Brent Tor is so special that I don’t even know where to begin. I first came across it when I read an old Victorian book of scary stories, and I thought Brent Tor was part of the fiction. Imagine my excitement when I realised that the amazing, dramatic setting is a real place!
If you’re looking for a super special and somewhat spooky place to explore, read on!
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Ok, so first of all, Brent Tor is one of very few tors on Dartmoor that isn’t made of granite.
What it’s made of?
Brent Tor is not a tor
That’s right. Brent Tor isn’t technically a tor at all, but an extinct volcano. The lava, which erupted roughly 350 million years ago, flowed into a shallow sea. There, some of it disintegrated and some of it solidified into what is known as pillow lava. The rapid cooling turned the lava into basalt. In other words, Brent Tor is similar to the sea stacks at Ladram Bay. It is just 100 million years older and made of lava, not red sandstone. And Carboniferous, not Triassic. I know. The mind boggles.
This truly is an ancient landscape.
Anyway, you’d think being an extinct volcano would be special enough for one place, but oh no.
There is more to explore on Brent Tor (ooh, that rhymed).
Brent Tor is crowned by a small church called Brentor Church. The first church on Brentor was a chapel built circa 1130. The current church is a refurbishment and extension of that chapel. It is usually dated to the 13th century, though some sections are older and some are newer.
Brentor Church is built with volcanic stone from Brent Tor. The church is much smaller than it looks in pictures, though. It is actually England’s fourth smallest parish church. The measurements are roughly 11 x 4,5 metres (or 37 x 15 feet), and the tower is 12,2 metres (40 feet) high.
Brentor Church is probably also the highest church in England, as Brent Tor is roughly 1100 feet or 330 metres high. (The exact numbers vary; in any case, it is high.)
I met a lovely lady on Dartmoor who had attended a wedding in this beautiful, minuscule church. As the pews can only seat about 40 people, there were several guests standing throughout the ceremony by the archway and in the bell tower. Still, can you imagine a better location for a wedding? What a memorable day that would be! Except, of course, that there are plenty of stories of brides climbing Brent Tor in their wedding dresses and slipping and falling in the mud! Changing in the vestry is not an option – there isn’t one. And there is no organ to play the bridal march. That’s how tiny Brentor Church is. (There are no ‘facilities’ here either, but there are in the car park.)
Anyway, the Brentor Village website points out that “There is a magnificent view from the churchyard in clear weather, with bleak Dartmoor to the east, Plymouth Sound and Whitsand Bay to the south, the Tamar Valley and Bodmin Moor to the west, and the heights of Exmoor just visible in clear weather to the north”. An ok backdrop for wedding photos, eh?
PS: You can totally get married here if you or your partner have a qualifying connection to the parish. You can read all about it here.
So Brent Tor is really rather special already. But it gets ‘specialer’.
Two intersecting ley lines
Brentor Church’s proper name is St. Michael de Rupe. It is also known as St. Michael on the Rock or just St. Michael’s church. And it just so happens to lie right on the St. Michael alignment, or St. Michael’s ley line, in the UK. The alignment starts at St. Michael’s Mount in Cornwall and ends just south of Great Yarmouth. It follows the sun’s path on the 8th of May, the Feast of the Apparition of St. Michael the Archangel. (This is not to be confused with St. Michael’s Feast Day, better known as Michaelmas, which is on the 29th of September.) A number of ancient monuments and churches dedicated to St. Michael can be found on the alignment, including the iconic St. Michael’s Tower on Glastonbury Tor.
In 1987, Hamish Miller and Paul Broadhurst decided to follow the St. Michael alignment while dowsing the currents in the earth, and they discovered that there are three lines. The St. Michael alignment, which is a straight line, is entwined by a male Michael line, or current, and a female Mary line. All three lines converge on this spot. No wonder Brentor Church is so popular with pilgrims.
If you are interested in dowsing or exploring ley lines, you can still find some used copies of Miller and Broadhurst’s book, The Sun and the Serpent, on Amazon.
A vampire story
But Brent Tor is even more special than that. It is also the setting for one of the earliest vampire stories in the English language! The story was written by Sabine Baring-Gould, an Anglican priest from Devon who authored well over 1200 publications. He is best known for writing the lyrics to the popular hymn Onward, Christian Soldiers. He also translated one of my favourite Christmas carols, the ethereally beautiful Gabriel’s Message, from Basque to English. (You know, the one choristers everywhere know best as “most highly flavoured gravy”.)
