for the robbery but there’s a fair chance money was too. The monks at Bodmin appealed to the King, Henry II and he instructed the hardy Rolland of Dinan to bring them home. This they did in 1177 to much applause and celebration. The relics were paraded before the King at Winchester before being taken back to Bodmin. This rip-roaring tale of treachery and derring-do has led the eminent historian Percy Russell to surmise that perhaps the relics were landed in Dartmouth and from this date a small cell of monks lived on the site of the modern day church to mark this auspicious event. There’s a good chance the monks maintained a navigation light at the mouth of the river too – and perhaps this allowed them to earn a little money at the same time. The site began to be known as “St

Petroc’s” or “St Petrox”. But this didn’t stop it seemingly being abandoned occasionally in the next two centuries. Thereafter, for the next few hundred years the church was maintained – despite its exposed position. The residents of South Town and Bayard’s Cove were likely to have been among the wealthiest residents of Dartmouth and it is possible they were proud to have such a ‘special’ church in their part of town. It was used to store provisions during the town’s occupation by Royalists in the Civil War and it clearly was an integral part of the town’s community. But bad winters and a lack of a route to the castle and church in winter resulted, in 1831, with the consecration of St Barnabas – a “Chapel of Ease” or somewhere to

worship when you can’t worship in your normal place.

Without a bridge over Warfleet Creek it became just a lot easier to use St Barnabas during winter and to use it in the summer meant lots of maintenance. So St Petrox fell out of use. It’s restoration only a few years later didn’t stop the winter storms and it still remained a rather unattractive place to worship at times. The church then received an unexpected boost thanks to a remarkable man who made Dartmouth his home 30 years later. George Parker Bidder achieved fame as a child thanks to his ability to perform difficult mathematical problems in his head at speed, despite being illiterate. Sent to school by a kind benefactor he became a civil engineer and partner to the even more remarkable Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Bidder bought the house on ‘Paradise Point’ overlooking Warfleet in the early 1860s and soon became involved in the local community - and he helped with the project to build a better route out to St Petrox and the rest of the castle estate. This was completed in 1864 and along with the construction of the new road up from Lower Street and the widening of South Town it meant that getting to and from St Petrox was no longer as difficult. The church became more popular to use as time went on – so much so that St Barbabas closed in the 1970s – the vicar at the time commenting that there were just ‘too many’ churches in the town. St Petrox represents something for the people of Dartmouth: it stands alongside the castle, steadfast against the weather, a place of sanctity and worship, of calm and contemplation resolute and strong defying the years and continuing to be a vital part of the town’s spiritual life.•


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