Brief Overview of the History of the Church & Parish
The rural parish of Stoke Gabriel is located in South Devon on the east side of the River Dart in an area of outstanding natural beauty. It includes the village of the same name and the hamlets of Aish, Duncannon, Port Bridge, Sandridge and Waddeton.
The main road into the village is narrow and winding, terminating in a dead end at the quay. Even today, visitors travelling to the general area may easily pass it by unless they have a reason to visit. The village is roughly equidistant from the towns of Dartmouth, Totnes and Paignton. In the past, access to the towns of Dartmouth and Totnes would have been by boat and access to the town of Paignton would have been by foot or on horseback. There was a pedestrian ferry service between Duncannon and Ashprington Point on the opposite side of the river but it ceased operations over 50 years ago. The consequential isolation of the village has enabled it to escape the hustle and bustle of nearby Torbay but it remains a popular location to live and annually experiences a summer influx of holiday makers.
The church is located on a steep bluff in the centre of the village at the end of a cobbled stone walk from the Church House Inn, which as its name suggests was the former church house. The church building was originally constructed in the early 13th century, of which only the Norman tower survives today. In 1268, Bishop Bronescombe of Exeter dedicated the church to St Gabriel, resulting in the name change of the parish from “Stoke” to the more distinctive “Stoke Gabriel”.
By the 14th century, the church building had begun to fall into disrepair, apparently as a result of the patron – the Diocesan Chancellor – using the rectorial tithed income to fund his own lifestyle rather than church repairs. But in the early 15th century the funds became available and the church was rebuilt with a larger footprint in the existing perpendicular Gothic style, also including north and south aisles. The church was provided with the font, rood screen and pulpit which survive to this day.
Like many churches across the land, the 18th century was characterised by the building again falling into disrepair. In the following century the Victorians undertook a major refurbishment including the installation of a new tiled floor, which was raised in the chancel and again in the sanctuary, windows, ceiling and roof, open-access pews, and the building of a lych-gate and vicar’s vestry with furnace room below. A south porch was also added with a pitched roof. The church was re-dedicated at this time to St Mary and St Gabriel.
Within the last ten years, the church has once again undergone change. The front pews have been removed and a new heating system has been installed. The external walls of the chancel have been re-rendered and the roof renewed. And the south porch has been re-constructed to accommodate a small kitchenette and WC. Extensive repair work has also been undertaken to the churchyard walls and the stone shed.
The predominant industries of the parish are agriculture – arable and livestock farming – and tourism. Apple orchards were widespread at one time but few now remain although cider is still made within the parish. Fishing – both sea fishing and salmon fishing – were important in the past and the village was the headquarters of the Dart salmon fishery. It has however largely ceased as a local industry although nearby Brixham remains a major fishing port for the south of the country.
The parish has a population today of about 1200. It has grown considerably in recent years as increasing numbers of retired people and younger professionals, with children of school age, relocate to it from other parts of the country. However, there are many people whose families have lived here for generations. Some, such as the Bakers and the Narracotts, can date their parish ancestors back to the early 17th century. The Narracotts have filled the office of church verger in an unbroken line for over 400 years. Mention may also be made of the Churchwards and Pomeroys who were both great benefactors of the church although their descendants are no longer resident in the parish.