For much of 2012 St. Anne’s Chapel, in a shady, cobbled walkway in the centre of Barnstaple, was wrapped in scaffolding, undergoing extensive restoration works. Then in September last year it was unveiled as an Arts and Community Centre with a vibrant programme of events, music and exhibitions.
Dating back to the early 14th. Century, St. Anne’s has enjoyed previous incarnations as (among others) a Chantry Chapel, when a trust fund employed a priest to sing masses for the deceased whose wills supplied its revenue. This chantry was abolished in 1585 after the dissolution of the monasteries under King Henry XIII, and the assets were acquired by the mayor of Barnstaple and his associates. It was later used as a grammar school, a Huguenot place of worship and a museum. The Huguenots were French Protestants who escaped from religious persecution in northern France and arrived in North Devon from 1685. They were warmly welcomed in Barnstaple and given the use of St. Anne’s Chapel on Sundays only, as it was being used as a school during the week.
During the renovations many items were found by the builders and contractors under floorboards, in the eaves and behind the wood panelling; these items were carefully collected as it was clear that they had been lost or hidden by former occupants and could be of historical importance. The items were all carefully logged by the then manager, Peter Doel, and gradually a clearer picture of the building’s past began to emerge. Some of the found objects were marbles, dried peas, nuts, beads and paper darts; these darts were tipped with broken pen nibs and had obviously been thrown up into the wooden rafters by schoolboys. Other interesting items were found in cavities in the exterior walls known as putlogs; these holes were left after the scaffolding from the original build had been dismantled, and over the years, builders have stuffed various items into the holes. The objects found in the putlogs include scraps of plaited withies which would have tied the scaffolding together, and more recent empty cigarette packets.
After the restoration, The Arts Council England and Barnstaple Town Council commissioned Devon artist, Lesley Kerman, to make a piece of art to be installed at the chapel which would illustrate its rich history. With the assistance of children from two local primary schools, Kerman designed and made three clear resin blocks incorporating some of the objects found within the building, and other items which would symbolise notable citizens or groups which had strong links to the chapel. One such person was the celebrated playwright, John Gay, who attended the grammar school which used the chapel until 1910. The crocodile model in the Centre Block represents a character in his controversial play, “Three Hours After the Marriage”. The oyster shell in The East Block was probably left from a worker’s lunch and was found wedged between the shaped stones which made up the arches above the windows and doors; it would have ensured a perfect fit.
The completed resin blocks are fitted into three putlogs in the chapel walls, and have become permanent parts of the fabric of the building. A book explaining the provenance of each item in the blocks is available to buy in the chapel itself. Entitled “The Secrets of St. Anne’s”, it is a well written and fascinating history of the chapel and costs £4 (its ISBN 0953173062).
I was paying my second visit to St. Anne’s today in order to see an exhibition of paintings, collage and ceramics inspired by the sea, by local artists Fiona Bates and Jan Sears. I could easily have left there with armfuls of purchases; if only I was better off! I made do with a couple of postcards but some nice memories.