Five of Devon’s most beautiful historic buildings

Ben Fox
Ben Fox
Buckfast Abbey

In all corners of Devon, you will find not only quaint little villages and stunning beaches, but there are also exceptional examples of architecture and history.

There are classic castles and ancient abbeys, old stately homes and thatched cottages all waiting to be explored. Enjoy a great day out discovering Devon’s roots, culture and heritage at any of these beautiful buildings.

Exeter Cathedral

Exeter Cathedral has dominated the skyline of Devon’s county town for over 900 years.

The Cathedral of St Peter, to give it its full name, is located on the site of a Roman army camp and its origins date back to 1050 when the Bishop of Crediton and St Germans moved to Exeter.

Today’s cathedral owes its Gothic style to Bishop Bronscon who started rebuilding work around 1290. He started at the east end of the cathedral – work was almost complete when Bishop Grandisson, five bishops later, took over.

The cathedral is the only example in Europe of a decorated Gothic building almost in its entirety apart from the two northern towers. It also boasts the longest, unbroken stretch of Gothic stone vaulting in the world.
Amongst the cathedral’s many treasures are the Bishop’s Throne, one of the finest examples of woodwork from the 14th Century, an antique clock made in 1376, and the East Window featuring original glass. In 1870 Gilbert Scott restored the quire and added the Martyrs’ pulpit to the nave of the cathedral.

One of the most infamous incidents in the cathedral’s history was the murder of Precentor Lechlade in 1283. This was the result of a bitter feud between the then bishop, Peter Quinil, and the dean, John Pycot.

Worth noting, should you visit soon, are the decorated tombs, an astronomical clock, and the minstrels’ gallery.

Brentor Church

Perched atop the impressive Brent Tor is the small Church of St Michael de Rupe. It is perhaps the most distinctive landmark on Dartmoor and, as Pevsner wrote in 1952, is ‘an exciting sight for miles around’.

The earliest record of the church is from the mid-12th Century and it was probably built by Robert Giffard, Lord of the Manor of Lamerton (just a few miles from Brentor) and gifted to the monks at Tavistock. Tristram Risdon (c1580-1640) wrote about the church at the beginning of the 17th Century and noted that: ‘…(it is situated) full bleak and weather-beaten, all alone, as it were forsaken, whose churchyard doth hardly afford depth of earth to bury the dead: yet doubtless, they
rest as secure as in sumptuous St Peter’s, until the day of dawn’.

Clinging precariously close to a precipice and built in the distant past it’s perhaps not surprising that St Michael de Rupe is steeped in folklore. One such tale tells of a merchant at sea during a great storm praying to his patron St Michael, and promising to build a church on the first land he spotted if he survived.

Brentor can be seen from Plymouth Sound so is there perhaps a grain of truth to this story?! Could the ‘merchant’ in question have been, in fact,
Robert Giffard?

Killerton Estate

In 1778 Sir Thomas Dyke Acland, known as the 7th Baronet, commissioned architect John Johnson to build him a house on the outskirts of Exeter – one which he would knock down once his ‘grand house’ was completed. That ‘grand house’ was never built, Killerton House was completed in 1779 and Sir Thomas so loved Johnson’s creation that he lived in it full-time.

Over the centuries there were various changes made to Killerton House, from turning the entrance hall into a large open space after a destructive fire, to changing the dining room into the music room. However, the long corridor, with its shallow domes, has been left untouched, along with the entrance on the south front, with its pediment supported by columns.

Sir Thomas wanted to build a house and garden, on an exceptional landscape at Killerton in Devon, which reflected his and his family’s position and importance in high society.

Buckfast Abbey

Buckfast is a small village adjacent to the historic mill town of Buckfastleigh. It nestles on the eastern edge of Dartmoor, close to the banks of the River Dart.

Buckfast Abbey is set within its own extensive grounds, which are predominantly large grassy areas. It’s unknown when or exactly where the original monastery was founded. According to the Catholic Encyclopaedia (1913) by David Oswald Hunter Blair, ‘it was certainly long before the Norman Conquest’.

The charter was a grant of property ‘to the monks of Buckfast of the manor of Sele (Zeal Monachorum)’. It seems that both Zeal and its neighbouring manor, Down, were gifted to Buckfast Abbey by King Canute in 1018. The first stone constructed abbey church was built on the current site when Buckfast joined the Cistercian Order in 1147. By the 14th Century, it had become one of the most prosperous abbeys in the South West.

In 1534 Parliament passed ‘the Act of Supremacy’ making King Henry VIII ‘Supreme Head’ of the church and divorcing England from any Papal authority. This meant he could disband any of the religious orders in England, appropriate their income and sell off any assets.

Up until 1800 the Abbey and grounds were left to the whims of nature. However, by 1806, Samuel Berry the local mill owner, had purchased the lands. He razed most of the remaining Abbey Church and Monastery to make way for a castellated mansion.

The site changed ownership a number of times until it was purchased by a Dr James Gale in 1872. Ten years later he decided to sell and placed an advert in The Tablet, a Catholic journal published in London.

This notice was seen by a group of French Benedictine monks who had been exiled from the Abbaye Saints-Marie de la Pierre-qui-Vire in 1880 during the Third Republic. By October 1882, after an absence of over 300 years, monks were once again back at Buckfast.

Haldon Belvedere

Haldon Belvedere, also known as Lawrence Castle, is a memorial tower dating back to the late 18th Century. It was erected during a major landscaping of the area in 1787 by the Palk family, who Hoskins records living at Haldon (a place just south west of Exeter) until 1892. The belvedere commemorates and celebrates their friend Major-General Stringer Lawrence, commander of the British Army in India, who died in 1775.
But the Palks were not the first to settle on the high ground on which the belvedere stands. Occupation by Neolithic people approximately 4,200 to 6,000 years ago was discovered during archaeological excavations in the 1930s.

A rectangular stone-walled hut, hearths, a stone-lined chamber and cairn were recorded, as well as numerous flint tools and pottery similar to that found at Hembury. Later investigations in 1994-95, undertaken by C and N Hollinrake and Exeter Archaeology, revealed further use during the early Neolithic period.

Evidence suggests that the ridge continued to be occupied into the later prehistoric period. Burial mounds have been recorded in this area, along with a number of Roman coins including those of emperors Victorinus and Gallienus. Scientific dating of ‘avena’ oats excavated from the lower fills of a pit produced a much later radiocarbon date of cal AD 595-690, indicating use into the early Mediaeval period.

During the Civil War the hills at Haldon may have served as a natural barrier preventing easy movement of troops.

The belvedere had previously been accompanied by what was known as ‘Haldon House’. This early 18th Century building, thought by Pevsner to be modelled on the style of Buckingham Palace, sat below the ridge within 11,000 acres of park and gardens, and had been extravagantly decorated by previous owners, the Clifford family. In time the house and its lands were sold, and ultimately demolished in the 1920s. The belvedere was also sold and remained privately owned until 1994 when it was passed on to the Stringer Lawrence Memorial Trust.

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