Incidentally, Sabine Baring-Gould was a pioneer in the field of scientific archaeological digs on Dartmoor. He was instrumental in arranging the first excavations at Grimspound, and established the Committee of the Devonshire Association for the Exploration of Dartmoor. Among his stupendously extensive oeuvre are some books about Dartmoor. They are not easy to get hold of, but there are a few copies of Dartmoor Idylls on Amazon. You can download A Book of Dartmoor from Project Gutenberg for free.
Margery of Quether and Dracula
Anyway, the vampire story – and the vampire in question – is called Margery of Quether. The book was published in 1891, 6 years before Bram Stoker’s Dracula. However, the story itself was actually first published in Cornhill Magazine in 1884, so Margery is actually 13 years older than Dracula. And we know for certain that Bram Stoker found inspiration among Baring-Gould’s work.
In an interview given to The British Weekly in June 1897, Bram Stoker said “I also learned something from Mr Baring-Gould’s Were-Wolves. Mr Gould has promised a book on vampires, but I do not know whether he has made any progress with it.” You can find the whole interview here.
And according to Andrew Struthers, author of Dracula Incarnate, “Stoker got virtually all of his information for Count Dracula’s features from a book on Lycanthropy: the study of Werewolves. The same man who wrote this book was also the author of a vampire story titled Margery of Quether, which was published within a few months of Stoker’s first notes on his novel Dracula.”
Brent Tor: A summary
So, to sum up: Brent Tor is a tor on Dartmoor that isn’t technically a tor, but an extinct volcano, with a tiny and very old church on top, built of 350 million year old basaltic lava, and that church is the highest and fourth smallest church in England, dedicated to St. Michael and located on the St. Michael Alignment and the intersection of the Michael and Mary lines that traverse Southern England, and it is also the setting for one of the earliest English vampire stories that probably helped inspire Dracula.
Now, that is special.
Oh yeah, and there are also remains of an Iron Age hill fort dating from 150BC – 50AD at the base of the tor. And did I mention that the church tower was once hit by lightning?
Anyway, this has been a not-so-brief introduction to the area. When it comes to describing it in more detail, I will not attempt to improve on the words written by squire, parson, lyricist, novelist, archaeologist and all-round renaissance man Sabine Baring-Gould.
Why I thought Brent Tor was fictional
This is how George Rosedhu, the protagonist in Margery of Quether, describes Brent Tor:
“At the very highest point of the moor an extinct volcano cone protrudes, and rises to the height of about twelve hundred feet. This is called Brentor, and it is crowned with a church, the very tiniest in the world I should suppose, but tiny as it is, it has chancel, nave, porch, and west tower like any Christian parish church. There is also a graveyard around the church. This occupies a little platform on the top of the mountain, and there is absolutely no room there for anything else. To the west, the rocks are quite precipitous, but the peak can be ascended from the east up a steep grass slope strewn with pumice.”
I mean, it doesn’t sound real, does it? It just sounds like someone has let their imagination run riot!
Brentor is a church of many legends
Sabine Baring-Gould – or rather the fictional Mr George Rosedhu, continues: “The church is dedicated to St. Michael, and the story goes that, whilst it was being built, every night the devil removed as many stones as had been set on the foundations during the day. But the archangel was too much for him. He waited behind Cox Tor, and one night threw a great rock across and hit the Evil One between the horns, and gave him such a head ache that he desisted from interference thenceforth. The rock is there, and the marks of the horns are distinctly traceable on it. […] It is said also that there is a depression caused by the thumb of St. Michael.”
There are more legends about how the church came to be built, and you can read them here.
Church paths are always lovers’ lanes
The description in the book goes on. “You must understand that there is no road, not even a path to the top; one scrambles up over the turf, in windy weather clinging to the heather bushes. It is a famous place for courting, that is why the lads and lasses are such church-going folk hereabout. The boys help the girls up, and after service hold their hands to help them down.”
“I always do say that parsons make a mistake when they build churches in the midst of the population. Dear, simple, conceited souls, do they really suppose that folks go to church to hear them preach? No such thing – that is the excuse; they go for a romp. Parsons should think of that, and make provision accordingly, and set the sacred edifice on the top of moor or down, or in shady corners where there are long lanes well wooded. Church paths are always lovers’ lanes.”
A witty Victorian
Don’t you just love that these words were written by an Anglican parson in Victorian times? Margery of Quether is a scary story, but it is also very funny. George Rosedhu thinks very highly of himself. “I know my own merits, and as for my faults, if I light on any at any time, I shall not scruple to publish them.” This is wit on par with Oscar Wilde!
Eventually, George realises that he does indeed have a flaw; “I am too prone to do kind acts. This is a fault. A man ought to consider himself. Charity begins at home.” Yup, I snorted out loud at that one.
Meeting Margery on Brent Tor
The story begins when Mr Rosedhu agrees to do a favour for the clerk and sexton at Brentor Church. He has to climb Brent Tor at night to ring the bells on Christmas Eve.
