Home » Was Bridport’s oldest building really a lighthouse?

A row of houses along South Street, Bridport, with The Chantry to the right

Was Bridport’s oldest building really a lighthouse?

The oldest and perhaps the oddest place in Bridport is The Chantry, down South Street. In medieval times it was lived in by two priests who used to get through nearly 50 pints of beer a week and eat lots of salted fish, peas and beans. When they had guests such as the Rector of Bridport, they used to order even more ale. We know this because the priests kept meticulous records of their spending.

Another way for priests to save souls?

The priests’ main job was to perform masses for the dead, so as to ensure the salvation of their souls and lessen their time in Purgatory. This was a service which traditionally had been performed by monks — at, say, Abbotsbury or Cerne Abbas or Forde Abbey — but as monasteries struggled to keep up with demand for getting to Heaven quicker, chantries became more fashionable. People left money in their wills so that prayers could be said for their own benefit or that of other named individuals.

As a recent essay by the scholar John McNeill says: “This is the irreducible essence of a chantry — the bare minimum. Spatially and architecturally it can make use of what is already there.”

Bridport’s chantry made use of what was once a lighthouse. Or it may even have doubled as a lighthouse, for a while. Another way for priests to save souls? No one knows for sure — and at first sight it seems to be an incredible idea.

It’s hard not to think: how on earth would it work? It doesn’t look like a lighthouse — it’s more than a mile from the sea — where would the light have gone — who would have seen it — and how would they have used it?

The Chantry is reckoned to be just over 700 years old. Back in the early 14th century, Bridport’s harbour may have been much closer to the medieval town, up the River Brit, at a mysterious place known as Ire Pool. Firelight from the top of The Chantry could have acted as a guide to vessels capable of getting up the river.

Bright fire could have burned in an iron fire basket on top of a pole fixed to the south side of The Chantry. The archaeologist K.A. Rodwell surveyed the building in detail in 1987. She found on the south side an odd-shaped corbel, with “a small round socket in the centre of its upper face… aligned beneath a larger circular cut-out in the projecting offset course at second floor level.” This is where a pole would fit.

Carved stone sign for The Chantry, outside the property on South Street, Bridport

There’s another way in which The Chantry could have functioned as a lighthouse — or seamark — which makes sense of its position inland. A beautifully simple solution was recently proposed by the Chickerell-based Dorset coastal historian, Gordon Le Pard. You can find out more about his research in volumes 129 and 130 of the Proceedings of the Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society, that is the society which runs the Dorset County Museum in Dorchester.

Mr Le Pard notes that two reefs lie just offshore from Bridport Harbour — what’s now called West Bay — the Ram to the west and the Pollock to the east. They could be dangerous; in the 17th century, the Ram wrecked an armed merchantman, whose remains still linger on the seabed.

Now look at this diagram, which takes into account the historic positions of the East and West cliffs at West Bay, and how they would block the view from sea towards The Chantry:

Diagram which appears to show how The Chantry, in Bridport, would have made an ideal lighthouse

As Mr Le Pard says: “If you draw lines between the Chantry and the present East Cliff it marks the edge of the Ram, if between the Chantry and the approximate former location of the West Cliff, it marks the edge of the Pollock.

“So a captain steering for Bridport Harbour only had to keep the Chantry in view to avoid either of the reefs.”

Isn’t that smart?

Front exterior of The Chantry, on South Street in Bridport

A further fascination: when The Chantry served as a place of religious intercession — before all chantries got shut down in 1547 — one of the priest’s duties was to say regular masses to St Catherine.

Mr Le Pard comments: “St Catherine is the dedication of both the chapel at Abbotsbury, built as a sea mark, as well as the only certain medieval lighthouse on St Catherine’s Down on the Isle of Wight.”

And now we can go on a different route back through history.

In Edwardian times, before the First World War, an unusual young man called Osbert Guy Stanhope Crawford used to visit a Bohemian couple called Harold and Charlotte Peake, who lived in Boxford near Newbury.

The Peakes, says Kitty Hauser, in Bloody Old Britain: O.G.S. Crawford and the Archaeology of Modern Life (Granta, 2008), were “comfortably off… spurned organized religion, wore sandals and went in for vegetarianism, Japanese art, the resuscitation of folk-rituals and the re-organization of mass society.”

And they also ran a sort of pagan cult based around St Catherine, as Hauser explains.

“Harold Peake had the idea that churches dedicated to Catherine had replaced sites where an earlier deity called Llud (known to the Romans as Nodens) was worshipped.

“Peake came to this conclusion because Llud — the Celtic god of the Severn estuary, associated with healing — shared St Catherine’s symbol of a wheel; the idea was reinforced by the high incidence of chapels dedicated to St Catherine that overlook a harbour or have a good view of the sea, since Llud had many of the characteristics of the sea god Poseidon.

“Somehow the Peakes and their visitors honoured this pagan connection by performing ceremonies in which they walked round in circles lighting fires, looking out for ‘Kataric portents’, and signing off their letters with a wheel symbol, ‘yours in Kata’, and so on.”

Path to Enlightenment by Stephen Banks showing St Catherine’s Chapel at Abbotsbury
‘Path to Enlightenment’ by Stephen Banks showing St Catherine’s Chapel at Abbotsbury

Now, St Catherine’s Chapel at Abbotsbury clearly has a very good view of the sea indeed, and The Chantry used to be right by the river at the edge of Bridport.

So are these sites connected in some way with old Celtic and Roman gods? Or is it all just a coincidence?

Crawford believed that nothing ever quite disappears. There are always clues, if only we have the tools and the skills to interpret them. In the case of Bridport and Abbotsbury, is it the name of St Catherine that carries the trace of ancient ways of life across the centuries?

The Chantry is now let out to holiday-makers by the Vivat Trust

The Chantry is now let out to holiday-makers by the Vivat Trust

PS: There aren’t many places in Britain that have been shaped for so long by one speciality as Bridport has been by its textile industry — its history of rope, net and twine making.

The historian Richard Sims traces this thread (this yarn) back to the very foundation of Bridport as a Saxon Town in the 9th century.

And who is the patron saint of ropemakers? St Catherine.

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