“I had undertaken to ring the bells at midnight in midwinter in the windiest, most elevated steeple in England.”
George Rosedhu manages to climb Brent Tor in the dark without incident, and starts to ring the bells at midnight. “I looked at the rope of the tenor bell, intending to pull that next. As I did so, I noticed something dark, like a ball of dirty cobwebs, hanging to the cord, rather high up.”
“Presently, I desisted from ringing altogether. I thought that the object was descending the rope slowly. I say I thought so, I did think so at first, but very soon I was certain of it.”
A denizen of another world
The faultless George Rosedhu is not easily scared, however. “I never have believed in the supernatural. I do not believe in it now. Ghosts, goblins, and pixies are the creations of fevered imaginations and illiterate ignorance. It puts me out of patience to hear people, who ought to know better, speak of such things. I did not for a moment, therefore, suppose that the object before me was a denizen of another world.”
The ball of dirty cobwebs turns out to be alive. “It was, as I said, of the size of a baby; but otherwise it was a grown woman very aged and withered. The face was not merely wizen, it was dried up to leather, quite tanned brown, the colour of oak beams; the hands and arms were shrivelled and like those of a bat. There was actually no flesh on them, they were simply dry, tanned skin about bone.”
Margery was raised in the reign of Good Queen Bess. She loved life and was scared of growing old. “The graves here be digged out of the living stone, and be full of water afore the coffins be splashed into them, and the corpses don’t moulder; they sop away and go off the bones just as if they were boiled to rags. That terrified me, so I always prayed for only one thing, that I might never die, and my prayer hev been heard and answered. I cannot die, but I can grow older and more decrepit and dried, for I never considered to pray that I might always bide young.”
Bat-like hands and claws
George Rosedhu, who, as we remember, considers his only fault to be that he is “too prone to do kind acts”, takes pity on the decrepit woman and decides to carry her home. “She laid hold of me tenaciously, as she had laid hold of the beam on which she had crouched for two centuries; she drove her single tooth through my coat and waistcoat, even cutting my skin, and her bat-like hands and claws clutched me, the nails going into me like knife-blades.”
“Old Margery stuck to me as tight as a tick on a dog.”
Just as a leech
But Margery is more than just a tiny, centuries-old woman. “I was conscious of a soothing sensation all the time Margery was fast. Besides, I knew by this time that when the little old woman had had enough she would drop off, just as a leech does when full. I would not have you suppose that Margery was sucking my blood. Nothing of the sort; that is, not grossly in the manner of a leech. But she really did, in some marvellous manner, to me quite inexplicable, extract life and health, the blood from my veins and the marrow from my bones, and assimilate them herself.”
The story is very subtle and the word ‘vampire’ is never used. Still, we are left in no doubt that Margery of Quether is a leech and a bloodsucker.
“I was breaking up of old age”
George Rosedhu continues to “nurse” Margery (bleurgh) and care for her at home. “I may say, approximately, that as Margery cut a tooth I lost one; also that, as her hair grew and darkened, mine came out or turned grey. Moreover, as her eye cleared, mine became dim, and as her spirits rose, mine became despondent. In this way, weeks, and even months passed.”
The locals begin to gossip about George Rosedhu. “Some said – and I soon found that was the prevailing opinion – that I was bewitched, and advised me strongly to consult the white witch either in Exeter or Plymouth. […] I wanted no doctors. I needed no white witch. I knew well enough what ailed me. […] I was breaking up of old age, and yet was no more than three and twenty. […] I would soon pass beyond the grave into the world of spirits.”
Margery seems to have cast a spell on George, and he becomes obsessed with her. He seems incapable of denying her anything.
“Just as a mother idolises her baby that draws all its life and growth from her, so it was with me. I begrudged her none of her youth and beauty; I took a sort of motherly pride in her growth and the development of her charms, and for precisely the same reasons – they were all drawn out of me.”
A vampire bride
“One day Margery announced that she intended to marry me, and told me I must be prepared to stir my old stumps and go to church with her. […] She objected to being again consigned to mummification in the tower of Brentor Church, and this was the simplest and most straightforward solution to her peculiar difficulties.”
George Rosedhu is now practically in his nineties, and wants to arrive at his wedding in comfort. “I made but one stipulation with respect to my wedding, that was, that I should be conveyed to the foot of Brentor in a spring-cart, laid on straw, and thence be conveyed up the hill to the altar by four strong men, in a litter, laid upon a feather-bed, and with hot bottles at my feet and sides. I was entirely incapable of walking. This was at the beginning of November. Consequently ten months had elapsed since that fatal Christmas Eve on which I had made the acquaintance of Margery of Quether.”
However, Margery of Quether’s proper name is Margaret Palmer, a name she shares with a great, great, great, great niece who also lives at Quether and has her sights on George Rosedhu – or rather on his farm. And young Margaret’s father, Mr Palmer, is not pleased when he hears his daughter’s name during the reading of the banns in Brentor Church. He learns the truth about Margery and decides to force George to marry Margaret instead. When George refuses, Mr Palmer reasons that Margery doesn’t legally exist as there are no records of her – the church records only go back to 1680. He claims that the only existing Margaret Palmer of Quether is his daughter.
Mr Palmer threatens George and Margery: “This be Fifth o’ November, and bonfire night. The lads will be all collecting faggots for a blaze on the moor. I’ll fetch ’em here, and they can have the pleasure o’ burning the old witch instead of a man o’ straw. […] Now you cannot be hung for killing a person of whose existence there is absolutely no legal evidence. The law won’t touch us if we do burn her.”
Mr Palmer brings a mob into George’s home. “Those horrible faces glowered at Margery with the savagery of dogs surrounding a hare they are about to tear to pieces. The fear of witchcraft blotted all human compassion out of their hearts.”
But Margery cannot be killed
“Save me! They cannot kill me, but they can fry and burn me! Then I shall live on – on – on, a scorched morsel, not like a human being. […] Oh, George, George!” she cried, “save me, and I will give you back some of your youth and strength again.”
George is so besotted, he would happily die for Margery – but now he has to do the opposite. “I submitted, because I saw that in this way only had I the means of rescuing her.”
He considers Margery returning some of his youth and strength as a great self-sacrifice on her part. “As she held my hands, I felt as if streams of vital force were flowing from her up my arms into my body.”
“I felt an inclination to draw Margery on to my knees and kiss her; but when I looked at her, the desire passed, she was waning as I waxed.”
“I defy all the witches that dance on Cox Tor”
When George has regained enough vitality, he chases the mob out of the house. Getting rid of Mr Palmer and young Margaret is less easy. Both George and Margery are now old and grey, but fairly agile.
Mr Palmer forces George to promise to marry young Margaret within a month. “Unless you consent to that – into the fire the old hag goes.”
Mr Palmer sees the situation clearly. “There is no security for you from the witchcrafts of that old hag till there is another woman in this house. That woman must be my daughter, and when she is here I defy all the witches that dance on Cox Tor, and all the pretty wenches of Devonshire to get so much as a foot inside the door.”
The remotest parts of Dartmoor
George concludes his story: “I have written these few pages to let people know that Margery of Quether is about somewhere – where I do not know for certain, but I believe she has gone off into the remotest parts of Dartmoor, where, probably, she will seek herself a cave among the granite tors, in which to conceal herself, where no boys will be likely to find her and throw stones at her. I am uneasy now that there is such a rush of visitors to Dartmoor to enjoy the wonderful air and scenery, lest they should come across her, and in thoughtlessness or ignorance do her an injury. Now that they know her story, I trust they will give her a wide berth.”
And the moral of the story? “I think that what I have gone through has taught me a lesson, but it is not one much to be recommended, though it is one largely followed: Never succour those who solicit succour, or they will suck you dry.”
Visiting Brent Tor and Brentor Church
Brentor Church is open to visitors, and in non-pandemic times, Evensong is held here at 6 pm every Sunday from Easter to Michaelmas. On Christmas Day, there is a special carol service at St Michael’s at 3 pm. The church is open 24/7, 365 days of the year, and welcomes thousands of winded visitors each year.
The climb up Brent Tor isn’t actually as long or steep as some authors would have you believe (a little literary licence is allowed). Just make sure that you follow the little track that veers off to the left shortly after you have entered through the gate. If you access the church from the right, it is a completely different story.
I was so entranced by the view of the tor and the church that I didn’t notice the track. I ended up doing some scrambling and climbing, all the while wondering how on earth people actually managed to get to church way back when!
The practical stuff
As you can tell from my photos, the weather can change very suddenly on Dartmoor. Be sure to wear or bring clothes that are warm and waterproof! It started raining when I was about to head back down to the car park, but this time I took the easy path. I think it took me about 10 minutes from peak to car – maybe even less. So Brent Tor and Brentor Church are more accessible than they might seem. Steps have also been built on the final section leading up to the church, so you are unlikely to require your scrambling skills. Don’t let descriptions from Victorian times prevent you from exploring the area!
The spacious car park is just across the road from the tor. Make sure not to leave any valuables on display when you leave the car, as thieves are said to frequent this area. The car park is called Brentor Church car park and is easily found on Google Maps. The address is Brentor, Tavistock, PL19 0NP.